Rosh Hodesh Adar II, March 8, 2019. I arose at 5 a.m., dressed and made my way to the lobby of the Prima Kings Hotel in Jerusalem. We were a small tour group, primarily from the Bay Area, with three rabbis. We boarded our tour bus and drove to the Kotel for Women of the Wall’s 7 a.m. service in celebration of Rosh Hodesh and the group’s 30th anniversary.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters have appeared regularly during WOW worship since 2013, when Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court ruled that a woman may pray at the Kotel with tallit and read from a Torah scroll. Sobel’s ruling put an end to the arrests of women for wearing tallit and reading Torah, so haredim now demonstrate as a deterrent to our practice.
One of Israel’s chief rabbis called for a beefing up of the monthly protests on our 30th anniversary, and police conferred with Women of the Wall leaders about the situation.
Our tour bus arrived, we went through security and by 6:45 a.m. we were standing at the entrance to the women’s section. The section in front of us was packed with haredi girls and women, and the open plaza behind us was packed with thousands of haredi boys and men.
Suddenly we were surrounded by ultra-Orthodox men and boys who pushed and shoved against us and called us every name in the book. Male police officers stood nearby and watched. I asked them in Hebrew to help us. They looked at me but did not move. I called to them again. The officers still did not move, though one shrugged his shoulders.
A couple of our women — including Rabbi Shifra Weiss-Penzias of Temple Beth El in Aptos — walked deeper into the women’s section in search of WOW’s gathering group. A Conservative male rabbi came over to us and escorted the men in our group to the area in the main plaza where other male supporters of WOW were gathering.
During the course of WOW’s worship, the men in our group were spat on, shoved and harassed. Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, was shoved to the ground. Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of Masorti’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, were jostled along with all of our other male supporters.
I continued standing at the entrance to the women’s section with grandmother-age women who were not physically up to the shoving and pushing that we were experiencing, so we decided to exit the plaza to bring them to safety. It took 15 minutes to move a distance that normally takes a minute.
As we moved out of the women’s section, police officers shouted at us, “What do you want? Do you want to go in or out?”
I explained that this particular group of women needed to leave the plaza. The police looked frustrated with us, but they waved us on and one or two of them stayed in close proximity. Haredi men and boys pushed, shoved, spat and cursed at us. Rose Ashford of Temple Beth El was shoved to the ground.
We women made a circle around Rose as she prepared to get up. Boys were pushing through our circle and I feared they would stomp on Rose, so I asked her to get up quickly. She did.
As we moved closer to the plaza exit, haredim began lunging toward us in what felt like the start of a stampede. The police who were with us called for reinforcements, and almost immediately additional officers appeared with metal barricades, which they forced between us and the haredim. Some haredim tried to remove the barricades, while others lifted them to hurl at us. Someone called for additional reinforcements and more police arrived. Some wrestled with the haredim while others escorted us out of the plaza.
During the ordeal, haredi boys and men called us whores, told us to go home, said we don’t believe in the Temple and we are not real Jews. And as we exited the plaza, they yelled “Yemach shemo!” (a darkest curse used on enemies of the Jewish people) over and over.
After we left the plaza, while Rabbi Yocheved Mintz of Congregation P’nai Tikvah in Las Vegas led the women toward the buses, Rose and I went back through security and back into the women’s section. There we entered a sardine pack of haredi girls who pushed, shoved, leaned in and screamed at us. We slowly made our way toward WOW’s worship leaders, but the haredi girls refused to allow us to traverse the last 12 feet.
Policewomen came and stood near us and the other WOW women who had gathered with us as they entered the plaza, including Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.
I asked the police to help us get over to the WOW leaders, explaining that I was to lead part of the service. The female police looked at me with blank stares. I asked a second and third time, and then a policewoman said, “Savlanut!” (Patience!).
The noise level in the women’s section was so high that our worship leaders could not hear me shouting to them, and I could not hear them as they led our worship. The noise was caused by the screams of protesters and the official male worship leader whose davening blared over the PA system.
Meanwhile, haredi girls tried repeatedly to knock our worship leaders off the stool that they were taking turns standing on so they could be seen amid our worshippers. WOW board member Bonnie Riva Ras was seated in a plastic armchair due to a knee injury; haredi girls tried repeatedly to tip over the chair with her in it.
Elsewhere in the plaza, WOW board member Rabbi Susan Silverman was pushed to the ground and hit her head on the Jerusalem stone. A haredi teenage girl went to kick her in the head, Rabbi Silverman said, and was only stopped when the rabbi’s grown daughter screamed at her.
At the end of Hallel, we walked to Ezrat Yisrael, the platform at Robinson’s Arch, and it was there that we read Torah, davened Musaf and danced to celebrate Rosh Hodesh. We didn’t want to leave the women’s section, but ultra-Orthodox women or girls had stolen our Torah pointer and our klaf (the parchment containing the Torah reading for Rosh Hodesh).
We had a small Torah scroll in hiding because, even though case law is on our side, the security guards confiscate any Torah scrolls women try to bring into the plaza. We were afraid to take our tiny Torah scroll out of hiding to read from it, because we feared that the haredim would steal it or rip it.
At Ezrat Yisrael, I felt free and fearful at the very same time. We could move about freely, but I did not see any police or security guards at the security station at the entrance to the area. I also did not see any security personnel along the steep staircase or on the narrow walkway that leads from the entrance to the platform. There is no second exit from the platform, and the perimeter around the platform has a long, steep drop down to jagged rocks. If haredi protesters had come down the stairs to attack us, I shudder to think what would have happened to us and to them.
When the service was over, Women of the Wall and their supporters went back to our buses. I was the last one to get there. Nearby were two signs decrying Reform Judaism. One read, “Reform denies the Torah and all Jewish traditions.” The other read, “The Reform Movement is not a Jewish Movement.”
The sad reality is that “Reform” has become a curse word to describe all of us who support women as clergy and as worship leaders praying in tallit, wearing tefillin or reading from a Torah scroll.
A number of male WOW-supporters, including retired paratroopers in their 60s and 70s, had boarded our bus to hitch a ride out of the area. These paratroopers fought in hand-to-hand combat in Jerusalem in 1967 and they were among the first to arrive at the Kotel. They have been supporting WOW for some years now, and we honored them during our 30th anniversary celebration the night before. During that celebration, one of the paratroopers said, “In 1967, we liberated the Kotel, but the Kotel is still in prison with some of our people refusing to allow others to pray there.”
While standing outside our bus, as haredi boys shouted and heckled us, I looked them in the eyes and told them that we had paratroopers with us. The boys looked at me in frozen silence for a potent second until an Orthodox man walked in front of them and shouted at me, “Be quiet and get in the bus!”
I looked at him, turned and boarded the bus, not because I wanted to comply, but because two wrongs don’t make a right — and it is forbidden to shame a teacher or parent in front of their children.
The police saved us during the attempted stampede in the plaza. The wall behind us was glass and there is no doubt as to what would have happened without police intervention. We thank the police for that.
However, in places where we were not in actual mortal danger, the police acted as though we were in the way for wanting to pray and for wanting to escort grandmotherly women out of the plaza. The police also did not take preventive measures to protect us on the platform at Ezrat Yisrael. After what had happened in the plaza, I found that quite unbelievable.
I look to the day when our precious Jewish State of Israel will have a coalition in the Knesset that focuses on protecting the rights of all of Israel’s citizens — Jewish and not Jewish. Until that day, we must look to the police to do a much better job of protecting Israel’s citizens and visitors when they come to pray at the Kotel in accordance with their custom.
Our tour bus drove away from the Kotel and stopped to drop off the paratroopers and other supporters where they needed to go. While leaving the bus, one of the paratroopers looked at me and said in Hebrew, “I hope it doesn’t take another 30 years for [all of] you to win this!” I smiled and replied, “I hope so, too!”