The women whose prayers anger Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community

The arrest of Rabbi Susan Silverman attracted unexpected attention when her famous sister - the comedian Sarah Silverman - tweeted about it

Jerusalem

On the face of it, for Jews to pray at Judaism’s most sacred site wearing traditional religious clothing does not seem unreasonable, but for one group of people this act at the Western Wall has irked Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. And the group in question is women. For more than two decades, a group of women under the banner of the “Women of the Wall” have insisted on praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem at the start of each Jewish month. And while women have their own – much smaller – section of the wall at which to pray, it is the fact that they insist on wearing shawls, or tallits – which tradition states should only be worn by men – that has upset the ultra-Orthodox and brought the issue to the attention of the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Women of the Wall dislike the description of their monthly visits to wall as a protest. Rather, they insist it is their inalienable right to pray wearing Jewish garb and that it is those Orthodox who object, including those in Jerusalem’s Old City, who are making the protest.

The women have important backers, including a number of Knesset members, but their religious cause gained international recognition earlier this year from the most unlikely of sources. At the February gathering, the police moved in and – enforcing a 2003 Supreme Court decision – arrested a number of members of the group who had draped tallits over their shoulders. Sadly for the hapless officers, one of those arrested was Rabbi Susan Silverman, whose sister – the American comedian, Sarah, famous for her off-colour jokes about religion and race, began tweeting updates to her 4.2 million followers.

“The arrests certainly raised eyebrows,” Rabbi Silverman told The Independent at her home in Jerusalem. “I was hoping that I wasn’t going to be taken by the police. It came as a surprise to them when my sister starting tweeting about it.”

She describes growing up with Sarah in a very liberal, secular US household, where her parents campaigned against apartheid and the Vietnam War. “I thought if you were Jewish, you voted for McGovern,” she jokes, referring to George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate who lost to Richard Nixon. But what about her own religious beliefs and her sister’s routine? “I am not offended by anything Sarah says as part of her work,” she says. “Being offended is a political state, not a religious one. The only thing that bothers me is if she doesn’t get a laugh. Sarah is not at all religious – she doesn’t even know when Passover is – but she’s sort of a modern-day prophet.”

Susan Silverman was drawn closer to religious after meeting her husband  and became a rabbi, but has not lost any of the liberal zeal given to her by her parents. And the Women at the Wall is a perfect way to allow that liberalism to shine.

“The Jewish community is flourishing around the world – why are we trying to restrict that here?” she asks.

Yet those restrictions were still evidently in place today for the early morning prayer session. In total, five women were arrested when they put on their tallits. “We have come to pray,” Lesley Sachs, the director of Women of the Wall, told reporters as she arrived at the wall complex. “We want to do it peacefully in the women’s section.”

Within half an hour, Ms Sachs was one of the women led away by police who had descended on the plaza in anticipation of trouble. Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police, said: “Police detained for questioning five women who prayed with religious garments at the wall... and an ultra-Orthodox man who burnt a book belonging to the Women of the Wall.”

Many more than five women donned prayer shawls, however, and many of the 120 or so who had gathered also wore the tefillin and kippah on their heads, while they swayed and sang in the early morning sunshine. The police, whose job was in part keeping the large male press pack from entering the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza, appeared unsure what to do at times as the women continued their prayer session. Mr Rosenfeld said officers had successfully defused a potentially difficult event.

The main opponent of the Women of the Wall is the ultra-Orthodox community. At the wall, several Orthodox men who were also praying noisily objected to the women and their clothing. Three Orthodox men, encouraging younger children around them to join in, shouted: “You will never get a place here because with our bodies we will protect this place”, as the women finished their session and gave interviews.

But there was anger among those who had come to support the women. Don Skupsky, who said his wife had been arrested at previous meetings, blamed the ultra-Orthodox, saying: “This is a place that is holy to all Jews – it is not just the domain of the ultra-Orthodox.” 

Such is the controversy around the women’s monthly prayer sessions that even the Prime Minister has now got involved. On Wednesday, officials in Mr Netanyahu’s office said he was considering a plan that would convert an old site to the south of wall to allow men and women to pray side by side, if they wanted to.

Natan Sharansky, a former cabinet minister who was asked by Mr Netanyahu to conduct a study into the feasibility of such a project, was at pains to stress that any development would not disturb the area around the al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, which sits atop of the Western Wall.

Speaking after finishing their prayers, Rabbi Silverman and her teenage daughter, Hallel Abramowitz, professed themselves happy. “It was pretty horrible to have people staring at you as you pray and have people shouting horrible things, but it is still a beautiful thing to do.”

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