A group of Jewish women say they were asked to leave Jerusalem's Western Wall area - a holy site for Judaism - after their prayers were deemed offensive to the local custom - writes Judith Sudilovsky.
The group of some 100 women, including some North American Reform movement rabbis who were in Israel for a gathering of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, began their prayers in the early morning of 25 February 2009.
In doing so they defied Orthodox Jewish custom by wearing prayer shawls and skull caps, which according to Orthodox Jewish custom are worn only by men. They also chanted at a nearby archaeological site from the Torah - the Jewish holy book - which, in the Orthodox tradition, is also reserved only for men.
Anat Hoffman, a reform member of the Women of the Wall and director of the Israel Religious Action Center said, "Anyone who is a daughter of Abraham can relate to what we are going through. It is not just the Jews who don't allow women to express themselves religiously freely."
The prayer, in celebration of the start of the new Jewish month, was organized by the Women of the Wall Organization, which regularly arranges prayers at the site for women of all Jewish denominations.
Rabbi Jackie Ellenson, the 52-year-old director of the Women's Rabbinic Network based in Manhattan, New York, told Ecumenical News International in a phone interview their prayers were interrupted when a man in the men's section began shouting at them that "a woman's voice is lewd" and two women in the women's section began shouting at them.
"The women shouting at us were much more bothersome than our prayer," Ellenson said, referring to those who joined the men in their criticism. "We sang beautifully together. It is something we take for granted that we are able to have positions of [religious] leadership in the United States while it is still a struggle for women here in Israel. It is hard to find a place for women in an egalitarian setting in Israel."
Orthodox Jewish law prohibits women from praying or singing in public where a female voice can be heard by men. In traditional Orthodox synagogues, as well as at the Western Wall, men and women have separate prayer areas.
Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch told the Israeli Internet news site Ynet that women usually hold their prayer nearby the Wall, and not at the Western Wall Plaza itself.
"Unfortunately, they severely offended the holy place ... and stirred violence and division," he said. "The High Court barred them from acting in a way that is not in line with local custom, and the local custom is that women don't wear a prayer shawl ... or read out from the Torah."
Ellenson said, however, she rejected the monopoly of one version of Judaism accepted in Israel. "All people should have equal access to places of holiness. The Wall right now is being treated as an Orthodox synagogue and it should be a place where all people who want to pray have access," she said. "The values of religious Judaism which I practise are about equal access and participation."
The wall is a remnant of the ancient retaining wall surrounding the Biblical Temple Mount, which housed the Jewish Holy Ark. Today two holy Muslim sites occupy the area, with the Dome of the Rock at one end and the Al Aqsa Mosque at the other.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]