SILVER CORD BINDS JEWS WHO SUPPORT PLURALISM IN ISRAEL – 200 ENDORSE WOMEN OF THE WALL IN SAN FRANCISCO UNION SQUARE PRAYER SERVICE

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Jews tied a Silver Cord to their prayer shawls (talis) last weekend in San Francisco’s
Union Square signifying support for women arrested in Israel on grounds
of wearing a talit at the Western Wall (Kotel), now a legal possibility
open only to men.

Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

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.”

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.

Organizer Dr. Abby Caplin and her husband, Dr. Ami Goodman, led the group in song.

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Ami Goodman, Abby Caplin
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

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.

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Rabbi Sydney Mintz about to don talit.
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

“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.

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Cantor Roslyn Barak, center
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

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Rabbi Camille Shira Angel, Ilene Serlin, both of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

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Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

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Their tallits became symbols of solidarity with Women of the Wall after silver strings were distributed and tied among the tzitzit.

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Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

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Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

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Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

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.

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Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

“I was nervous about being in a public place, but the longer we davened, the more beautiful and safer it felt.”

The Israeli police’s recent interrogation of Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman and member Nofrat Frenkel “opens a new and ominous chapter in intra-Jewish relations,” The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism declared in a sharply worded statement released January 11.

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Karen Erlichman
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

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Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

USCJ, which represents 670 synagogues in North America, is urging its members to write letters of protest to Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

Hoffman, who directs the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, also urged Diaspora Jews “of all denominations” to send letters “in support of pluralism” to their Israeli ambassador.

Frenkel was detained by police and threatened with arrest for wearing a tallit at the Kotel, Judaism’s holiest site, in November. Hoffman, who chairs Women of the Wall was detained and fingerprinted by police on January 5, and warned that she was “being investigated for a felony” offense, also for wearing a tallit and reading the Torah at the Kotel.

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Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

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Eryn Kalish, Ilene Serlin, Rabbi Angel, Cantor Sharon Bernstein

Cantor Sharon Bernstein sang a new melody for Barchi Nafshi and led donning of t’fillin.
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

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Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

Women of the Wall is a women’s prayer group which has met for some 21 years to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, or Kotel, as it is known in Hebrew, which marks the place where the Second Temple stood until its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E. The Orthodox rabbinic authorities that control the site have divided it into sex-segregated sections, as per Orthodox worship custom, and prohibit women from praying there in a formal group or in other ways that differ from common Orthodox practice.

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Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

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Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

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Barret Cohn, baby Arthur Cohn, Pat Murphy

Women of the Wall, which prays there at the start of every new Jewish month, challenges these strictures.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, USCJ’s executive vice president, told The Forward, “The harassment of those who are progressive such as we saw with Nofrat Frenkel and now with Anat Hoffman is unconscionable.”

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Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

These moves by the Jerusalem police drive “a wedge between our communities at a time when working for unity within Israel and enhancing the connection between Diaspora Jewish communities and Israel should be a primary concern,” says United Synagogue’s statement.

Wernick said that he hopes other branches of the Conservative movement will have signed on to the statement within the next day or so, and once it is finalized, he said, he will send it to Oren and “request a meeting and a conversation.”

Calls to Oren were not immediately returned.

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.”

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Photo By Bill Wilson © 2010

REFLECTION BY ANAT HOFFMAN

One recent afternoon, while I was riding on a gender-segregated bus in Jerusalem, an Orthodox woman told me she didn’t mind sitting in back and out of sight, because it helped the men “keep cleanliness of the eyes.” Her reasoning was familiar to me; it followed a logic similar to the rationale behind a men-only path at the Western Wall that was cleared just two years ago so that men would not have to look upon women as they make their way to the Kotel to pray. It’s no coincidence that Jerusalem’s first gender-segregated buses were for routes going to and from the Wall.

If you want a quick lesson on the growing gender segregation and discrimination in Israel, I suggest taking a look at the policies in place at the Western Wall, which are being constantly revised to deny women equal access at this sacred space. Things have changed tremendously in my 21 years of going to pray with Women of the Wall every Rosh Hodesh.

Women of the Wall is sometimes accused of protesting against the “status quo” at the Western Wall. In fact, there is no status quo at the Wall — things change all the time. Men and women used to enter the Western Wall plaza together through the Jewish Quarter’s Dung Gate; in 1994, separate, gender-segregated entrances were created. Within the past decade, women soldiers were still allowed to sing the national anthem during ceremonies at the Wall — now they are instructed to be content with mouthing the words.

People sometimes ask us: “When will you achieve your goal?” This is a question one asks of a general. A general has soldiers, uniforms and a strategy. With Women of the Wall, we don’t know whether 10 or 100 women will show up each month — though we hope for 10,000. We have no uniforms, as we are a pluralistic group and come from all streams of Judaism. As far as strategy, we are only as bold as our least brave member.

Simply put, our goal is to obtain the freedom to pray and to do everything that is halachically permitted for women on the women’s side of the mechitza. This includes reciting prayers together that do not require a minyan, and, yes, most of all, it includes reading from the Torah. (Though it has been many years since we have been able to read from the Torah in the women’s section at the Wall.) At a minimum, we want to be allowed to pray at the Wall for one hour each month, free of injury and fear. This should not be a provocative request.

If I wanted to mount a provocation at the Wall, I certainly wouldn’t do so by inviting a group of modestly dressed women — most of them devoted Orthodox Jews — to show up early in the morning to pray in a manner entirely consistent with Halacha. That some are provoked does not make us provocative. We have been waking up early to pray every Rosh Hodesh for the past 21 years — this is no fad, no political act. It is done for the sake of prayer.

But given Israel’s current religious climate, anything we do will seem unreasonable. The Ministry of Religious Services apparently feels that even an hour a month is too much. Perhaps the religious authorities believe that the Wall has ears and eyes, and that when it hears our prayers and sees us in our tallitot (which, as directed by the police, we wear like scarves, and not in the traditional way worn by men), it is deeply offended.

To the self-proclaimed guardians of the Kotel, our prayers are seen as an act of desecration. That is why Nofrat Frenkel was arrested this past November after praying at the Wall. And it is why I was recently questioned and threatened with felony charges by the police.

Since the recent controversy, Women of the Wall members have been accused of acting as a gateway to bringing about Buddhist chants and Catholic hymns at the Kotel. This “slippery slope” argument implies that those of us in Women of the Wall are not practicing Judaism, but moving one step further away, in the process ushering in non-Jewish religious services at the Wall.

This is not correct. Our prayer is halachic and allows for the entire Jewish world to partake. We are not the slippery slope away from Judaism, but the path toward greater involvement and inclusion.

We are committed to and inspired by the words of Mordecai to Esther that we will read this coming Purim. He tells Esther not to keep silent, and she obeys, telling Mordecai to assemble all the Jews in Shushan in support. The antidote to silence is action; we are now turning to the whole Jewish world, men and women alike, to help us reclaim the Wall for all Jews. HaKotel l’kulam — the Kotel is for all of us.

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Anat Hoffman pictured in Israel

Amanda Pazornik of The JWeekly, Anat Hoffman of The Jewish Daily Forward,
and Pat Murphy of The Sentinel contributed to this report.

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BY PHILLIS CHESTER

See Related: VIDEO – SILVER CORD BINDS JEWS WHO SUPPORT PLURALISM IN ISRAEL – 200 ENDORSE WOMEN OF THE WALL IN SAN FRANCISCO UNION SQUARE PRAYER SERVICE

See Related: WOMEN OF THE WALL MAY FACE ISRAELI FELONY CHARGES FOR CONTINUED PRAYER SHAWL USE

See Related: ON SCENE WITH BILL WILSON ARCHIVE

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BILL WILSON
Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson is a San Francisco-based veteran photojournalist. Bill embraced photojournalism at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, SFist, SFAppeal. Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past six years. Email Bill Wilson at wfwilson@sbcglobal.net.

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