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New prayer area at Western Wall sparks protest by female activist group

August 27, 2013|By Batsheva Sobelman
  • Members of the Women of the Wall group wear prayer shawls and tefillin boxes at a service in the plaza facing the Western Wall on Aug. 7, 2013.
Members of the Women of the Wall group wear prayer shawls and tefillin boxes… (Jim Hollander / European…)

JERUSALEM -- The completion of a new prayer area at the Western Wall, where men and women of all denominations can worship together, is drawing criticism from female activists who describe the arrangement as anything but inclusive.

The area consists of a raised platform located just south of the main plaza and the Orthodox Jewish prayer sections, which are segregated by gender.

Minister Naftali Bennett, who is in charge of religious services, said Sunday that the prayer section will offer unity and peace at the wall, which he said "belongs to all Jews in the world, and not one stream or another."

However, the Women of the Wall group issued a statement saying the plan effectively banishes women from praying at the wall itself, "excluding over 50% of the Jewish population to the back of the bus."

The wooden balcony, supported by scaffolding, looks like "something you'd put up for a rock concert, or a sunbathing deck," said Shira Pruce, a spokeswoman for the group. "It's a far cry from experiencing prayer at the wall."

Although the wall is visible from the platform, worshipers cannot touch the ancient stones, a key experience for many. And the mixed area, with no partition between men and women, does not meet the needs of the group's members, Pruce said.

In response, Women of the Wall staged a 24-hour sit-in that ended Monday evening. They spent the day in prayer.

In May, a Jerusalem court upheld the group's right to pray in the women's section at the wall in ways that Orthodox Judaism has traditionally reserved for men, including donning prayer shawls, skullcaps and tefillin boxes. Since then, the women's monthly prayer gatherings have become tense days of protest at the holy site.

Women of the Wall urged Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to support the court ruling allowing women to pray as they wish in the women's section, and to reject what the group called "an out of sight, out of mind solution, silencing women."

Authorities have been groping for a comprehensive solution to the politically and religiously charged issue. One possible plan involves expanding the cramped women's section (three times smaller than the men's area) to the south, where it would lead to a section open to all in the archaeological site known as Robinson's Arch.

The Women of the Wall support that plan, but only if implemented in its entirety to meet their needs as well as those of other denominations.

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