Israeli women wearing prayer shawls pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Aug 7, 2013. The group, known as “Women of the Wall,” convenes monthly prayer services at the Western Wall, wearing prayer shawls and performing rituals that Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe only men are allowed to do.

Michal Fattal , Associated Press

New co-ed prayer plaza at Western Wall immediately sets off furor

  • Article by: JODI RUDOREN
  • New York Times
  • August 25, 2013 - 8:56 PM


– Trying to calm months of intense wrangling over the Western Wall, Israeli officials on Sunday unveiled a new plaza where men and women can pray together. But the move was immediately denounced as discriminatory by the main group that has protested the rules at the holy site.

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs, said the new plaza, in an archaeological park known as Robinson’s Arch, was an interim solution until a more comprehensive — and contentious — plan for a mixed-prayer section could overcome bureaucratic hurdles and opposition from archaeologists, ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Muslim authorities. Built for about $80,000, the 4,800-square-foot platform is a “compromise,” Bennett said.

Instead, the announcement ignited new divisions.

Leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements offered cautious praise, while Women of the Wall, the group whose monthly prayer sessions have prompted arrests and mass demonstrations over the past year, started a 24-hour sit-in to protest it. The prime minister’s office distanced itself from the plaza, releasing a statement saying the government had yet to reach a decision on the matter.

Anat Hoffman, the leader of Women of the Wall, called the plaza a “monstrosity” that “looks like a sunbathing deck” or a “rock-star stage.” She said she would continue to push for access to the women’s section of the main area.

As the sun fell Sunday, she and about a dozen supporters chanted the afternoon prayer under an Israeli flag near the Western Wall, then settled in with study materials for a long night.

“They’ve taken the keys to the holiest site and just given them to one extremist group that uses violence,” said Hoffman, referring to the ultra-Orthodox, who have in recent months shouted and spat at the women’s group. “We have to be vigilant and fight for every centimeter. We are equal.”

The struggle over prayer at the wall is one of many battles about religious practice and identity roiling Israel, and it has attracted much attention from Jewish leaders abroad.

A remnant of the retaining wall of the ancient temple, the Western Wall is one of Judaism’s most sacred sites, and since Israel wrested it from Jordanian control in 1967, it has been a pilgrimage destination for foreign tourists and a place for the daily prayers of thousands of Orthodox Israelis.

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