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Egalitarian Worshippers Scuffle With Ultra-Orthodox at Western Wall

JERUSALEM — Haredi Orthodox men fought with Conservative and Reform Jewish activists taking part in an egalitarian prayer service Thursday afternoon at the Western Wall Plaza.

Police worked to separate the dozens of haredi men from the crowd of worshippers. The haredi men whistled and sang loudly to distract the service, and later became physical with the activists. The service and protest ended about an hour after it began.

The activists who gathered for the minchah, or afternoon, prayer service were protesting the placing of a mechitzah, a separation dividing men’s and women’s prayer, in the egalitarian prayer area at Robinson’s arch earlier this week during a prayer service led by Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem and formerly a chief rabbi of Israel.

Prior to the service, Rabbi Pamela Frydman, chair of  the Executive Committee of Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel, and Rabbi Stanley Davids, past-chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, condemned what they called the “desecration of the Kotel prayer space at Robinson’s Arch” by Amar “for demonstrating that there is no room for egalitarian worship at the Kotel.”

“We call upon Prime Minister Netanyahu and all responsible members of the coalition and opposition in the Knesset to condemn Rabbi Amar for desecrating the holy site by using his presence to instill hatred toward other Jews and to prevent Rabbi Amar from continuing such desecration,” they wrote.

“We support the right of all Jews to pray, each in their way, according to their custom and understanding. We support the right of the Reform/Progressive and Conservative/Masorti Movements and all other Movements and prayer communities that wish to pray with men and women together. We equally support the right of Orthodox and Haredi Jews, Women of the Wall and all Jewish communities that wish to pray with the separation of men and women.”

The legal adviser to Israel’s Religious Services Ministry and the country’s attorney general both approved the holding of the mixed service at the Western Wall plaza, outside of the women’s and men’s sections of the holy site.

Their approval came after a letter from the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, in which he asked that the prayer service be canceled since it violated the terms of the site, which do not allow “conducting a religious ceremony not in accordance with customs of the site which harms the sensitivities of worshippers at the site.”

Rabinowitz responded to the decision to allow the groups to go forward with the service, saying the worshippers ” trample [the site’s] holiness and set it ablaze with the flames of polarization and dispute, turning the Western Wall and the whole world into a dangerous, forbidding place. Listen to the heartfelt cries from the whole people of Israel, in all its diversity, wishing for a united Wall, undivided!”

He called for a meeting to discuss the “erosion” at the holy site.

Netanyahu in a statement released in English said “the unity of the Jewish people is a source of our strength and one of the values closest to my heart. As we continue to work towards a solution that will allow all Jews to feel at home at the Western Wall, there are those who would prefer to divide our people and even to say that other Jews are wicked or aren’t Jews at all. We all must unequivocally reject these inappropriate words and deeds, which run counter to the basic spirit of the State of Israel.”

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