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.