With a kippah affixed to her head and a tallit draped on her shoulders, Dr. Abby Caplin spoke of the violence befalling women who wear the same religious garments while praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
“They have been cursed at and had chairs thrown at them,” Caplin said. “There are no repercussions for this behavior.”
Approximately 200 men and women gathered Jan. 10 for a morning service at San Francisco’s Union Square in support of Women of the Wall, a group of women who gather monthly to pray aloud and read Torah on the women’s side of Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
A special booklet of prayers and melodies was selected for the event, which was organized by Caplin and an alliance of local synagogues.
Caplin, a San Francisco physician, stressed the sadness surrounding the service, noting that for some 21 years, Women of the Wall have risked — and often endured — verbal and physical abuse from powerful ultra-Orthodox groups for publicly praying using Jewish ritual objects that Orthodox Jews think should only be used by men.
“Our sisters need us and they’re crying out for help,” Caplin said.
Earlier this month, Women of the Wall founding member Anat Hoffman was taken into custody, where she was questioned by police, fingerprinted and told that she may be charged with a felony for violating the rules of conduct at what is considered Judaism’s most sacred site, as reported by the Jewish Daily Forward.
The incident followed the November arrest of Israeli medical student Nofrat Frenkel, who was arrested while wearing a tallit and attempting to read from a Torah scroll at the Wall.
“It is fundamentally wrong that anyone, man or woman, be taken into custody for wearing a sacred object,” said Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, as she held her tallit before the group. “This sacred object has no gender, and all sacred objects belong to a person who calls him or herself a Jew.”
Standing before fellow rabbis, cantors and Jews from across the Bay Area, Mintz led the prayer for wearing the tallit before participants swirled their prayer shawls in the air and wrapped them around their bodies.
Their tallits became symbols of solidarity with Women of the Wall after silver strings were distributed and tied among the tzitzit.
Rachel Eryn Kalish, who works with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council to facilitate discussions of Israeli and Palestinian issues, likened the silver string to the red and pink ribbons for AIDS and breast cancer, respectively.
“Today’s message was one of support, giving of the heart and an uplifting of souls,” Kalish said. “I was nervous about being in a public place, but the longer we davened, the more beautiful and safer it felt.”
Most passers-by paid no attention to the service, though a few stopped and watched for several minutes. There were no protests.
The Jan. 10 service was one of several planned by synagogues throughout the United States, including Florida, New York and Missouri.
At Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland, Fla., Rabbi Bradd Boxman wore a special tallit designed by Women of the Wall with depictions of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah embroidered on its corners, according to an article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
At Union Square, participants used colored markers and a large roll of white paper to write supportive messages to Women of the Wall members. The notes will be flown to Israel and placed in the Western Wall.
Molly Harris, 14, of Marin was one of the few teenagers who attended the morning service. She said she always likes to participate in events tied to Israel, but this one had more significance.
“Because I’m a girl, it was horrible to learn how the women are treated,” said Molly, the daughter of StandWithUs/San Francisco Voice for Israel leader Dr. Michael Harris. “The next time I go to Israel, I want to go to the Wall and pray with a tallit on.”