They were standing in a public square in a major Israeli city, laying tefillin on women amid shouts of protest and quizzical looks from nearby men in black hats.
It’s become an occasional morning routine for Women of the Wall. Except this time, they weren’t at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. They were at the entrance to Shuk HaCarmel, the boisterous central market in Tel Aviv.
The women’s prayer group achieved something of a coup this year when a district court legalized their monthly services at the Western Wall, effectively ending years of periodic arrests and detentions of its members. Women of the Wall isn’t allowed to bring a Torah into the Kotel’s women’s section, and it’s still negotiating with the government over the expansion of a pluralistic prayer site at the Robinson’s Arch section of the wall. But the court ruling and ensuing police protection have allowed the group to pray in relative peace in recent months, without fear of prison or counter-protest.
So, in advance of International Women’s Day on Saturday, the group came to Tel Aviv Friday morning and set up a small stand at Star of David Square, so named because crowded, noisy streets shoot out of it in six directions.
Then they started asking women if they wanted to put on tallit and tefillin. Most ignored the offer or politely refused, but a handful said yes to one or the other, repeating the blessing word for word along with a Women of the Wall member.
Men who walk through the square get the same offer every day from Chabad Hasidim. When the women started wrapping willing passersby in a tallit, though, it elicited an outcry. American Orthodox day schools like SAR and Ramaz may allow women to don the prayer shawl and leather straps, but at least some Israelis apparently think the same behavior should not take place on the streets of Tel Aviv.
A crowd formed as one young man in a white shirt and large, black, knit kippah began to scream.
“Really? What else do you want to do, have a circumcision?” he yelled before two friends pulled him away. “Maybe you’ll do that one day.”
By time the women were ready to close up, the Chabad tables had opened, flanking Women of the Wall’s booth on either side. Each side, for the most part, left the other alone, but perhaps the Chabadniks were a bit jealous. Never in recent memory had a tefillin table in central Tel Aviv gotten so much attention.