Ultra-religious men curse, boo egalitarian minyan at the Wall

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NEW YORK — An egalitarian minyan praying at the Western Wall in the early hours of Shavuot was verbally and physically attacked by ultra-religious men and boys, according to members of the prayer group.

The minyan comprised about 50 men and women, some of whom attend the Conservative and Reform movements' rabbinical seminaries in Jerusalem. They had studied throughout the night, as is customary on Shavuot.

Before dawn last Friday, they joined thousands of other Jews in walking from other parts of Jerusalem to the Wall. The pilgrimage is traditional on Shavuot, one of three holidays on which Jews used to visit the Temple.

Members of the egalitarian minyan began praying shortly after 5 a.m. in the rear right-hand corner of the plaza that fronts the wall, near the flagpoles that stand at the back.

"A few guys in tallitot stood in the front so that others could not see the women in our minyan [wearing] tallitot and kippot, and to prevent any possible problems," wrote Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical student David Lerner, who is spending this year in Jerusalem, in an e-mail report of the incident.

Lerner has participated in many egalitarian prayer groups near the Wall in recent years, he explained. But even on Yom Kippur, the worst thing that occurred was a bout of heckling.

As they finished the morning prayer on Shavuot, the minyan swelled to about 125 people, and as they continued by reading the Book of Ruth, most of the participants sat down.

"Then others could see into our circle, and that's when the trouble began," Lerner reported.

A group of ultra-religious boys came up to the group and began making noises, said Lerner, who engaged some of the harassers in a discussion about halachic sources he believes justify women's place in a prayer quorum.

Lerner reported that charedi (ultra-religious) men soon approached and began cursing and shouting at the egalitarian minyan, booing and yelling and calling members of the mixed group "sinners."

"The charedim formed a wall and began pushing against us. I was pushed [and] punched back several times. One charedi even tried to infiltrate our circle to steal our Sefer Torah [scroll]!" he said.

Lerner appealed to border police who were guarding the entrance to the Wall. The officers demurred, saying it was not their jurisdiction. Lerner then went to the nearby police station, which sent out a junior officer, who called for backup.

"We continued the Torah reading under guard and continued shouts. It was pretty rough," Lerner said.

Then Lerner saw the charedim charging the police.

"A wall of police and soldiers formed around us and we felt more protected." But group members felt themselves to be "the object of even more hate," he recalled.

An Orthodox woman who was in a prayer group immediately next to the egalitarian minyan approached the charedi men, asking them to be quiet, because they were disturbing other prayers besides those of the mixed group.

"The charedim spat all over this woman. They just spat on her," Lerner reported.

As Lerner read the haftorah in the egalitarian minyan, he was hit by a rock thrown by one of the charedi men.

"The police were having trouble holding back the charedim and just wanted to get us out of there safely," so the minyan quickly concluded its prayers, he recalled.

"Many people in the group were understandably angry. I was not. I just felt sad for the Jewish people — we are so far away from redemption, unity and peace," Lerner recalled.

A spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, an organization representing the interests of the ultra-religious community, had no comment on the matter.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, said of the incident, "The Wall, like the Land of Israel, belongs to all Jews, not just to one sect within Judaism.

"It is obvious to anyone of good will that the diversity of modern Judaism will someday have to become a reality in the state of Israel."