On Being Attained at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh Adar

by Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin

The Talmud teaches “When the month of Adar arrives we should increase our joy.” Even though I spent much of the morning of Rosh Chodesh Adar being detained by the Israeli police, my joy of being part of the Jewish people increased tenfold by the experience.

It was either coincidence or bashert that I was in Jerusalem for Rosh Chodesh Adar, and thus able to support and join Women of the Wall (WOTW) for minyan. My colleague, Rabbi Debra Cantor of Connecticut, along with many male rabbinic supporters, awoke early and flocked to the Old City. We had all heard of Women of the Wall, but had never davened with them before.

At 7 am, I joined hundreds of women as we opened our prayerbooks and began with the opening blessings. Behind us and beside us, on the other side of the mechitza, were a combination of male supporters and photographers.

After a melodious Hallel, we left the Kotel en masse to Robinson’s Arch to begin the Torah service, as is the custom of WOTW. I was very nervous as we sang and walked over, because I was supposed to read the fourth aliyah. However, that never happened because as soon as I exited the metal detector at the Kotel plaza, a police officer asked for my identity papers. I explained I had a Canadian passport and then she asked for that. When I asked her why, I did not receive an answer. It was at that moment that I realized I might not actually be able to attend my back-to-back meetings as a delegate of the JFNA Rabbinic Cabinet anymore.

Nine other women joined me at a satellite police station in the Old City. We stood in a courtyard and introduced ourselves to one another. While some of the women had been detained before, there did not seem to be a clear reason as to why others were chosen. David Barhoum, the WOTW lawyer who spent some time with us could not even figure out why we were detained.

Throughout the morning, we were taken into the interrogation room one at a time. While I was asked numerous questions, I also requested that the lovely Druze police officer answer some of my questions as well. It was important to me to know why I was there. He responded to me that my two crimes were that I violated the regulations of holy places and that I behaved in a way that may violate public safety. It might not have been the right thing to do, but I laughed when he said that. How was it that only ten out of  hundreds of women were violating public safety? What was going to happen? We were not picketing or demonstrating; we were praying to God. It still makes no sense to me.

I have read many accounts of our situation on Monday morning, and I would like to clarify that we were detained, not arrested. There were no handcuffs involved. We were not placed into a cell. The experience was surreal, not scary. In fact, my only fear was that I would miss my flight which was scheduled for later that night.

After some time, the officers brought us tea and we began to chit chat with them. I asked one of them if he liked to babysit women who don’t actually commit crimes, and he responded that he did it every month. The sense that I got was that these officers go through this processing routine every month, and they too think it is ridiculous. But, they have a job to do.

After some time, we were told that we could be released, as long as we signed a surety document that stated we would not come to the Kotel for 15 days. I signed the document, and then at about noon, we were taken from the satellite police station to a larger one. Once there, we were finger printed and had our pictures taken. And then we were free to go.

When Rabbi Cantor and I rejoined our group, we were lauded as heroes. We did not set out to be detained on Rosh Chodesh, we just went to daven. The response I have received from congregants, former students, colleagues friends and family has been overwhelmingly supportive and positive.

Later that day our group met with residents of The Jewish Agency’s Amigour Subsidized Housing for the Elderly. We were treated to a concert by the Amigour choir, which consists mainly of immigrants from the FSU, many of whom are Shoah survivors. When these lovely singers started to sing “Oseh Shalom” tears started to fall down my face.

The English translation of “Oseh Shalom” is He who makes peace in his high places, he shall make peace upon us and upon all of Israel, and we say amen. I cried out of joy because I know that with God’s help peace will come upon the people Israel and the country Israel. The fervently right wing Orthodox community will lose their power one day. The secular Israeli just society needs to become more aware of the situation. When they join our quest for religious pluralism in the state of Israel, then real change can begin.

Just before my flight home, I was shopping at the Michal Negrin store at the airport with a colleague. Being proud, he told a clerk what had happened to me earlier that day. Her response was, “what, women can’t wear tallitot at the Kotel? How can the government stop a woman from doing that? That is wrong.”

As Rosh Chodesh ended I felt joy because I am full of confidence that change will come, as people are becoming aware, astounded and angry at the status quo, one at a time.

In the words of Cantor Shiya Ribowsky:
I believe a nation that demands a daughter don an army uniform but arrests her for wearing a tallit has more soul searching to do.

I believe millions of decent fair minded Jews the world over, stand with you and stand against a self righteous pretend Judaism that would see you arrested for practicing your religion.

I believe Jews who measure their level of religious observance by oppressing others have missed the point.

I believe the Masorti Movement’s role in Judaism is to make this point.

I believe Israel needs to worry when Russia exhibits a greater level of religious tolerance.

I believe a Jewish nation that consumes more bacon than lox and arrests women for praying has some soul searching to do.

I believe Rashi’s daughter wore a tallit when she put on teffilin!

I believe Rebbeinu Tam would have ruled that a woman arrested for wearing a tallit is obligated to make a Shechayanu.

I believe resistance to the egalitarian practice of Judaism is founded not in religious doctrine but rather in Sinat Chinum.

I believe that Moshiach does not tarry because a woman wears a tallit but will tarry because of Sinat Chinum.

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin is the spiritual leader of Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Queens, NY.

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  1. reuvain says

    “I believe resistance to the egalitarian practice of Judaism is founded not in religious doctrine but rather in Sinat Chinum.”

    This statement is deeply distressing. The assertion that a person follows Halacha and Tradition out of hatred crosses all lines of decency. When Jews through the ages went to their death because they refused to change Jewish tradition was it “Sinat Chinun” . This outrageous assertion that Jews who believe in Torah as it has been practiced for ages are driven by hate is simply disgusting. I urge other liberal rabbis to distant themselves from this troubling and hateful statement.

    There are real issues dividing the traditional Jewish world that believes in a tradition that reaches back to Sinai and those who choose to modify it. However to claim that the belief in Torah is based on hatred crosses all lines. Jews who follow Shluchan Aruch are not driven by “Sinat Chinun” but by an honest belief in the Torah and Halacha.

    Shame on you.

  2. Michael says

    I am very proud to say that Rabbi Fryer Bodzin is a friend. I agree with her view that until Israel grows up and recognizes the rights of Jewish diversity, it will not be a complete society. However, I do not believe that the resistance to change or the acceptance of differences by some of our fellow Jews is based on hatred — but rather on ignorance, true or feigned. Perhaps that is much more of a problem then hatred, since hatred stems from a perversion of facts while ignorance comes from having no facts.

    I have always been taught and believe that our Torah is a living gift that HaShem gave us as a guide — not as a stumbling block to freedom and equality. It is a prescription to a moral and ethical life that we need to create for ourselves and respect in others. In our striving to create a better life for ourselves and others, we should not cast others who differ in a negative light. If we have we learned nothing in these thousands of years from Talmud, we should have learned that multiple opinions can each have value and must be valued. That is at the heart of lesson of the events that Rabbi Fryer Bodzin has described. Until we learn tolerance of each others views, we can never create the world that Moshiach will find welcoming. Yasher koach Rabbi, for your teaching.

  3. A Non Silent Observer says

    How arrogant of people to come to Israel from a dying Jewish world, one where Jewish Halacha as practiced for the past aver 3000 years is being thrown into the garbage. It was recently reported that both reform and conservative Jewish worlds are dying because the Jewish life that they are promoting is not causing Jews to affiliate with true Jewish values.

    In Israel people are not rushing to join either reform or conservative congregations unless they are English speakers. Israelis know that either you observe Halacha or you don’t but you cannot change what G-d has given to the Jewish people. The Torah tells us that these laws are in effect for all time.

    Therefore, I say how arrogant are those who wish to change what G-d has said not to.

  4. Dan Brown says

    If ‘A Non Silent Observer’ had the courage of his convictions, as apparently the author of the piece does, he would not hide behind a pseudonym. How immature.

  5. says

    Op-Ed: American Jewry’s Denominational Delusions
    Israel National News
    Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 12:29 PM

    Op-Ed: American Jewry’s Denominational Delusions
    Israel National News
    Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 12:29 PM

    Statistics are against the continuity of Reform and Conservative Jewry, possibly reducing the power of the Jewish population in the USA. (Perhaps Israel should note that when considering their requests to change tradition at the Wall.) Written by Andrew Apostolou. The writer is an historian based in Washington D.C.

  6. Dan Brown says

    Andrew Apostolou is not a historian; according to his own biography on LinkedIn (in full), “Senior progam manager, editor, writer, strategist, and researcher with 15 years experience following the Middle East, Central Asia, and southeast Europe from political, policy, and economic perspectives. Practical expertise in developing, managing projects, political, and strategic communications campaigns related to Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East, with particular expertise on Iran and Iraq. Successfully ran two businesses (strategic political and economic consultancy; real estate).”

    Even Apostolou does not consider himself a historian and has no expertise to comment on the state of American Jewry except as a casual observer.

  7. Nehemia says

    After having read this article, and subsequent ones across mainstream media, I keep returning to this one because of my frustration with its position.

    First a little full disclosure. I am a non-Orthodox Jew, and parent of two girls whom I believe should have every opportunity to participate at any and all levels of Jewish life across the globe…including praying with a “men’s tallit” at the Kotel, should they so choose.

    However, my difficulty with this column is its passive aggressive nature. For the rabbi to claim that “this makes no sense” to her is a little patronizing.

    The police officer’s explanation as to her behavior, as written above, “He responded to me that my two crimes were that I violated the regulations of holy places and that I behaved in a way that may violate public safety.” These reasons are not vague or unclear.

    There are laws in our society to prevent instigation of others, and to protect innocent bystanders from others with a cause. The fact that you chose to do what you did…kudos to you! The fact that you are claiming to not understand why you were arrested…really???

    Imagine if Heschel claimed that he had no idea that marching with Martin Luther King would create the animosity and hatred of those that disagreed with the Civil Right’s Movement?

    Why do we need to hide behind the vail of passive aggression? If you disagree with the law, which you clearly do (as I do too), why do we need to pretend that you’ve done anything wrong? Where is the true courage of standing up for something you believe in, doing it because you believe in doing it, and then if necessary, suffering the consequences for the decision to do so?

    Our martyrs of year’s past, never apologized for what they believed. They never pretended to “not know why” they were suffering their punishments.

    If we want to make real, genuine, and sustainable change in the stranglehold that the ultra-religious (whom I distinguish from Modern Orthodoxy) possess in Israel, then we can only do so by standing up for our convictions and not doing so passive aggressively…at least that’s my perspective.

  8. says

    I have been a WOTW supporter for many years. I do have a question, though. If, upon being taken to the police station, questioned, told to sign a document that bans you from the Wall for a period of time, and are fingerprinted…exactly how is that not being arrested? Sounds like arrest, convicted, and given a sentence to me.

  9. Rachel says

    Hi Anita,
    To answer your question about detainment vs. arrest. (I was detained three times in the last few months so I know a thing or too!) The police have a right to detain a person and interrogate them if they have a good enough reason to suspect them of a crime. A detained person does not have to sign anything and can even refuse to be fingerprinted I think. However,the police tend to use the threat of actual arrest as pressure to comply.. especially if one has important meetings to get to or a flight to catch. The 15 days removal from the kotel area is the maximum the police can give without going before a judge.