By Cheryl Temkin
Cheryl Temkin is from Tamarac, Florida and volunteering for Women of the Wall through Skilled Volunteers for Israel
In August 1968 I arrived in Jerusalem for my junior year abroad. Not long thereafter I met a local young fellow, Nissim, and we became ‘attached at the hip’ for the year. I credit him with being my Hebrew tutor as well as introducing me to a side of Israel that I could never have discovered without him.
Fast forward to 2009 when through the joys of the worldwide web I located him. By now he’s a respected documentary filmmaker, still based in Jerusalem, and additionally he produces features for the Israel Broadcast Authority/Channel 1. And although the relationship today bears little resemblance to our post-adolescent link-up, it’s a deep and lasting friendship.
When I returned currently and told him about my volunteering with Women of the Wall (WOW), he immediately suggested that he bring a film crew to this month’s Rosh Hodesh (new month) early morning prayer service at the Kotel (Western Wall). I took the proposal to the women and they loved it — they had been looking for an opportunity to get more local exposure and this was perfect.
Coinciding with this month’s Rosh Hodesh celebration is the huge Hadassah Convention blanketing the city. Although it would have been optimum to have the Hadassah women join us on Wednesday morning for the service at the Kotel, there was a scheduling glitch and thus they descended upon the Western Wall at 11 p.m. on Tuesday night. The evening program consisted of a warm welcome from Anat Hoffman, founder and current chair of Women of the Wall, followed by Hebrew songs, led by volunteer Rabbinical students.
When the WOW members and volunteers arrived at the women’s section of the Wall to prepare for the Hadassah contingent, the police and authorities surrounded us. They were harsh in their demands that we could pass out NOTHING, not even the song sheets we had prepared. So when the Hadassah women did arrive, Anat delivered her welcoming remarks and then we all started chanting the Shema, probably the most common prayer in our daily ritual.
Immediately a policeman approached Anat and arrested her for disturbing the peace. To say that we were all shocked is an understatement. We know that there are issues with ultra-Orthodox men opposing women who don prayer shawls and skullcaps and pray out loud, but this was beyond our imagination. Anat was handcuffed, detained overnight, and eventually went before a judge on Wed. afternoon. She was ‘sentenced’ to a 30 day period in which she is not allowed at the Kotel.
Early Wed. morning we gathered at the Kotel to pray the morning service w/the tv crew filming the proceedings. Shortly after commencing, the police arrested Lesley Sachs, the WOW executive director, and Rachel Cohen, a WOW board member. Their infraction was wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). They were held, photographed, fingerprinted, and then after a few harrowing hours in custody, released.
Such is life in Israel 2012. The ultra-Orthodox wield great power and religious pluralism is still in large part a foreign term.