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Hundreds gather at peaceful Women of the Wall service marking 25th anniversary

Hundreds of women gather in the women's section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray and mark the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall on Nov. 4, 2013. (Miriam Alster)

Hundreds of women gather in the women’s section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray and mark the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall on Nov. 4, 2013. (Miriam Alster)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — In a display of the changes the group has experienced this year, Women of the Wall held a peaceful prayer service under police protection at the Western Wall to mark the group’s 25th anniversary.

Absent from Monday’s service, which the group said drew at least 800 worshipers, were large crowds of Orthodox girls who at the behest of their rabbis and activists had blocked the wall’s women’s section in previous months.

For the first time in recent memory, Women of the Wall occupied the majority of the section, with a crowd of male supporters stretching back into the plaza.

The group has met for a women’s prayer service at the wall at the beginning of each Jewish month for the past quarter-century, but has seen rapid change in its status during the past six months.

Until April, women in the group who donned prayer shawls or sang too loudly often would be detained by police. But that month, a Jerusalem district court judge ruled that the group’s practices did not violate any of the wall’s regulations, and since then the police are protecting the women rather than arresting them.

“We’ve come a long way, baby,” Women of the Wall Chairwoman Anat Hoffman told JTA during the service. “It shouldn’t have taken 25 years. It should have taken two weeks. But we’re now where we should be.”

The court ruling sparked a backlash from the haredi Orthodox community. A new group formed to oppose Women of the Wall, called Women for the Wall, persuaded leading haredi rabbis to send the community’s girls to the wall en masse to pray silently during Women of the Wall’s services.

In May, a haredi crowd including thousands of men packed the plaza in a protest that turned violent.

Since then, however, the haredi demonstrations have waned. Several dozen haredi men came to protest on Monday, some yelling epithets at teenagers who had come to support Women of the Wall. But aside from a few token disturbances — screams and whistles — the service continued uninterrupted.

“It’s a big success because the traditional community has an outlet to show its stance and doesn’t have to resort to violence,” Women for the Wall co-founder Leah Aharoni told JTA of the group’s prayerful protest. “Some months are better, some months are worse. The interest is definitely not dying out.”

The past half-year also has seen the Israeli government intensify its focus on the conflict at the wall, soliciting a compromise solution from Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky. An outline Sharansky released in April called for a significant expansion of an area to the south of the plaza called Robinson’s Arch that is now used for non-Orthodox prayer.

After backing away from the plan, Women of the Wall endorsed it last month, agreeing to move to the new section should a list of conditions be fulfilled.

Brandishing the Western Wall regulation that forbids the group from bringing a Torah scroll to its services, Hoffman told JTA that Women of the Wall has yet to reach all its goals. She said, though, that given the relative calm at the wall, the group will now be turning its attention to negotiations with the government about the Robinson’s Arch plan.

“We’re not scared of jail and arrests — we’re scared of negotiations,” Hoffman joked. “Can we get the maximum? We won’t be suckers.”

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