The women’s section of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, looked a bit like a rugby pitch the morning of December 1 as devout women collapsed into a scrum of long skirts, prayer shawls and repeated shrieks of “Call the police, now!”
Some of the women, who call themselves “Women of the Wall” were there to conduct their regular services celebrating the new month; they have been fighting for about 20 years for the right for women to pray out loud, and with Torah scrolls, in the female prayer section. The others are ultra-Orthodox; they want to uphold the rules of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the non-profit that controls the site and prohibits audible female prayer.
The ultra-Orthodox women try to disrupt the Women of the Wall’s prayers by blowing on whistles and shouting, said Naama Lutz, a spokeswoman for the group. That morning, Women of the Wall board member Rachel Cohen Yeshurun confronted the women who were blowing the whistles, and found herself in a chokehold.
In January, the ultra-Orthodox who control the Western Wall site and their politicians reached an agreement with Women of the Wall and the Reforma and Conservative movements to establish an egalitarian prayer section under the authority of a pluralist committee in an area near the traditional site. The plan was never implemented, however, and earlier this month, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States and Israel brought at least 12 Torah scrolls into the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza for a prayer service to protest the delay.
Then, in late November, the Sephardi Orthodox Shas Party proposed a bill that would prevent any kind of non-Orthodox public prayer at the Western Wall.
Helen Chernikoff is the Forward’s News Editor. She came to the Forward from The Jewish Week, where she served as the first web director and created both a blog dedicated to disability issues and a food and wine website. Before that, she covered the housing, lodging and logistics industries for Reuters, where she could sit at her desk and watch her stories move the stock market. Helen has a Master’s of Public Administration from Columbia University and a BA in History and French from Amherst College. She is also a rabbinical school dropout. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @thesimplechild.