A member of the Women of the Wall organization attempts to hug an ultra-Orthodox… (Michal Fattal / Associated…)
JERUSALEM -- Under heavy police protection and confronted by Orthodox protesters, hundreds of women attended prayers held Sunday morning at the Western Wall in what has become a heated religious and political issue.
Members and supporters of the Women of the Wall organization gathered for monthly services in ways Orthodox Judaism has traditionally reserved for men, including donning prayer shawls, skullcaps and tefillin boxes.
"Provocation women," read one protest sign, accusing them of inventing "a new religion."
Previously, prayers often ended with the detention of organization members. But an April ruling by a Jerusalem judge permitted the women to pray in keeping with what they call their own customs and prohibited police from arresting them for violating the site's religious status quo based on Orthodox Jewish customs.
Police concerns mounted in recent days after leading rabbis said they received death threats from liberal activists. Recently, a religious youth was detained after inquiring online if it was permissible to shoot the women.
Deployed in large numbers, police cordoned off a strip of the women's prayer section for the activists, steering them away from hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men protesting the women's practices.
But the objection of Orthodox women was no less fierce.
Andrea Wiese, a Jerusalem student who immigrated from Indiana four years ago, was wrapped in a prayer shawl with tefillin boxes strapped to her arm and forehead as she said her prayers.
On the other side of the police barricades a few feet away, an ultra-Orthodox woman donned a vest with a sign saying "I protest the blasphemy" taped to it.
Further down the divide, ultra-Orthodox high school girls expressed dismay. "This isn't Judaism. They might as well go pray in a church," said one. "If they want to be like men, they should grow a beard," said another.
Wiese said she was "saddened more than anything else" by the women's responses but said she understood them. "Their way of life is being threatened," she said. Ultimately, she said, things will have to become more open. "It doesn't have to be one way or no way."
For the Women of the Wall, Sunday's security arrangements brought them closer to the Western Wall than they'd ever been without being arrested. "We made history," said organization leader Anat Hoffman.
Her next mission is to secure the women's use of a Torah scroll in prayers at the site, currently forbidden.
Services ended largely without violence, with the women escorted out through a police-secured corridor, as surges of young Orthodox men at times scuffled with police.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who supervises the Western Wall and other Jewish holy sites, issued a statement condemning "violence from any side" and urging authorities to resolve the problem.
The government is examining a compromise proposed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who suggests expanding the nearby archaeological site known as Robinson's Arch for egalitarian prayer services.