By Cindy Mindell
BLOOMFIELD – The sister of American comedian Sarah Silverman, Rabbi Susan Silverman, may be the media focus of the Feb. 11 group arrest at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. But one of those detained is a local spiritual leader, Rabbi Debra Cantor of B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom in Bloomfield.
Cantor and Silverman were part of a 32-member mission of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, who were visiting Kiev and Israel to determine how well the North American Jewish community is helping Jews of the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Cantor was involved in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry while in high school, then went on to serve as director of media and publications for the Greater New York Conference of Soviet Jewry in the ‘70s.
The rabbinic group spent four days with the Kiev Jewish community, observing the work of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). After four days, they flew to Israel, where they visited Jews from the FSU in absorption centers and programs sponsored by JAFI and JDC.
Before the mission, Cantor and Cabinet colleague, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin of Israel Center in Queens, N.Y. had arranged to join Women of the Wall for their monthly Rosh Chodesh gathering and were invited to read Torah at the service. The two would rejoin the mission afterwards for a meeting with JAFI chair, Natan Sharansky.
Women of the Wall was founded in 1988 in the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza. Since the Old City came under Israel’s control in 1967, women have been allowed to pray at the Western Wall, but they may not chant from the Torah or sing aloud or wear tallitot. In 2000, the Israeli Supreme Court changed that, ruling that the group could worship aloud once a month in the plaza, but reversed the decision in 2003, allowing the women to pray only at nearby Robinson’s Arch.
Women of the Wall has filed a lawsuit challenging that rule. In December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Sharansky to work on a resolution to the conflict.
The women’s group holds a monthly morning prayer service at the Wall on Rosh Chodesh, then relocates to Robinson’s Arch to read Torah.
On the morning of Feb. 11, Cantor and Bodzin learned that Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch had announced new regulations forbidding women to carry even tallitot into the area, let alone wear them. The two women asked a male colleague to bring their tallitot to the Wall for them. Arriving early, Cantor and Bodzin were surprised to find a large crowd of reporters and many police officers. They learned that the Israeli paratroopers who had liberated the Wall in 1967 were joining the women’s group in order to publicize their message that the Western Wall still needs to be “liberated” from ultra-Orthodox control.
According to Cantor, before the service began, she and Bodzin were instructed by a police officer to remove their tallitot, but did not comply. After the service, the women sang Hallel, then proceeded to the alleyway leading to Robinson’s Arch, singing “Mishenichnas Adar,” a traditional song celebrating the new month, as they walked.
Police officers approached Cantor, Bodzin, and Bonnie Ras, a Women of the Wall board member. The three women joined hands and sang. Eventually, 10 women were detained and held for four hours. Cantor was interrogated for nearly 30 minutes, and asked whether she understood that her actions – wearing a tallit, praying out loud, and singing – might be offensive to others.
“I said, ‘Yes, I suppose that praying out loud, singing, and wearing a tallit might possibly bother someone somewhere, just as the fact that I don’t cover my hair and don’t always wear long sleeves and sometimes wear pants might possibly bother someone somewhere,’” Cantor says.
According to Cantor, the officer asked Cantor to sign a document stating that she agreed to stay away from the Wall for 15 days. The women were released after refusing to sign the document and, as Cantor and the remaining seven women were being led to police vans to be driven to court, a man came into the police station and announced that the group was not required to appear before a judge.
Rabinovitch told the Jerusalem Post that a council led by the chief rabbi of Israel determined the customs of the holy site in 1967 when the Western Wall came under Israeli sovereignty. “[The Women of the Wall] are trying to hurt and offend other people’s sensitivities,” Rabinovitch told the Post. “It has become a protest. It got totally out of the proportion of prayer. And I do not allow protests at the Western Wall.”
Several days later, on Feb. 13, Cantor ran into Natan Sharansky and his wife, Avital, at a nearby restaurant. She approached Avital, whom she has known since the two worked together in the Soviet Jewry movement. Shethen turned to Natan and told him that she had been part of the JFNA mission. “Natan said that he had just met with the group and I said, ‘Yes, but I wasn’t there because I had been detained at the Wall,’” Cantor recalls. “He said, ‘You were one of the two! You know, if not for me, you would have gone to court.’”
Sharansky told Cantor that he had been very angry to learn that women had been detained by the police because he had asked law enforcement the night before the Rosh Chodesh service to refrain from harassing or detaining the women. After Sharansky was informed that the women were about to be taken to court, and “made some phone calls,” according to Cantor.
“I told Natan, ‘This is kind of a game,’ she said. “He replied, ‘I know, but even a game has to have an end.’”
When the arrests were announced in the media, Congregation B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom president Julie Shifreen told the Ledger, “Rabbi Cantor is an exceptional spiritual leader, striving to be a voice for all Jews who yearn for egalitarianism. We commend her for her courage and strength to not only talk the talk but also walk the walk.”
Cantor says that what Women of the Wall is doing goes far beyond the location itself. “For me personally, it’s not about those particular stones. It’s about the increasing restrictions on women, not just at the Wall but elsewhere in Israel, and the arrogance of the ultra-Orthodox establishment to think that only their approach and views are legitimate.”
The Ledger will continue to explore this issue next month, before the Mar. 12 Women of the Wall prayer rally in New York City celebrating Rosh Chodesh Nissan, “Wake up for Religious Tolerance: Rosh Hodesh Nissan Solidarity Minyan in Support for Women of the Wall.”
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