New Prayer Confrontation at Western Wall

Jerusalem - Thousands of ultra-Orthodox teenage girls and adults flooded the Western Wall early Monday, forcing a group of activist women to hold their monthly service farther from the wall than usual. It was the latest chapter of a bitter struggle over the nature of public prayer at one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

Two ultra-Orthodox men were arrested on suspicion of throwing objects at the women in the activist group, who prayed amid taunts and jeers in a section of the plaza behind the wall itself that was cordoned off by the police. An ultra-Orthodox woman was also arrested for entering a cordoned-off area, a police spokesman said.

The standoff came as Israel’s government is at work on new regulations governing prayer at the site, a remnant of a retaining wall around the ancient Jewish Temple, after a spate of arrests in recent months of members of the activist group, Women of the Wall, which prompted outrage, particularly among American Jews. Women of the Wall has been meeting on the first of each Jewish month for nearly 25 years, and it recently won a court decision protecting women’s right to wear prayer shawls and other religious garments traditionally used by men, which had long been prohibited at the site by Israeli laws and court rulings.

Anat Hoffman, the leader of the group, said she was “very disappointed” with the police for placing the women in an area that she said had usually been used for police parking and was “next to the toilet, next to the exit.”

“The police let the bullies dictate life for the rest of us,” Ms. Hoffman said.

Micky Rosenfeld, the police spokesman, said that the women were cordoned off for their safety, as they were in May and June, and that the large crowds led the police to move the service. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis had issued a call for students to fill the site, as they did in May, when five religious protesters were detained by the police.

The women’s group, numbering about 200, was surrounded by ultra-Orthodox men shouting insults as it conducted its service, which included a bat mitzvah ceremony and concluded with the singing of “Hatikva,” the Israeli national anthem. Many of the Orthodox wore headphones to drown out the women’s voices, even as prayers from the men’s section were amplified by microphones.

A 15-year-old girl who was among the throng of ultra-Orthodox blocking access to the women’s section directly in front of the wall said of the group, “It is so sad to see these women in the holiest place in the world.” Leah Aharoni, an ultra-Orthodox woman who helped found a new group, called Women for the Wall, this spring to counter the original group, said, “They are praying, we are praying — there isn’t a problem.”

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who heads the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which governs the site, called on the government committee working to revamp the prayer protocols — in part by establishing a new section where women and men would be permitted to pray together — “to come to a quick solution so that such scenes will not be repeated.”

“The picture of victory that one side presents from this Rosh Hodesh and the picture of victory that the other side presented from last Rosh Hodesh is not a victory but a failure for all of us,” Rabbi Rabinowitz said in a statement, using the Hebrew term for the first of the month, “because people are trying to make the Western Wall, which should be a unifying place, into a divisive place.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 9, 2013

A caption with a picture accompanying an earlier version of this article has been changed to correct a misidentification of the women in the photo. The women pictured are members of a group calling for maintaining traditional religious practices at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, not members of Women of the Wall, an activist group calling for the right of women to pray and wear prayer shawls at the wall. The erroneous information had been supplied by Reuters.