Jerusalem - Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews flooded the Western Wall early Friday morning, creating a tense standoff with a pluralistic group of women that has for years prayed at the holy site once a month wearing garments traditionally used by men.
Heeding calls from their rabbis, hundreds of teenage girls crammed into the women's section in front of the wall before 6:30 a.m., forcing the group known as Women of the Wall to conduct their service farther back, in the plaza, as black-hatted Orthodox men whistled, catcalled, and threw water, candy, a rock and other items at them. But after months in which several women were detained by the police for using the traditional garments, officers on Friday protected them, after a court ruling saying they should be allowed to pray as they wish.
Instead, three ultra-Orthodox men were arrested and two were detained for questioning for attempting to attack the women, according to a police spokesman, as hundreds of uniformed officers locked hands in cordons to keep the religious throngs away from the pluralistic group of perhaps 100.
"All this commotion because of a group of women who want to pray to God," Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall, said after the service, which marked the new Jewish month. "We hope that the government won't succumb to any kinds of threats or bullying and they will let us continue praying. This is part of the social battle. They need to get used to us."
The confrontation came as Israel's government is at work on developing new regulations governing prayer at the site, a remnant of the retaining wall surrounding the ancient Temple Mount and a place revered by Jews around the world. It is part of a broader battle over identity and religion in the public sphere in Israel, where holy sites and rites like marriage, divorce and conversion have for decades been controlled by the ultra-Orthodox minority, known here as Haredim.
Earlier this week, Israel's attorney general advised government ministers that they should immediately ban gender segregation on buses, in cemeteries, at health clinics and on the radio. At the same time, the new government coalition that took office this spring has vowed to end widespread draft exemptions for yeshiva students, to overhaul the curriculum of ultrareligious schools, to curtail the subsidies their large families rely on and bring far more Orthodox men into the work force and tax base.
Much of that was in the background at the Western Wall on Friday morning, as the ultra-Orthodox protesters shouted "The holiness of the place!" as well as curses at the women wearing prayer shawls and singing, both of which violate ultra-Orthodox custom. Women of the Wall have been praying and protesting at the wall for a quarter century. Until last month's court ruling, Israel's Parliament and Supreme Court had held that prayer at the site must adhere to traditional practice.
"God, thank you that we're able to pray here in the same way that our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers did," said Mattie Shaller, who identified herself only as a grandmother who lives in Jerusalem. "We are alive today, the Jewish people, because we've retained Torat Imeinu, our mother's Torah. We don't need any changes."
Ronit Beskin, who helped organize the protest against the women's group, said, "They're trying to push the limits."
"They're trying to change the religion and politics in Israel - they should do that in the Knesset and not at the Kotel," Ms. Beskin said, using the Hebrew terms for Israel's Parliament and the Western Wall. "The rules should be, honestly, just respect the tradition here. What about our rights as women?"
About a dozen of the teenage girls, all of whom refused to give their names, said they had gotten up as early as 4 a.m. and poured onto buses from across Jerusalem as well as ultrareligious suburbs like Beit Shemesh and Beitar Illit chiefly because their leaders had ordered them to.
"I'm here so they won't be," one said. "It's forbidden for them to be here. It's allowed by the court, but it's forbidden by God. If I'm here, there won't be room for them."
Indeed, the girls filled the women's section where the pluralistic group usually gathers, and spilled onto the plaza, a few holding small prayer books and reciting in a low mumble, but many more snapping photographs, even as their teachers exhorted them to pray. Ultra-Orthodox men, meanwhile, lined the plaza as well as the porches of buildings hovering above it, occasionally breaking through the police lines and causing a scuffle.
In the center was a smaller-than-usual circle of women, who in addition to reciting the prayers for the new month, named a baby girl and lifted 12-year-old Devorah Leff on a chair to celebrate her recent bat mitzvah. Another 12-year-old, Hallel Ner David, said she had earlier been hit in the head by a rock thrown by the ultra-Orthodox protesters, but was not injured. Later, more stones were thrown at buses ferrying the pluralistic women from the site.
"Every time, there's another stumbling block," said Hallel's mother, Haviva Ner David, a rabbi and mother of seven who has been praying with the pluralistic group for two decades. "There are more non-Orthodox Jews than there are Haredi Jews in Israel, but they're able to gather more troops. Next month we're going to have to come camp out here the night before to get a spot at the Kotel? It's a little ridiculous."
Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of the pluralistic group, whose October arrest sparked outcry among Jews around the world and helped push the government to embark on its new plan for prayer at the site, tried to put a more positive spin on the situation.
"This is the first time we've seen so many women here - I'm delighted," Ms. Hoffman said. "The rabbis who sent them don't understand that some of them will be asking, ‘Why not me?' It's a very subversive question."