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Five women detained in Israel over prayer shawls at Western Wall

April 11, 2013|By Emily Alpert
  • Israeli policewomen detain a member of the religious group Women of the Wall who was wearing a Jewish prayer shawl at the Western Wall.
Israeli policewomen detain a member of the religious group Women of the… (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images )

Israeli police detained five women for wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall on Thursday, days after a new proposal emerged to set aside part of the holy site for men and women to pray together.

Female worshippers at the sacred site are barred from performing religious rituals that Orthodox Jewish religious authorities say are solely for men. Women have repeatedly been detained for violating those rules, a continuing clash between the Orthodox rabbis who steer Israeli religious institutions and more liberal strains of Judaism in which women can use prayer shawls and lead congregations as rabbis.

The five women were questioned and brought before a judge Thursday. No charges were ultimately brought against them. Women of the Wall, a group that opposes the restrictions and has gathered women at the site for decades, said police unsuccessfully sought to ban them from the wall for three months. Out of the hundreds of women who gathered for the monthly prayer, only a few were detained.

“The judge said she couldn’t see how these women could possibly be disturbing the public order,” said Shira Pruce, public relations director for Women of the Wall.

As the women were detained Thursday, Israeli media reported an ultra-Orthodox man was also in custody for allegedly burning a prayer book. Protesters have habitually tried to disrupt the female worshippers by shouting or throwing diapers or chairs at them, according to Women of the Wall. The liberal-leaning newspaper Haaretz reported that men heckled the women Thursday, shouting, “Reform Jews, get out of here.”

Hoping to quell the dispute, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel recently floated the idea of setting aside a permanent area where men and women can pray together, in addition to the separate sections that now exist for men and women. The chairman of the group, which works closely with the Israeli government, had been asked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find solutions.

In a letter to the Jewish Agency board obtained by the Los Angeles Times, chairman Natan Sharansky said a platform would need to be built at the southern end of the wall, creating an area for "egalitarian prayer" at the same height as other sections. Sharansky did not specifically mention prayer shawls, but wrote that a solution must allow "all Jews to be able to pray in accordance with their tradition."

By making the changes, the wall “will once again be a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife,” Sharansky said Tuesday. He later called the Thursday events "one more reminder of the urgent need to reach a permanent solution."

The Western Wall is the last standing remnant of the Second Temple that was the center of Jewish religious life for centuries until its destruction by the Roman Empire in the year 70.

The rabbi who oversees the Western Wall told Israeli media he would allow the changes that Sharansky had proposed and was infuriated Thursday after the women again wore prayer shawls at the wall. Doing so was "clear evidence that their purpose is to stir controversy and hurt other people's feelings,” Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz told the Jerusalem Post.

Women of the Wall has held back on judging the fledgling plan since nothing is in writing, Pruce said. However, even discussing the idea “feels like a turning point, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “If we can create pluralism at the Western Wall, we will begin to see a more open and pluralist Israel.”

The proposed changes would need to be approved by the Israeli government.

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