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Ultra-Orthodox fail to bar women from Western Wall

JERUSALEM -- Israeli police using metal barriers and human chains yesterday held back thousands of ultra-Orthodox protesters who tried to prevent a liberal Jewish women's group from praying at a key holy site, the first time police have come down on the side of the women and not the protesters.

The switch followed a court order last month backing the right of the women to pray at the Western Wall in the Old City, which practicing Orthodox Jews insist is the role of men alone.

The "Women of the Wall" group has been holding monthly prayer services on the first day of the Hebrew month at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for more than two decades, wearing prayer shawls and performing religious rituals reserved for men under Orthodox Judaism. Accused by ultra-Orthodox leaders of violating "local custom" at the holy site, many of the group's members have been arrested.

Yesterday police protected the women and arrested three ultra-Orthodox men for disorderly conduct, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

It's a turning point for the group. Along with the arrests, the women have faced heckling and legal battles in a struggle to attain what they say is their right: to worship at the wall -- the holiest place where Jews can pray -- as men do.

"It's a historic moment," said Shira Pruce, a spokeswoman for Women of the Wall. "The police did an amazing job protecting women to pray freely at the Western Wall. This is justice."

The plaza just in front of the Western Wall, a remnant of the biblical Jewish Temples, is marked off into two sections, one for men and the other for women, where they pray separately. Up to now, women have had to abide by the Orthodox strictures of prayer.

Under Orthodox Jewish practice, only men may wear prayer shawls and skullcaps, and most Orthodox Jews insist that only men should carry a Torah scroll.

The more liberal Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, marginal in Israel but the largest denominations in the United States, allow women to practice the same way men do in Orthodox Judaism.

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