JERUSALEM — The women come from all over Israel every month to pray at the Western Wall, one of Judaism's holiest sites.
As their voices rise and fall in prayer, onlookers gawk and occasionally harass the praying women. Israeli police have arrested several women on charges of disturbing the peace; Orthodox men and women have spit at, cursed and attacked others.
The scene repeats on the first day of every month in the Jewish calendar as "Women of the Wall" assert their right to worship aloud and in the manner that they choose at the Western Wall.
"What we are fighting for is simply our right to pray here as women, according to our Jewish beliefs," said Leslie Sacks, a coordinator for Women of the Wall.
To the Orthodox and other groups who adhere to a strict interpretation of Jewish law, however, the fight is over who controls Israel's religious institutions, and it's but one of the struggles by non-Orthodox Jews to challenge the largely Orthodox conventions that rule Israel's religious life.
From marriage vows to burial codes, groups are challenging Orthodox interpretations and advocating Conservative or Reform practices that are common in the United States and other Western countries.
"In Israel, the Orthodox have a monopoly on who gets to practice religion and how," said Nofrat Frankel, a 28-year-old medical student who drives three hours each month to pray with Women of the Wall. "This is a state that was created for Jews, but only one group of Jews controls it."
The women's group focuses on the Western Wall, also called the Kotel, or Wailing Wall. Though it's been a public site since Israel won control of it from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, the plaza that faces the wall is under the de facto control of the Orthodox, the women's group says. They say that about two-thirds of the wall is dedicated to male worshipers, with a smaller, southern section for females.
According to the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law, only men may wear kippas (head coverings) and tallits (prayer shawls). Men alone are allowed to read from the Pentateuch, or Torah, Judaism's founding text and also the first five books of the Christian Bible, while women are expected to pray with barely a murmur.
Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Orthodox chief rabbi of the Western Wall, told McClatchy that the women's group was interested only in provocation and that "there is no value" to its form of prayer, which offends other female worshippers at the site.
"We challenge them the moment we open our mouth to sing with our full voices," said Frankel, who sings in a quiet but steady voice. The group sings with melodic timbre, and the women's voices carry across the stone plaza as they pray. They clap their hands, and close their eyes to the agitators who often gather around them.
When Women of the Wall was founded in 1988, the mostly American and British Jews sought the right for women to pray audibly at the wall while wearing the religious clothing of their choice. They also believe that women should be able to handle and pray from the Torah, a practice that led last month to the arrest of Anat Hoffman, one of the founding members, by Israeli police. Frankel herself was arrested for wearing a tallit last year. Now she wears it wrapped around her shoulders like a scarf.
"I refuse to give in, and I will continue to fight for my right to practice Judaism according to my beliefs," Frankel said. "Here in Israel, the Western Wall has become a place that is so religious, so extreme, that the average person doesn't feel like it could belong to them too."
Two decades ago, the Women of the Wall began petitioning Israel's High Court of Justice. Their court battles continue, but up to now the courts have ruled that it's illegal for the women to read aloud from the Torah or wear tallits in public.
They're allowed to do so only in a separate, out-of-sight platform built expressly for their use south of the main Western Wall plaza. While it's technically part of the Western Wall, it's nearly 100 yards from the main area.
"The problem is that Israel is controlled by the rabbinate" — rabbinical authorities — "and there is no separation of church and state. There is no freedom of religion, so I have to practice my religion in closed doors," said Sharon Orshalimy, a 25-year-old student.
As she spoke she donned a kippa made of small, colorful rhinestones, and prepared to take part in a prayer service at the platform.
"Why should we be here, cast off to the side? Wasn't the whole point of this state to allow all Jews to pray freely?" she asked.
She and Frankel travel here almost every month with Women of the Wall, and both said they were used to the insults hurled at them when they pray at the main plaza. Last month, during the service in which Hoffman was arrested, angry onlookers punctuated the group's prayer with shouts of "Betrayer," "Nazi" and "Lesbian" at the group of 120 people. About a dozen or so Orthodox protesters showed up, and as many police stood by to keep the groups apart.
Orshalimy and Frankel sang through the interruptions and gave encouraging nods to newer members of the group. Since the recent arrests and subsequent press attention, the group has swelled to more than 150 worshipers.
"Some months we are more, some less," Frankel said. "The point is that one day it will not be a question, whether or not we can pray here."
One day, she added, her daughters won't need a formal group to pray as they choose with women at the Western Wall.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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