A rabbi from Queens gets nabbed by cops for practicing her belief in plurality and equality abroad. There’s no punch line here. It really did happen.
A prayer session at Israel’s sacred Western Wall ended with a Flushing rabbi and nine other women detained for crossing a literal and religious line, part of an ongoing effort to raise awareness of the inequalities present at Judaism’s most sacred site.
Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, spiritual leader of the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism, spent the beginning of the Jewish month of Adar in the custody of Israeli police for crossing the mechitza, a wall dividing the space reserved for men and women at the holy site.
The act was part of a broader movement led by Women of the Wall, a group which seeks to remove the insistence of an ultra-Orthdox rabbinate that only men pray at the wall with a Torah scroll while wearing traditional garb, including a shawl known as a tallit. The group has met to pray at the wall every month for 24 years.
The officers detained the 10 women for “behaving in a way that may violate public safety.”
“To be honest, it was surreal,” Bodzin said. “There were 200 women. They just detained 10.”
Her arrest put a spotlight on what she called the growing influence of the ultra Orthodox within the Israeli Rabbinate, a religious body that guides the nation’s matters — including praying at the Western Wall.
“They have taken every opportunity to accrue more and more power and authority to itself,” she said. “The Western Wall area has been transformed from a religious site to an Orthodox synagogue. It demeans the non-Orthodox community.”
Bodzin has developed a reputation for activism within and outside her religion (before the trip to Israel, she visited the White House to advocate strict gun control laws).
“I believe in pluralism. The only thing I’m intolerant of is intolerance,” she said.
The act has left the rabbi astride a growing wave of calls within the Jewish press and broader community for the loosening of strict ultra-Orthodox rules in Israeli religious life. Even the officers showed exasperation at having to go through the rigors of an arrest.
“You could tell so clearly their time was being wasted,” she said, adding the police offered tea after fingerprinting her, while waiting for an attorney. “We’re not criminals and they knew that.”
The episode did leave Bodzin’s husband, Aaron, in a bit of a tizzy; answering the phone at 1:45 a.m. to hear your wife say “Hey, I’m going to jail” is never fun. But he’s not too surprised.
“I think through her dealings with congregants, some of whom are disadvantaged and disenfranchised, both privately and part of umbrella organizations, she’s now wanting to right some of these wrongs,” Aaron said. “She certainly wasn’t going down to the wall with the intention of getting arrested.”
Probably most rewarding for Bodzin is the reaction of her immediate circle of friends, family and congregants. A glance at her Facebook pages shows accolades and praise en masse. But the expectation of consistent bravery does not daunt her.
“[The congregants] know that if something is important and needs to be fixed and if I’m able and have the time, I try to fix it,” she said.
“The demographics of our synagogue in terms of age sway a little older,” Aaron added. “We have many people in our synagogue who are in their 50s, 60s and their 70s, many of whom came of age in the Civil Rights Movement. This sort of stuff gets them smiling. This is not a synagogue that is quiet and complacent.”
Bodzin was released without charges, only reportedly ordered to not return to the Western Wall for 15 days.
She has already bought her next ticket back to Israel.