Women with prayer shawls held in Western Wall protest

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JERUSALEM -- Ten women, including two U.S. rabbis, were detained by Israeli police Monday for praying at the Western Wall wearing prayer shawls that are traditionally used by men, in the latest escalation of a conflict over one of Judaism's holiest sites.

Those detained were part of the group Women of the Wall, which has gathered each month for the past 24 years to protest the ultra-Orthodox insistence that only men may pray at the wall wearing traditional garb, a rule that has been backed by the Supreme Court. The women follow more liberal interpretations of the religion.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the women were not charged with criminal offenses but were barred from returning to the wall for 15 days. He said the women were detained "as a result of them wearing the garments that they're not allowed to wear specifically at that site." He noted that despite the court ruling, "they decided to go down to that specific area."

The dispute over prayer at the wall, a remnant of the retaining wall that surrounded the ancient Temple Mount, has caused growing tensions in recent months between Jewish leaders in the United States and the Israeli government.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, head of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the site, said in an interview in November that the wall "is not a site for any kind of protest" and "not a place for the individual, where everyone can do what they want." Of the women's group, he said, "You can't have everyone taking the law into their own hands."

Women of the Wall has filed a lawsuit challenging the ultra-Orthodox dominance of the board that governs the holy site. In December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency -- a quasi-governmental body that handles immigration and works with the diaspora -- to try to resolve the conflict.

Mr. Sharansky, speaking Monday to a conference of U.S. Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, said he received 10,000 emails from Jews outside Israel in the two days following his appointment to tackle the issue, but that there was no simple solution.

"When I listen to the very partial presentation, I am fully with them -- when I listen to the other side, I have to accept that they also have logic," said Mr. Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident. "We do have to find a solution in which nobody will feel discriminated against, and at the same time we don't see the pictures every day of hundreds of people fighting in the most ugly way.

"Is it easy? Not," he continued. "But we Jews chose to be not-easy people, and to live in a not-easy place and to do not-easy religion."

Mr. Sharansky said he had spoken to police before the prayer session Monday and asked them to make various accommodations for the women, including having female police officers present to handle any arrests. On Monday, the group of about 200 people who came to the wall for the monthly prayer included some of the paratroopers who recaptured the Western Wall from Jordanian control in 1967, and who have their own conflict with the rabbi controlling the site over whether to place a plaque there commemorating that event.

The women were allowed to conduct their service Monday wearing prayer shawls. But on their way out of the area, after many of the activists had already left, 10 women were detained, including Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin of the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in New York City and Rabbi Debra Cantor of Congregation B'nai Tikvoh-Sholom in Bloomfield, Conn.

"It's just so utterly absurd that there are laws against Jews praying wearing their prayer clothes in Israel," said Susan Silverman, a Reform rabbi who immigrated to Israel several years ago and was detained along with her 17-year-old daughter. The rabbi is a sister of U.S. comedian Sarah Silverman.

"Two of the rabbis who were there had just come from Kiev, where they had prayed entirely freely as Jews," Rabbi Silverman said. "They come to Israel, they pray at the wall, and they're arrested."

Mr. Rosenfeld, the police spokesman, noted that the court decision provides a separate area, known as Robinson's Arch, for women to pray in any manner they like, and said that as long as the group continues to defy the law by wearing the garments in the prohibited area, its members would be detained, questioned and released.

"The high court's decision is what it is," he said. "That has to be respected."



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