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Detained at the Western Wall for Praying in a Tallit, One Woman Speaks Out

On, May 22, 2012, the morning of Rosh Chodesh Sivan, I woke up a bit too late to make it to Women of the Wall—a group that hopes to achieve social and legal recognition for the right of women to pray at the Kotel, or Western Wall—on time. I contemplated an extra two hours of sleep, but struggled to get myself ready and run to the Kotel for their Rosh Chodesh services. I’m an American currently studying in Israel as part of my Rabbinical training and have joined their group a few times throughout the year. As I walked down the ramp into the women’s section, I quickly took out my tallit, or prayer shawl, and began to pray, trying to catch up.

Almost immediately, a female police officer approached me with a video camera about 10 inches from my face. “Change your tallit to look like a scarf,” she said. I looked at her puzzled. I’ve prayed with Women of the Wall a few times throughout the year, and no one from security had ever made a request like that. “Change your tallit!,” she barked again. “But everyone else is wearing their tallit in a regular way,”—hanging over their shoulders—I said as I motioned to rest of the crowd. She didn’t budge, and I draped one side of my tallit around my neck. Another officer approached and said, “that’s not good enough. Make it look like a scarf.”

I got frustrated at this point. “Can you please leave me alone, I’m trying to pray.” “You have to change your tallit,” said the male officer, as he volunteered to help change the way I was wearing my tallit. I rolled my eyes and draped the second corner of my tallit over my neck, creating a cape of tzitzit. I finished praying and all of us at the Wall began to join in song, arm in arm, making our way over to Robinson’s Arch to read Torah and begin the additional musaf prayer for Rosh Chodesh.

The women’s rights struggle within the religious sphere in Israel is nothing new. Throughout my year in Israel, there have been campaigns about women’s voices being heard (literally), gender segregated buses, and public images of women allowed on posters or billboards. Women’s rights in public prayer spaces is just one of the many issues. An article about this week’s Kotel incident cites a 2001 law that states, “it is illegal for women to perform religious practices traditionally done by men in Orthodox Jewish practice at the Western Wall, such as reading from a Torah scroll, wearing tefillin or a tallit, or blowing a shofar.”

I had no idea that the police had their eyes on us, but as we moved through the security gates I made eye contact with the same female officer who recorded me and gave me the initial instructions to change my tallit. She pointed at me and said to another officer, “that’s her.” Immediately I was brought to a stairway along with two other rabbinical students.

“Israeli ID, now”

“I’m not an Israeli citizen.”

“OK, passport.”

“I don’t have it on me.” (Thank God.)

“OK, any other ID.” I handed him my Texas state driver’s license, which I’m sure meant nothing to him, and he took down my full name and address. He asked me for my phone number in Israel and my address. I hesitated, but then offered the officer my information. I was told, after a bit of waiting, that we will be contacted for further questioning and investigation, but that we were not being arrested at this point.

Behind me, I felt the support of the dozens of women and men singing, along with the spirits of all those who cry out against the injustice I am experiencing, standing there with the police. The voices behind me changed from a niggun, or tune, to the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, “kol haolam kulo, gesher tzar me’od, vahaikar lo l’fached klal—The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to fear at all.” These words have never felt more powerful to me.

As the officer took down our information, I sang, with tears in my eyes, “vahaikar lo l’fached klal.” Yes, this is scary. But I will not fear. The homeland we dream of, that we have dreamed of for thousands of years, is not one that arrests women for religious expression through wearing a tallit. The homeland I know we can attain is one that embraces multiple forms of Judaism to create a richer, deeper, and stronger Jewish State.

Sarit Horwitz is a second year Rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, currently studying in Jerusalem at the Schechter Institute.

(photo: flickr)

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