A Jewish male activist was beaten by several haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men, and then detained by police Monday morning, after he passed a Torah scroll over the Kotel barricade separating men and women to members of Women of the Wall.
Monday’s prayer service marked the first time in the group’s history it was able to pray at the Kotel using a publicly provided full-sized scroll.
According to Rabbi Barry Leff, who was at a Torah reading on the men’s side, the maelstrom began shortly after 8 a.m., when haredim in the area realized the Torah was passed to the women observing Rosh Hodesh.
Rabbi slams Women of the Wall for smuggling Torah scroll into holy site
“After the Torah went to the women’s side things were kind of quiet for 10 minutes because no one noticed,” said Leff. “But when a group of haredi men did notice, they forcibly went into the women’s side to take it back.”
At this point, Leff said he attempted to block the haredim from entering the gate leading to the women’s section, to no avail.
“I was trying to keep the gate shut, but around three of them pushed past me,” he said.
“Then I basically tried to separate [the haredim] from the woman carrying the Torah.”
He said one of the men who charged past the gate alleged that the Torah belonged to him, although Leff noted that the Torah was one of approximately 100 provided by Western Wall administrators for public use.
“We’ve been told by authorities at the Wall that they don’t permit private Torahs, so his claim was likely not true,” Leff said.
Rabbi Susan Silverman, a WoW member who was present during the incident, said she chased the man away attempting to seize the Torah by threatening to touch him.
“I ran towards him with my hands in the air and shouted: ‘I’m a woman! I’m a woman!’ and he ran away because he didn’t want me to touch him,” Silverman said with a laugh.
During the confrontation, Leff said his friend Charlie Kalech, who handed the Torah to the women and also attempted to defend them, was shoved to the ground, striking his head.
When police arrived at the scene a few minutes later, he added that Kalech was detained for questioning.
“They let him go and said he had to go to the police station for questioning at 4 p.m.,” Leff said.
Another man who entered the women’s side to defend WoW members was also shoved to the ground and repeatedly kicked by one of the haredi men, Leff said.
WoW issued a statement Monday afternoon condemning Kalech’s detention, claiming he was mistreated by police.
“Charlie Kalech was physically attacked... and when our activist went to file a complaint against the bully, he was detained by the Israel Police,” it said.
“Although he sustained a head injury and asked repeatedly to see a doctor, he was detained for several hours before he was allowed to go see a doctor,” it continued. “His phone was taken away from him. He is now returning to the Kishle detention center.”
Asked for comment, a police spokesman issued a brief statement saying that “a man was removed from the area to prevent further instances from taking place,” but did not provide further details.
According to Silverman, the exchange was planned in advance. She added that it has been at least 20 years since a woman held a Torah at the Western Wall.
Following the incident, WoW issued a separate statement saying the group would remain resolute in its insistence of religious equality.
“Women of the Wall at last read from a Torah scroll offered for public use [on] the week of Israel’s Independence Day, despite physical violence from ultra-orthodox bullies and incitement from the state-paid rabbi of the Western Wall,” it said. Despite the melee, the group lauded the Torah exchange as a triumph for women’s rights.
“WoW celebrates freedom and independence this week,” it said. “Despite government regulations, they were able to read from one of the Torah scrolls that are offered for public use. This is the first time WoW were able to stand up and be counted as equal members of the public entitled to read from the Torah.”
Silverman emphasized that the law forbidding women from reading or holding a Torah at the Western Wall is unacceptable in a Jewish, democratic nation.
“Israel is the only country in the world with laws against Jews practicing Judaism. But because the Jews who are discriminated against are female, no one blinks an eye.”
Meanwhile, when asked if he regretted participating in the Torah’s exchange, Leff responded “absolutely not.”
“The Torah is the inheritance of all the Jewish people, not just haredi men,” he said. “And the Western Wall is the holiest place for all Jews, not just haredi men.
As such, I believe that everybody should be free to pray to God there according to their own custom.”