BY JOE MARVILLI
When Rabbi Robyn Bodzin visited Israel earlier this week, she had no idea she would be detained for praying at the Western Wall in a traditional prayer shawl. Once she saw a group of activists praying in protest against ultra-Orthodox rulings, she knew she had to join in.
Bodzin, a rabbi at Flushing’s Israel Center of Conservative Judaism, was one of 10 women detained by Israeli police on Feb. 11 for praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. They were wearing the tallit, a prayer shawl traditionally used by men, and is not allowed to be worn by women at the holy site, according to the ultra-Orthodox establishment, which has the backing of Israel’s Supreme Court.
The incident was the latest example of clashes between the ultra-Orthodox dominance in Israel and the struggle for equality from a portion of the country’s female population. For Bodzin, Monday started normally.
“I got up, I looked at my agenda, spent some time with God and part of that involves a prayer shawl,” she said. “It’s the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar. At the start of every month, women join together in prayer at the Western Wall.”
When she arrived at the wall though, she found a group of about 200 protestors, most of whom were women, protesting the inequality that only men may pray at the wall wearing the tallit. Several male supporters joined the women in prayer as well, including a couple of Israeli paratroopers who reclaimed the Western Wall, also known as Kotel, during the Six Day War in 1967. Many of the activists present were part of the Women of the Wall group, whose main mission is to protest against the inequality at the Western Wall.
Men and women both pray at the wall, but in separate sections and under rules set by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a body appointed and funded by the government.
The Western Wall is one of the most sacred sites in Israel and of the Jewish faith in general, as it is what remains of an ancient wall that surrounded the Second Jewish Temple, which was destroyed in 70 A.D. The wall was constructed in 19 B.C.E.
After raising their voices in prayer for about 40 minutes, the group started to move, but Bodzin and nine others were stopped and taken in by Israeli police for questioning at around 7:45 a.m., local time. Their passports were taken, but they were not told why they were being detained.
“I was taken in for an interrogation. That’s the words they used,” Bodzin said. “They asked if I’d known what I had done wrong and I said that I hadn’t done anything wrong because I was a rabbi, and I had a right to pray with a prayer shawl.”
During the questioning, Bodzin was told that she was being detained for violating regulations of holy places and behaving in a way that may violate public safety.
“I’m not sure what that could possibly mean,” the Rabbi said. “Were they expecting a mosh-pit with all 200 of us? What’s with that word ‘may’?”
When Bodzin and the other detainees were processed, they turned the act into a form of protest against the situation.
“We were fingerprinted in the first station. The police officers wanted us to wash our fingers off and we wouldn’t do it. We wanted proof,” she said.
While they were not charged with anything, the Israeli police spokesman mentioned that the women were barred from returning to the wall for 15 days. As a result of the detainment, Bodzin missed meetings with high-level Israeli diplomats, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief-of-staff. She did note though that the officials were made aware of why she was unable to attend the meetings. After she was released, the group met with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who was sympathetic to their cause.
After the incident, Bodzin mentioned that she was enthused to have protested with the Women of the Wall movement, stating her support for them.
“If I ever find myself in Israel on the first of the month, I will stand in solidarity with these women,” she said.
While this is the first time such an occurrence has happened to her out of the more than a dozen trips she has taken to the country, Bodzin emphasized her love for Israel and her belief that things will change for the better.
“We can dream and hope for an Israel that has a much stronger sense of equality,” Bodzin said. “She’s still a young country. She’s only turning 65 this year. Think of where the United States was at 65. I would never turn my back on her.”
Since she returned from Israel, Bodzin has received a large amount of support from her family and friends for her role in the protest.
“Frankly, given the Rabbi’s beliefs and her desire to act on her beliefs, it came as no surprise and we’re very proud of her,” Sam Wise, vice president of the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism, said.
Activism in Queens
Given her record of social involvement in Queens, it is not shocking that Bodzin participated in the peaceful protests at the Western Wall.
Bodzin’s fight for equality already had a definitive statement when she became the first female rabbi in Queens. She is now in her fourth year as the spiritual leader of the ICCJ.
“Israel Center found me at the same time as I found them, and it was a match made in heaven,” she said.
When she is not guiding her own synagogue community, Bodzin spends some her time with Queens Congregations United for Action, an interfaith grassroots federation that moves to support policy change towards improved public schools, violence-free neighborhoods, access to good jobs, adequate and affordable health care, decent housing for all and more.
Two weeks ago, her interfaith efforts led her to the White House with another group of faith leaders. They had meetings with both President Barack Obama’s office and Vice President Joe Biden’s office to persuade them to expand the proposed gun violence legislation to include gun education in inner-city America.
Her synagogue has also shown strong support for another divisive domestic policy issue: gay marriage. Bodzin noted that it was about a year ago when she presided over a same-sex marriage ceremony between two men.
“We absolutely support the Marriage Equality Act,” she said. “These are our basic principles of equality and inclusion. That’s what I stand for.”
In addition, the ICCJ sprung to action after Superstorm Sandy, heading down to the Rockaways to volunteer as well as donate needed items.
“My synagogue alone must have taken down more than 25 car loads of supplies that we donated,” the Rabbi said.
Bodzin feels that her social activism makes up a main component of her mission as a spiritual leader and a human being, which is to help those in need and fight to improve the world.
“One of my goals in life is to leave it better than I found it,” she said. “That’s what I see a big part of my job being: loving people, teaching and caring.”
For more information on the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism, visit www.iccj2004.org. You can also follow Rabbi Bodzin online at twitter.com/shrobyn.
Reach Reporter Joe Marvilli at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 125, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.