On the morning of December 1, 1988, a multi-denominational group of approximately seventy women approached Jerusalem’s Kotel (Western Wall) with a Torah scroll to conduct a halakhic (according to Jewish law) women’s prayer service. As no provisions for Torah reading existed in the women’s section of the Kotel, we brought a sefer Torah (Torah scroll), stood together, and prayed out loud (a number of us wore prayer shawls).
Suddenly many women, and men on the other side of the mechitzah (barrier separating men and women), began to scream, curse and even threaten us. Despite these events, we managed to complete our Torah reading. The then Kotel Administrator, Rabbi Yehuda Gertz, allowed us to continue our service stating that we were “not violating Halakhah.”
Since that day, we struggle to relive our service, to once again pray together while wearing our tallits and bringin a Torah Scroll to the women’s section. For over twenty years, we have endured violence and spent many years in court fighting for this basic right as Jewish women, while mobilizing support from the Israeli and international community and raising funds. You can read below all of the history of our efforts.
A legal chronology of Women of the Wall
- First International Jewish Feminist Conference held in Jerusalem. One hundred Jewish women gather for a prayer service and Torah reading at the Kotel. Service is disrupted by verbal and physical assaults from some ultra-Orthodox men and women at the site.
- A group of Jerusalem women continue regular prayer services at the Kotel. Violent attacks from ultra-Orthodox opponents continue. Police refuse to provide protection.
- In March, after prayers at the Wall end with police using tear gas to contain harassment, four women submit a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court, asking for an order to allow women’s prayers and Torah reading to continue.
- In May, Israel’s Supreme Court hears the case of WOW for the first time. The state is given six months to respond to the petition. The Court issues a temporary injunction barring women from praying at the Kotel with a Torah and tallits.
- Women now pray at the Kotel without a Torah or tallits. Ultra-Orthodox opponents now demand that we not pray aloud because “kol b’isha erva” (the voice of woman is lewd).
- Following further violence and harassment by female security WOW requests a speedier response from the state and protection of the right to pray out loud. Both requests are denied.
- Newly formed International Committee for Women Of the Wall (ICWOW) donates a Torah Scroll to WOW, and travels to Israel for a dedication ceremony. The ceremony is not held at the Laromme Hotel as planned because the Jerusalem Rabbinate threatens to revoke the hotel’s kashrut license if the ceremony is held on their premises.
- On Dec 31, a new regulation is promulgated by the Ministry of Religion and the Ministry of Justice to “prohibit any religious ceremony at a holy place that is not in accordance with the custom of the holy site and which offends the sensitivities of the worshipers at the place.” The penalty for violating this regulation is 6 months in jail and/or a fine. This regulation is still in effect.
- The state files a response, 150-page collection of extreme halakhic opinions concerning women’s rights to pray out loud as a group, wear tallit, and touch or read from the Torah scroll.
- ICWOW files an independent lawsuit with the Israeli Supreme Court, stating that the cause is of critical importance for Jewish women everywhere.
- Women’s Network (Shdulat Hanashim B’yisrael) submits a motion to the Court asking to be allowed to the lawsuit as a co-petitioner. The court refuses.
- The Supreme Court hears oral argument on ICWOW’s case. Solidarity services are planned in Stockholm, Sweden, and in cities across North America.
- In Jan., the Supreme Court at last issues a decision against ICWOW and WOW, but the presiding judge, Justice Shamgar recommends that the government set up a commission to resolve the matter.
- In Feb., ICWOW and WOW request permission to appeal the court’s decision. The request is denied. The court states that “the doors of the court are open,” if the commission does not provide a proper remedy.
- A government commission, henceforth referred to as the Mancal (directors-general) Commission, is appointed to propose a solution to the issue of women’s prayer at the wall. No women are appointed to the commission. ICWOW undertakes a massive campaign to recruit individuals and organizations to lobby the commission.
- The Commission fails to meet its first deadline in November. The government grants it a six-month extension.
- ICWOW and WOW are finally granted permission to testify before the Commission. Six Israeli women and one representative from the U.S. give testimonies in February.
- The Mancal Commission fails to meet its May 17 deadline. WOW and ICWOW file suit, demanding that: (1) the Commission be ordered to fulfill its mandate immediately; (2) the court issue an injunction against the government, prohibiting any further deadline extensions for the commission; (3) a temporary injunction be issued, allowing women to pray aloud at the Kotel with a Torah scroll and wearing tallitot; and (4) the state provide police protection for WOW. Judge Dalia Domer rejects the request for an injunction preventing the commission from being granted further extensions. A hearing on the rest of the lawsuit is set for Apr. 14, 1996.
- The commission is granted another 6-month extension, until Nov. 17, 1995.
- The Nov. 17 deadline passes with no report issued.
- On Apr. 2, the Mancal Commission issues its report, which looks at four alternate sites and proposes that the WOW services be moved to the southeastern comer of the Old City wall (outside the Old City itself).
- WOW and ICWOW return to court for a hearing of the May 1995 petition. The petition is strongly supported by affidavits from the Progressive (Reform) and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel, stating that they do not want their own demands concerning the Kotel to be used as a further delaying tactic by the government. The government requests and is granted a 1-month delay.
- On Apr. 21, the government appoints a new ministerial commission to decide if and how to implement the Mancal Commission’s report. ICWOW immediately initiates a letter-writing campaign to the new commission.
- In May, WOW/ICWOW’s delayed April hearing (for the suit filed in May 1995) comes before the court once again. The government is granted a delay until July 29, 1996.
- In June, Israeli elections give newly-expanded influence to ultra-Orthodox parties.
- In Oct., the Israeli Supreme Court orders the Ministry of Religion to pay WOW and ICWOW 5000 shekels toward legal costs for their “interminable delays” and for the disrespectful “recommendation” that WOW pray at the southeastern comer of the Old City.
- Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, Chancellor of Bar-Ilan University, issues statement of unequivocal public support for WOW.
- On Mar. 4, the Israeli Supreme Court orders the state to “show just cause within 90 days why Women Of the Wall’s lawsuit against the government should not succeed.” One day later, a bill sponsored by the SHAS party passes a preliminary vote in the Knesset. The bill would turn the Kotel from a national site into an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.
- The Ministerial Commission issues its report in June, recommending maintenance of the status quo, under which women’s group prayer at the Kotel is illegal. One week later, the state files its response with the Supreme Court and attached the decision of the commission.
- Shortly before the date of Women Of the Wall’s court hearing, Nili Arad, the lawyer representing the government, makes several proposals, including establishing another Ne’eman commission, and/or allotting WOW a place to pray at Robinson’s Arch, adjacent to the Kotel. WOW and ICWOW agree unanimously to reject these proposals, but at the hearing, pushed by the judges, it was concluded that there is no alternative but to participate in a commission. WOW agrees to present minimal terms for participating in the Commission within two weeks. Ultimately, these terms are not met.
- First meeting of Ne’eman Commission in March. Several key members are absent.
- Second meeting of Ne’eman Commission in May. A representative of the Ministry of Religion, reviews the status of alternate sites that had been previously rejected by WOW, the Antiquities Authority, or police, and maintains that the only remaining option is the area by the security gates separating the Kotel plaza from Dung Gate. Ne’eman suggests that the feasibility of this site, including the construction of some structure to protect women there, be investigated by all parties.
- Tour of Kotel area by members of the Ne’eman Commission occurs in June.
- The Neeman Commission issues its report in Sep., concluding that WOW should pray in the Robinson’s Arch area immediately south of the Kotel, currently an archeological site. WOW had no vote, nor was any serious attention given to our compromise proposal of a time-sharing arrangement.
- On Feb. 16, the State submits an affidavit by Jerusalem Chief of Police Yair Yitzhaki arguing that it is WOW who provokes violence. The next day the Supreme Court holds a two-hour hearing on the petition of WOW and ICWOW to pray as a group at the Western Wall, with Torah and tallit.
- Court judges Eliahu Matza, Tova Strassburg-Cohen, and Dorit Beinish tour the Kotel plaza and proposed alternate sites, in the company of WOW and ICWOW representatives, our lawyers, representatives of the government legal advisor, the police, the Antiquities Authority, and councils responsible for development of the holy sites.
- In a lengthy opinion these judges recognize our rights, but transfer the matter to the government yet again, charging it to find a solution at the Kotel within six months. They award WOW 20,000 shekels for legal costs. The Shas and Degel Ha’Torah religious parties introduce in the Knesset repressive bills aimed at overriding the Court’s ruling. One of these bills would make women’s worship at the Western Wall with Torah and tallitot (prayer shawls) an offense punishable by seven years imprisonment.
- The State files a Request for an Appeal on the decision.
- On December 3, proposed bill no. 1924 was voted on in the Knessest. This is an amendment to the Holy Sites Law of 1967 and reads as follows: “1. The prayer area at the Western plaza shall be divided into a men’s section and women’s section by a divider, and prayers by men and women in a mixed group shall not be permitted there. 2. No religious ceremony shall be held in the women’s section near the Western Wall that includes taking out a Torah scroll and reading from it, blowing the shofar, or wearing tallitot or tefillin. 3. Violators shall be imprisoned for seven years.” WOW and ICWOW orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to the prime minister, the justice minister, and the speaker of the Knesset.
- On June 4, the Court issued a ruling, and the legal battle regarding the Women Of the Wall came to a close. The majority ruled that, despite the state’s claims to the contrary, the Women Of the Wall maintained a legal right to pray at the Western Wall. Nevertheless, such right was not without boundaries, the Court ruled that prayer at Robinson’s Arch would allow the Women Of the Wall to pray according to their practice “next to the Western Wall.”
To read the summary of the verdict, please click here.
- On Rosh Hodesh Kislev, Nov. 18, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation demanded that the police stop WOW’s prayer services, and in response, the police arrested group member Nofrat Frenkel, a young Israeli medical student. Frenkel was held for several hours, interrogated, and charged with illegally wearing a tallit at the Western Wall.
- WOW chairperson, Anat Hoffman, was interrogated on January 5th 2010. She was finger-printed and warned that she would be charged with a felony offense for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall.
- Noa Raz, a member of WOW, was physically assaulted on May 12th by an ultra-Orthodox man at the Central Bus Station in Be’er Sheva for having the imprints of tefillin lines visible on her arms.
- WOW Chairperson, Anat Hoffman, was arrested in July for carrying a sefer Torah during Rosh Hodesh Av. Moments after leaving the Wall, police confronted and blocked the procession and began menacingly to attempt to remove the Torah from Hoffman’s arms. Hoffman was detained under the pretext that she was not praying according to the traditional customs of the Kotel. Hoffman was taken into police custody and interrogated for five hours. Hoffman was released from police custody and banned from the Kotel for 30 days.
- Synagogues, organizations, and individuals begin holding solidarity events outside of Israel, such as Rosh Hodesh services, the Torah campaign [should link to torah photo campaign page], and lectures
- The Legal and Education Fund is created to help promote our message to the international community.
- Three members of the Women Of the Wall organization were briefly detained during Rosh Hodesh Sivan for wearing tallitot at the Western Wall.
- WOW supporter was detained for over three hours for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall during Rosh Hodesh Tamuz services.
To learn more about the restrictions, click here.
- Rosh Hodesh Tamuz prayer service was held on June 21, 2012.
- Police asked Women of the Wall supporter to wear her Tallit as a scarf, instead of as a prayer shawl and she complied.
- She was later detained by police officers and held at the Police Headquarters in the Old City for hours.
- She was informed that she would not be allowed at the Western Wall for seven days and would be fined NIS 3,000 if she did not comply.
- Rosh Hodesh Av prayer service was held on July 20, 2012.
- Rosh Hodesh Elul prayer service was held on August 19, 2012.
- Police arrested and detained four Women of the Wall supporters because they were accused of disturbing the public peace according to regulation 201 A4 of the Israeli legal code, the punishment for which is six months in prison, and of violating regulation 287A by performing a religious act which “offends the feelings of others.”
- Four supporters were arrested for wearing traditional tallitot, those with black or blue stripes which are traditionally worn only by men.
- On the eve of the new Jewish month of Cheshvan, Anat Hoffman was arrested while leading prayer at Hadassah’s centennial convention.
- She was held in custody and subjected to violent and aggressive treatment for over twelve hours and was forced to wear handcuffs for most of this time.
- She was released and issued a restraining order from the Western Wall for 30 days.
- Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan prayer service was held on October 17, 2012.
- Lesley Sachs, Director of Women of the Wall, and Rachel Cohen Yeshrun, board member, were arrested.
- They were released but asked to admit to the crime of disturbing public peace. They refused.
- Rosh Hodesh Kislev prayer service was held on November 15, 2012. Nearly 100 women gathered for support and to dedicate their prayers to peace in the south of Israel.
- Women of the Wall Director, Lesley Sachs and board member, Rahel Cohen Yeshurun were detained by police for wearing tallitot. Later, four more supporters were detained.
- They were asked to accept a five day restraining order from the Kotel.
- Rosh Hodesh Tevet prayer service was held on December 14, 2012.
- According to police, a new decree was issued forbidding women to enter the Western Wall plaza with Jewish holy articles, tallitot, or tefillin. Thus, women were stripped of these articles before entering.
- The first woman detained, Women of the Wall board member Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, refused to remove her tallit as she entered the Western Wall Plaza. She was removed and interrogated.
- Two young women from the UK gap year program, Shnat-Netzer and Rabbi Elyse Frishman from New Jersey, USA, were held and interrogated.
- All four women refused to sign an admission of disturbing the public peace and were released after three hours.
- Prime Minister Netanyahu recognized the need for a quick and fair resolution to the conflict at the Kotel.
- He asked Jewish Agency Chairman, Natan Sharansky to examine the issue.
- Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) Petitioned the Supreme Court, along with Kolech- Religious Women’s Forum, the Center For Women’s Justice, the Yaacov Herzog Center, Hiddush and the Masorti Movement.
- The petition was presented to the court on January 6, 2013 by IRAC.
- It questioned the legality and legitimacy of the authorities presiding over the Western Wall.
- It asked the court to examine the unequal representation of Jewish streams and of women in the bodies and offices which hold authority over the Western Wall site.
- The court was also requested to examine the double-duty of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who holds two titles: Rabbi in charge of Holy Sites, appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office, and Chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
- Women of the Wall Chair, Anat Hoffman, sent a letter on February 6, 2013 to Chief of the Israel Police, Yohanan Danino, requesting that he direct the Jerusalem Police Commander to prevent the male officers at the Western Wall from physically restraining women at the Western Wall.
- Rosh Hodesh Adar prayer service was held on February 11, 2013.
- Hundreds of supporters flocked to the Western Wall to pray with Women of the Wall, including several Israeli paratroopers who liberated Jerusalem and the Western Wall in 1967 at the end of the Six Day War.
- After a peaceful prayer service that lasted over an hour, police detained ten women for wearing tallitot. They were held for over three hours of questioning.
- The detained group included Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of American Comedian Sarah Silverman, and her underage daughter, Hallel.
- Women of the Wall chair, Anat Hoffman, Director, Lesley Sachs, board member, Bonnie Ras, Reform rabbinical student, Lior Nevo, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin of Canada via Queens, NY, and Rabbi Debra Cantor of Connecticut were also detained.
- On February 25, 2013, over one hundred Women of the Wall gathered to read the Megillah for Purim. Unlike the prayer services of the previous six months, which had been plagued by mid-prayer arrests, this megillah reading went peacefully and joyfully.
- Rosh Hodesh Nissan prayer service was held on March 12, 2013.
- Women of the Wall prayed at the Kotel with tallitot and tefillin without arrests or police intervention for the first time since 2010.
- Members of Knesset, Tamar Zandberg from the Meretz Party and Stav Shafir from the Labor Party arrived at the security gate to the Western Wall with tallitot. When they were refused entrance with the tallitot, they insisted on entering but were not arrested because they are members of the Knesset.
- Additionally, hundreds organized international solidarity rallies.
- The most notable was New York’s Wake Up for Religious Tolerance at Union Square, NY which brought together over 400 people.
- Solidarity events were also held in Washington DC, Southern California, San Francisco, Massachusetts, and on college campuses across the US.
- Women of the Wall received a letter from Israeli Police which summarizes the most recent interpretation of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling by the Attorney General. This ruling forbids women to pray the Kaddish prayer, including the mourner’s prayer.
- In his letter, Jerusalem Chief of Police Prienti, asserts and threatens that as of Rosh Hodesh Iyar, when Women of the Wall will gather for their monthly prayer at 7AM on April 11, 2013 at the Western Wall, the police will enforce the full extent of the law against women violating this ruling.
- Despite this threat, Anat Hoffman states, Women of the Wall will be at the Kotel and will say Kaddish with the utmost religious intention and emotional commitment that is deserved and require of us.”
- Women of the Wall calls all Jews around the world to stand in solidarity, to say Kaddish, and to demand full religious freedom for women at the Western Wall.
- On April 11, 2013 5 women, Lesley Sachs, Bonnie Riva Ras, Sylvie Rozenbaum, Rabbi Valerie Stessin, and Sharona Kramer, were detained during Rosh Hodesh prayers with Women of the Wall. The women were held for questioning and arrested. After seeing all evidence, Judge Sharon Larry Bavly stated that there was no cause for arresting the women. In a groundbreaking decision, the judge declared that Women of the Wall are not disturbing the public order with their prayers.
- After the police appealed the Magistrates Court decision, the case was heard in District Court on April 25, 2013. Judge Moshe Sobel decided against the police appeal, supporting fully the Magistrates Court decision by Judge Sharon Lary-Bavly, which stated that there was no cause for arrest and that the women did not disturb the public order. The Judge declared that the Supreme Court decision of 2003 never intended to serve as an injunction which would apply criminal violations to women. Likewise this decision did not ban Women of the Wall from praying at the Kotel. He added that there is no reasonable suspicion in which the women are violating the Supreme Court decisions. In reference to the Supreme Court recommendation that the women pray in Robinson’’s Arch, Sobell declared that this does not prohibit the women from praying at the Western Wall in the women’s section, and certainly it does not imply a criminal violation for this act. Regarding the restriction within the Law of Holy Places in which visitors at the Western Wall are to pray and hold religious celebrations according to the “local custom”, the judge declared that the women are not violating this law. He stated that the legal proceedings of Women of the Wall establish that the “local custom” is to be interpreted with National and pluralistic implications, not necessarily Orthodox Jewish customs.
- On May 10, 2013 hundreds of women prayed at the Kotel freely, many with tallitot and tefillin, with the protection of police, while thousands of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men and women protested.
- On June 9, 2013 three hundred women prayed under strict protection of the police, with a few hundred haredi protesters. The women are still refused access to pray with a Torah scroll.