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Ultra-Orthodox Jews scuffle with worshippers at Western Wall

Despite a strong police presence the police did not intervene when dozens of ultra-Orthodox men tried to disrupt government-sanctioned Reform and Conservative prayers in the Western Wall's public plaza. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

JERUSALEM (RNS) Dozens of young ultra-Orthodox men shoved, shouted and spat at Reform and Conservative Jewish worshippers who held a government-sanctioned mixed-gender prayer service in the Western Wall’s public plaza.

A dozen policemen stood by but did not intervene as the ultra-Orthodox men tried to drown out the service on Thursday (June 16), first with songs, then with whistles. Some cursed the 200 Reform and Conservative worshippers, insisting they are not Jews, while others threw water bottles.

The non-Orthodox prayer service took place despite the opposition of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the ultra-Orthodox rabbi who oversees the Western Wall. On Thursday, the Ministry of Religious Services informed Rabinowitz that he has no jurisdiction to prevent egalitarian prayers in the public plaza.

Reform and Conservative Jews, whose institutions and rabbis receive virtually no funding from the Israeli government, organized the prayers in the plaza – located directly behind the men’s prayer section of the Western Wall – to protest Israeli government actions they say marginalize them and prevent men and women from worshipping side by side.

Non-Orthodox have long prayed nearby at Robinson’s Arch, another section of the Western Wall, run by the Conservative movement. The main Western Wall site is run like an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, which separates men from women.

But on Tuesday, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of the country’s two chief rabbis, commandeered Robinson’s Arch to hold an Orthodox prayer service. Contrary to the custom of the site, Amar erected a mechitza, or separation barrier, between male and female worshippers.

The protest service that followed comes at a time when the Reform and Conservative movements as well as the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall are demanding the Israeli government implement a Jan. 31 Cabinet decision to turn Robinson’s Arch into Israel’s first official egalitarian prayer space, where both men and women and people of all Jewish traditions can pray.

The agreement to fund and enlarge the prayer space followed nearly three years of negotiations between the Israeli government and American and Israeli representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Federations of North America and Women of the Wall.

In March, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in his coalition government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze the plan and asked all parties to compromise.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, president of the Reform movement in Israel, said Thursday’s service was designed to pressure the government, not provoke ultra-Orthodox Jews.

He called the inaction of the police during the protest service “an outrage.”

“I assume the police received a directive from the Rabbi of the Wall or the police high command not to interfere,” he said.

Kariv said the parties negotiating with the government agreed not to to take a public stand while talks were ongoing. That no longer applies.

“The government approved the agreement, the prime minister agreed to it, but five months have passed,” he said. “Every day we are receiving signals the government has no intention of implementing the agreement and is instead taking aggressive steps against the non-Orthodox.”

Among those steps is a bill in Israel’s parliament, or Knesset, that would overturn a recent High Court decision to permit Reform and Orthodox converts to Judaism to immerse themselves in public mikvahs (ritual baths) during their conversions.

Rabbi Loren Sykes, with his wife, Rebecca Sykes, said ultra-Orthodox men who tried to disrupt the non-Orthodox prayer service removed his yarmulke and cursed him. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

Rabbi Loren Sykes, with his wife, Rebecca Sykes, said ultra-Orthodox men who tried to disrupt the non-Orthodox prayer service removed his yarmulke and cursed him. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

Rabbi Loren Sykes, an American Conservative rabbi who immigrated to Israel three years ago, said he was spat upon and cursed during the prayer service.

“Unfortunately there are Jews who can’t tolerate Jews who hold different opinions. Someone took off my kippah (yarmulke). Someone else said I should have been killed in the Holocaust,” Sykes said.

Standing several feet from the near-riot, David Mordechai Magid, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, insisted that “men and women should not be praying together” as the Reform and Conservative worshippers were doing. The Orthodox men had a right to drown out the worshippers, he added, but said violence isn’t the way.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, a Conservative rabbi and pluralism activist, said non-Orthodox Jews both in Israel and the U.S. have been very patient, but they are at their breaking point.

The Robinson’s Arch agreement “has been all talk and no action by the office of the prime minister,” he said. “So we shall take action. We shall pray in the Kotel (or Western Wall) plaza, men and women together, in a peaceful manner, until the government lives up to the agreements it has made with us.”

(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent)

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12 Comments

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  • I’m done with defending Isreal against the increased animosity on campuses and in the press only to be reviled by the ultra orthodox ( who contribute what?) while the ” secular” government stands by and does nothing. Enough.

  • Apparently they need government sanctioning to pray in a public location…

    Some country.

  • And yet, despite the presence of the Ultra-Orthodox, Israel is the most civilized country in the Middle East by a large margin.

  • The January deal _was_ a compromise. The Reform and Conservative groups, as well as the Federations of North America, agreed to have the mixed-gender space at Robinson’s Arch, well south of the main Western Wall Plaza, behind the Mughrabi Bridge to the Temple Mount. You have to try really hard if you’re praying at the main plaza to even see it, especially if you’re a man. The deal also threw Women of the Wall under the bus — their goals aren’t even being seriously considered at this point. So when Netanyahu says he wants the parties to “compromise,” and his police sit back and do nothing while the law is violated, it’s hard to take him seriously. It reminds me of what the Conservative opposition used to say during Question Time of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair: “Nobody believes a word you have to say anymore.”

  • Ultra-Orthodox Jews are similar in many ways to ultra-conservative fundamentalist Christians, especially in areas like New York, where their antics are an embarrassment to the overwhelming majority of Jews across the spectrum. — Edd Doerr

  • This article distorts the truth and adopts a one-sided perspective in so many different ways that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

    Is the “Women of the Wall” a mixed prayer group? They insist that they are not, and for that reason did not “officially” participate. But if so, it means this article was completely off base when it claimed that having a mechitzah was “contrary to the custom” of the Ezrat Yisrael plaza built for WOW and other groups to use (!).

    This also means Rav Amar holding a service when that part of the Wall when otherwise empty was completely reasonable. What did he do wrong? What was the “outrage”? Oh — that he used the very same space that Women for the Wall held a sit-in protest at the Western Wall to declare their refusal to use it.

    This was nothing more than a manufactured pretext for a deliberate provocation.

    By some miracle, the article declares that perhaps a busload of worshipers somehow transformed into 200. Somehow it omits the fact that, as can be seen in the photo above, the vast majority of “ultra-Orthodox” yeshiva students responded to this needless offense by singing and dancing.

    And the bottom line is that no one in America or Israel would care in the least about any of this nonsense, were it’s liberal Jewish leaders not deliberately fomenting discord and hatred.

  • “This was nothing more than a manufactured pretext for a deliberate provocation” Of course the “ultra-Orthodox” yeshiva students could have stayed away and let it happen, then there would be no story for the media to tell…. and no fomented discord and hatred. So who wins? Who ends up looking the a hateful bigot?

  • Video from the Wall: Charedi and non-Charedi dancing and singing to respond to the deliberate attempt to provoke discord. http://www.bhol.co.il/mobile/Article.aspx?id=103482&cat=34

    Tom, no yeshiva students showed up to make a fight — they showed up to pray. And that is exactly the point. By popular request, in Israel, a site was created for *separate* prayer. The American liberal movements were provided a space which they have left empty — thus Rav Amar came when it was empty to make a statement. The American liberals responded with a deliberate provocation, they came to create trouble and media attention. The great majority responded by ignoring them, or at most singing and dancing.

    Let’s say I come install a mechitzah in your nearest Reform Temple … will you abide that without protest?

  • I agree with Tom (below). If in fact their goal is provocation, the best response is to refuse to take the bait. Eventually, when they see it doesn’t work, they’ll stop.

    Tom is also right about how counter-productive such responses are. (Is there any reason to believe the spitting and kipah-snatching did NOT happen?) My late Rav, Eliezer Cohen, used to say his favorite pasukim were those in parshat Devorim about how, if we keep the Torah properly, other nations will admire us and want to emulate us. Obviously, there’s no admiration here–so maybe the Torah ISN’T being kept properly here.

    By the way, I have a few posts at Cross-Currents that need your attention.

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