Israeli Women Pray For Religious Rights

Once a month, just after dawn, dozens of women gather at the Western Wall to protest Orthodox Jewish insistence that women of non-orthodox faith must pray by Orthodox rules instead of the more liberal rules of Conservative and Reform Jews.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A monthly gathering at Jerusalem's Western Wall has become a battleground for Jewish women seeking to challenge Orthodox rules for praying there.

The women have been donning prayer shawls and head coverings usually reserved for Jewish males and conducting non-Orthodox services at the wall. They say their battle is part of a greater struggle to challenge the traditional institutions that control all religious issues in the Jewish state. Sheera Frenkel reports from Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

SHEERA FRENKEL: The monthly prayer service held by this group of Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall nearly always begins peacefully. Heads turn to the unusual sound of dozens of women united in Hebrew prayers, and several people try to hush them.

But unlike the nearby religious women who mumble prayers quietly, these women are here to be heard. Quickly, though, the scene turns ugly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

FRENKEL: Several women approach the group and demand that they lower their voices. Then they shout over them, saying that they want to protect the ears of nearby men from the voices of immodest women.

One elderly man looms over the crowd, above a divide meant to separate the men and women's sections here.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

FRENKEL: He's shouting at them not to expect to change the Jewish faith, that they aren't real Jews, that they are degrading the memory of the Holocaust. Some of the women look shaken by his accusations, but they continue to pray. It's the sort of insults they hear every month.

SHARON OSHALME: We are totally shaking their world up. I want to practice my religion freely. It's not just their Kotel or their Jerusalem. But it's hard when someone that yells at you you're not Jewish, you're not belong here, the Holocaust happened because of you. Last time they called me Nazi, Reform and lesbian. That was, like, the three curses.

FRENKEL: That's Sharon Oshalme. The 25-year-old has been coming here to pray in recent months despite the harassment. She says that the struggle goes farther than their rights to pray at the wall, and she uses the Hebrew word rabinut to describe the rabbinic authorities.

OSHALME: Israel is controlled by the rabinut, and there's no separation between church and state. There's no freedom of religion. So I have to practice my religion in closed doors.

FRENKEL: Since 1988, when Women of the Wall was established by mainly American Jews, the shifting group of people arrive at the Western Wall at the early hours of the first day of each Jewish month to fight for their right to pray at one of Judaism's most iconic holy sites.

While Orthodox pray at the wall daily, women and men are separated, and only men can read from the Torah. Women of the Wall are fighting for their right to hold Reform or Conservative services, in which anyone, man or woman, can read from the Torah and stand together as they pray, and their weapons are those most often identified with the Orthodox - a kippah, a head covering, tallit, prayer shawl, and Torah, or Pentateuch. These are the very items that can and do land these women in jail.

In November of last year, 28-year-old Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for openly wearing a tallit at the Western Wall. So now she wears it wrapped around her shoulders, like a scarf.

This week Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the group, was arrested as she tried to carry a Torah from the wall to a platform that has been built to the south of the wall for non-Orthodox services. Police have not yet charged her or released details of why she was arrested.

Leslie Sachs(ph), a coordinator for Women of the Wall, explains that it's hard for Israelis, men and women alike, to understand why Women of the Wall insist on challenging the norms.

LESLIE SACHS: When you grow up in a country where there's true pluralism, one recognizes when your rights, in this case our rights as women, are impaired, and they are so aware of it. Women who grow up in Israel sometimes think that this is a the natural way, this is the right way.

FRENKEL: Yet more and more young Israelis are joining. Hoffman's arrest this week drew many to the group's Facebook site, where they were surprised to hear that her arrest was not the first. Frenkel, the girl arrested for wearing her tallit, is an Orthodox-born Israeli.

NOFRAT FRENKEL: (Through translator) Here in Israel, the Western Wall has become a place that is so religious, so extreme, that the average person doesn't feel like it could belong to them too.

FRENKEL: She continues by saying that she only hopes that one day her daughters or other women in her family won't have to search for a way to practice Judaism in the state of Israel. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem.

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