An Orthodox worshiper at the Western Wall tries to silence women praying communally with the Women of the Wall prayer group.JERUSALEM (WOMENSENEWS)–Noa Raz, a young woman waiting to board a bus, was recently attacked by a man because her arm bore the imprints of tefillin straps, which Jewish men wrap around their arms during morning prayers.

"You’re an abomination," the man shouted while kicking her.

The episode occurred on May 11. The man is a member Israel’s haredim–ultra-Orthodox Jews–community, whose stringent religious practices, and increasing use of violence, are eroding women’s worshipping rights. The incidents, some say, are occurring against the backdrop of widespread religious coercion.

In a letter to the Israel Religious Action Center, to which Raz turned to after the attack, the police said no suspects have been apprehended but that the investigation is continuing.

In another incident, Israeli police detained Nofat Frankel in November 2009 because she wrapped herself in a prayer shawl–called a tallit–while praying at the Western Wall, the holiest place in Judaism.

Police said the act violated a 2003 High Court decision prohibiting female worshipers at the Wall from donning a tallit or tefillin–a leather box worn during some worship ceremonies–and from reading out loud from the Torah.

Such acts, the court said, presented a "threat to public security" because they incited haredim to violence.

At the time of her detention, Frankel was worshiping with the Women of the Wall, a multi-denominational Jewish women’s prayer group that convenes at the Western Wall at the start of every Jewish month.

During the group’s 20-year existence, haredim have harassed them numerous times, both verbally and physically. Haredi men often throw chairs over the divider that separates the sexes and women have been injured.

Seven weeks after Frankel’s detention, the police called in Anat Hoffman, a co-founder of the Women of the Wall, to "discuss" Frankel’s behavior.

Interrogation and Warnings

"I was interrogated," Hoffman, who is also the director of Israel Religious Action Center, recalled recently. "I was asked if I wear a tallit. I asked what they consider a tallit. They said, ‘a rectangular piece of cloth with blue and white lines.’ I said, ‘no, I don’t wear that.’"

Hoffman, like many members of her group, wears a brightly-colored prayer shawl.

"I was finger printed and warned that this is a felony," she said.

Although the case appears to be in legal limbo, thanks, Hoffman believes, to an outcry from non-Orthodox U.S. Jews, Hoffman is worried.

"Lawlessness in the name of religion may have started with the Wall, but it’s moved into other arenas," she said.

A woman wearing tefillin touches the Western Wall. Women in Israel are prohibited from wearing tefillin and prayer shawls at the Western Wall.Women’s rights activists say extremists in the haredi community are forcing their fervent brand of religiosity on the Israeli public and that one of their tactics is to marginalize women.

"In any patriarchy, when you want to embrace power you must make someone feel inferior," said Naomi Ragen, a best-selling American-Israeli novelist whose books ("The Saturday Wife," "The Covenant") feature strong Jewish women fighting for equality in the Orthodox world.

Several haredi leaders have succeeded in banning female performers from many municipal and national events. Due to their influence, a police station in the coastal town of Ashdod no longer employs female workers and the same is true for a handful of Jerusalem health maintenance organizations and a post office.

Ragen said haredi extremists have succeeded in segregating many public buses by gender.

Ragen, who co-petitioned the High Court to ban segregated bus lines after she was harassed for refusing to sit at the back of a bus, said she recently encountered a haredi man with a small child on a very crowded bus.

"The child sat next to him. When an elderly woman boarded he refused to place the child on his lap. He didn’t want a woman to sit next to him," she said.

It’s not that he didn’t care about the woman, the author emphasized. "It’s that he wanted to be a holy person. In the process, he and others are overriding the Torah’s precepts of being decent to people."

Religious Extremists Emboldened

Seth Farber is a modern-Orthodox rabbi and the director of ITIM, a Jerusalem organization that helps people navigate the bureaucracy of the Orthodox Rabbinate and other government institutions. He believes that the clout ultra-Orthodox political parties first obtained in the late 1980s by joining successive governments has gradually emboldened religious extremists.

"They feel greater confidence to impose their social norms on the general population. The women’s issue is just one facet," Farber said.

Ragen, also modern-Orthodox, said she felt equally "infuriated" when, earlier this year, she heard that Frankel and Hoffman had been detained.

"On the one hand the Kotel [Wall] is a synagogue and does have its own rules. But because it’s the center and heart of the Jewish religion, everyone should have access to it," she said. "Whatever the women are doing can’t be worse than someone throwing chairs. When this happens, who is really disrespecting the Kotel?"

It is time, Ragen said, "for people to take back this religion."

However, not everyone believes that a woman’s right to wear prayer shawls at the Wall is part of the battle against religious fanaticism,

Einat Ramon, the first Israeli-born female rabbi, said that her Masorti (Conservative) stream of Judaism agreed to honor the High Court’s 2003 ruling which, in addition to banning prayer shawls, ordered the government to develop Robinson’s Arch, a secluded section of the Western Wall for use by non-Orthodox Jews.

"Sending our daughters to be wrapped in tallit at the section of the Wall that is run according to Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law is a violation…of our agreement with the State of Israel," Ramon said. "It violates the moral-legal principle of minhag makom: respect for the customs of a certain place and for the rabbi and community that adheres to him."

Hoffman counters that on the men’s side of the Wall custom undergoes constant innovation. "Someone brings in a drummer to perform at a bar-mitzvah and men find meaningful new ways to celebrate. It’s only the women who must stick to ‘minhag makom,’" she said.

"The Women of the Wall have been praying there for 20 years," Hoffman added. "If that’s not a custom by now, I don’t know what is."

Michele Chabin is the Israel correspondent for the New York Jewish Week, Religion News Service and the National Catholic Register. She has been reporting from Israel for more than 20 years.

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