Women try on tallit at the Western Wall

NEW YORK — Borrowing a page from the Lubavitch movement, the Women of the Wall group has launched a new outreach campaign to give Israeli women a chance to wrap themselves in a tallit, the ritual shawl worn by observant men, and some women, during Jewish prayer.

The effort began early this month, after the group garnered permission from the Jerusalem municipality to set up an information table in busy Zion Square.

There, members walked up to women and offered to help them try on a tallit.

When the group did this the first time, many women passing by were interested, Jessie Bonn, a member of the group, wrote in an e-mail message from Jerusalem. One apparently fervently religious woman, "who had her head covered and was leading a trail of children, declined to don the tallis but was almost eager for her daughter to have the chance."

From this campaign, "women will begin to try it themselves, to experience it on their bodies, in their neshumes," or souls, Bonn wrote.

"From my experience today with religious women, I am becoming convinced that many have a secret curiosity about the experience," she wrote. "If we want to tap into this hidden desire, to coax it out, develop it, then we must be proactive, excited teachers able to convey our pure motivations."

This outreach campaign is a page right from the book of the Lubavitch movement, which sends out emissaries to busy streets all over the world. They then offer Jewish men who pass by the chance to put on tefillin, the ritual cases they fasten with long leather straps to their arms and heads during morning prayers.

But officials of the Chassidic movement are not seeing this bit of imitation as the sincerest form of flattery.

Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a spokesman at Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn, offered only a terse "no comment," and a request that the less that is written about any association between the two groups, the better. Like most fervently religious movements, the Lubavitch oppose the concept of women taking on ritual observances traditionally reserved for men.

Women of the Wall greets each new Jewish month in Israel by praying at the Western Wall. Its inspiration for the campaign did indeed come from the Lubavitchers, wrote Bonn.

Twenty to 60 members of Women of the Wall began gathering each month on the women's side of the Western Wall in 1988.

They were met with violence when men praying on the other side of the mechitzah separating the genders threw chairs over the divider at the women and cursed them. The men were offended by what they viewed as women imitating a minyan, the prayer quorum of at least 10 men required by Jewish law to say certain prayers.

Some fervently religious Jews also object to the fact that Women of the Wall raise their voices in prayer, contravening the prohibition against men hearing a woman's voice, lest he be distracted from his worship.

The women filed a case with Israel's Supreme Court in 1989, a case that has dragged on without resolution.

Both a Knesset commission and a special committee headed by Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman studied the matter and asked the women to choose one of several other locations in the Old City, away from the Western Wall, in deference to Orthodox sensibilities.

For members of the women's group, though, none of those alternatives is acceptable; they want permission to pray as a group, with a Torah, at the holiest site in Judaism.

And since none of the mediated efforts has worked, the group expects to be going back to the Supreme Court soon for a decision.

In the meantime, Women of the Wall continues to greet each Jewish month with group prayer in the women's section at the Wall. They then repair to another, less charged spot in the adjacent Jewish Quarter of the Old City to read together from the Torah.

They may not have received permission to pray as a group with a Torah at the Wall, but their ongoing presence is having a positive impact, Phyllis Chesler, a longtime feminist and a director of the International Committee for Women of the Wall, said in an interview here.

Though there was, at first, great tension between them, now the "other women at the Kotel, including ultra-Orthodox women, are listening, smiling, and being friendly and helpful," said Chesler. "Recently a regular worshipper at the Wall invited the Women of the Wall to participate in her kiddush," or brief reception after prayers.