Americans among ten women held in Jerusalem

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Israeli police detained ten women at one of Judaism’s most sacred sites yesterday for wearing prayer shawls, which Orthodox tradition sees as solely for men.

The incident at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City highlighted the divisions between the more liberal streams of Judaism and politically powerful Orthodox groups that traditionally limit the role of women in prayer.

The Western Wall is administered under strict Orthodox ritual law, which bars women from wearing prayer shawls or publicly reading from the holy scriptures.

Among those held was Susan Silverman, a reformist rabbi who is a sister of US comedian Sarah Silverman. Two other American citizens and some Israeli members of Women of the Wall, a group that campaigns for gender equality in religious practice, were also detained.

The group routinely convenes for monthly prayer sessions at the Western Wall, revered by Jews as a perimeter wall of the biblical Temple in Jerusalem. Some of its members have been detained by police in the past for wearing prayer shawls at the site and released without charge.

Susan Silverman – who immigrated to Israel from Boston – said the group, including her 17-year-old daughter, was escorted by officers to a police station after they refused to remove the prayer shawls.

Speaking by phone from the police station, the rabbi said the group had been among more than 100 women attending the hour-long prayer session.

She said: “They [police] said, ‘Take off your prayer shawls’, and we said, ‘No’.” She added that once the prayers were over, they were escorted away.

Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for Israel’s national police, said the women had acted “against regulations set by the High Court”. He cited a decision made a decade ago upholding the use of Orthodox rules at the site to avoid friction between worshippers.