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Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin Headshot

Hoping for Religious Pluralism in Israel

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Sometimes, being in the right place at the right time, whether by coincidence or not, can lead to macro change. I learned that a few days ago.

This past February, I traveled to Kiev and then Israel as a delegate of the Jewish Federations of North America's Rabbinic Cabinet mission. On Rosh Chodesh Adar, I joined 200 other women at the Western Wall for the monthly Women of the Wall service in Jerusalem. My colleagues and I arrived in the Old City at 7 a.m., for spiritual nourishment before a day of meetings with dignitaries, diplomats and legislators.

Unfortunately, my morning did not go as planned. Immediately before the Torah service began, a police officer took my passport away and led me to the police station, where I was joined by nine other women. The police officers took our statements, our fingerprints and our mug shots. Our crimes that morning were violating the regulations of Holy Places (based on a 1967 law) and behaving in a way that may violate public safety.

Many coincidences happened that morning. At the same time that I was being processed in the police station, my rabbinic colleagues were meeting with the Chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky. Chairman Sharansky had been instructed by Prime Minister Netanyahu to find a solution to the ongoing tension and conflict at the Western Wall. It was Chairman Sharansky who ensured that we would not go in front of judge. Instead, I signed a surety document stating I would not come to the Western Wall for 15 days. This 15 day removal is the maximum penalty the police can give without going before a judge. Of course, I only learned about all of this after the fact.

As far as I know, many of the 10 women that were detained that morning were chosen at random. I don't think the police knew that they had selected two American rabbis and the sister of an American comedienne when they took us away. But they did. And so while we were waiting to be interrogated, we were on the phone, or updating Twitter and Facebook and texting both the media and representative of our professional guilds. This painful experience of Jewish women being detained because we prayed in a sacred site, in our homeland that we love, dressed in ritual garb that brings us closer to our Creator, garnered headlines. But more than that, both Israelis and Diaspora Jews reacted.

While Women of the Wall are approaching their 25th anniversary, so many small victories have taken place since the infamous morning of our detainment. Since February, it seems like every day the dream of religious pluralism in Israel becomes more and more of a reality. In March, female Members of Knesset joined the Women of the Wall in their morning prayers, donning prayer shawls. In April, Chairman Sharansky met with leaders of the American Jewish community to share his vision, which includes a space for egalitarian prayer at he Western Wall. Also in April, five women were once again detained, and this time brought in front of a judge. However, the judge ruled in favor of the Women of the Wall. In a subsequent appeal, Women of the Wall and all of us who hope for a pluralistic Jerusalem were victorious again. Specifically, the judge ruled that when Women of the Wall gather, they do not violate the 1967 Holy Places law.

And so, I stayed up late on Thursday night, waiting in anticipation to read about what would happen when Women of the Wall met in Jerusalem for Rosh Chodesh Sivan. The law was on their side now. What could happen?

The women and their supporters prayed freely, without fear of arrest or detainment. There was a definite increased police presence this morning. But the officers had a new role. This morning, the police protected 400 Women of the Wall from the threat of violence by ultra-Orthodox men. Unfortunately, not everyone values religious pluralism in Israel. The same police officers, who for month and years interrogated women for wearing prayer shawls, protected them this morning.

From the videos and photos I saw online, police held back thousands of angry men who threw chairs, garbage bags, water bottles and stink bombs at the women. A man was arrested for provocation, while every woman who set out to peacefully pray and sing was able to do so.

I don't know what is going to happen at the Western Wall in the future, but the times they are a-changing. It is not good for the chaos that occurred last week to repeat itself each month. I hope Chairman Sharanksy's plan gets passed, speedily, and in our day.

In the meantime, I will continue to be an advocate for Women of the Wall and religious pluralism in Israel. As long as solidarity prayer services are held in New York, like the one I attended a few days ago, I will participate in them. The reason is simple: My support and love for the state of Israel is stronger than ever.

In February, I was at the right place at the right time. Even though I had to spend some time in the company of Jerusalem's finest, my time in custody was productive for others. I am grateful to be an agent of change.

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin is the spiritual leader of Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Queens, N.Y.