Activist detained at Western Wall along with Torah from Sacramento

The Sacramento congregation whose Torah became a flashpoint for controversy earlier this week at the Western Wall in Jerusalem has issued a public letter asking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to implement an agreement calling for an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel.

Lesley Sachs, executive director of Women of the Wall, was released after being detained and questioned by Israeli police on June 6 after bringing the Torah scroll into the women’s section of the Western Wall, the group said in an email.

Lesley Sachs, executive director of Women of the Wall, is led away by police after smuggling a Torah scroll into the women’s section of the Western Wall on June 7. photo/jta-courtesy women of the wall

Western Wall regulations bar women from bringing a Torah scroll to the Kotel. There are about 100 Torah scrolls located in the men’s section for public use — by men only.

The Torah carried by Sachs, 57, was loaned to the Jerusalem-based group this spring by Congregation B’nai Israel, a Reform synagogue in Sacramento.

“For us, this is a matter of justice, this is about being engaged in a fight for equality and pluralism, and the ability of all Jews to pray in freedom at the holiest site of the Jewish people,” B’nai Israel Rabbi Mona Alfi told J. in a phone interview.

Alfi said the congregation decided to loan the scroll after a speech by Anat Hoffman, executive board chair of Women of the Wall, at the synagogue in March. Hoffman flew back from Sacramento to Israel, on Purim, with the scroll in her arms.

The Torah dates from a small synagogue in eastern Germany in 1892 and belonged to the family of Rudy Michaels, a refugee who became a judge in Sacramento and president of B’nai Israel in the 1960s. Alfi said it is on a long-term loan to Women of the Wall until “they are actually able to pray at the Wall.”

Peter Michaels, Rudy’s son and a corporate attorney in Oakland, said his father — who died in 2009 — “would have wholeheartedly supported the cause” for which Sachs was detained.

Rabbi Mona Alfi (right) with Congregation B’nai Israel president Alan Steinberg and the little Torah on the night they donated it to Women of the Wall.

“My father was a very progressive man and would be absolutely thrilled beyond words that his Torah is an engine, a symbol for equal rights for women’s self expression,’’ he said in a phone interview. “We loaned it in the knowledge that we may never see it again. We assumed that risk because we knew how deeply my father supported women’s rights to pray at a holy site.”

It is not the first time the scroll has been involved in a social justice movement. Alfi said she and her son carried it with them last summer as they marched in the NAACP’s “Journey for Justice” from Selma to Washington, D.C., commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.

Women of the Wall says on its website that the group’s “central mission is to attain social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah, collectively and aloud at the Western Wall.”

The group said Sachs was detained while leaving the Western Wall with the Torah following the group’s Rosh Hodesh morning prayer service for the new Jewish month of Sivan. Some 80 women participated in the service, Women of the Wall said.

In 2003, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or prayer shawls, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, saying it violated “local custom.” Three years ago, a judge determined that the group’s activities were not illegal, and women have not been detained for wearing prayer shawls for several months.

Sachs’ detention occurred as plans for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall have stalled due to haredi Orthodox opposition.

Netanyahu, who met last week with American Jewish leaders about the situation, has asked for more time to reach an agreement. The letter from B’nai Israel to the prime minister called the detention of Sachs “another step backwards.”

Peter Michaels said the Torah’s role in this week’s controversy has “engaged me like no other experience during my first 66 years on this Earth,” including visits to Israel and to synagogues around the world.

“Nothing has had more meaning for me, this is a moment of self discovery for me as a Jew,” he said. “When this little Torah comes home, we ought to organize a world tour and use it to awaken interest in feminist issues, it’s a beautiful device.” — jta contributed to this report

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.