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The Israeli government decided this week to allow men and women to worship together at the Western Wall, one of Judaism's most revered spots. The move came after years of protests and some arrests and months of secret negotiations. Advocates call it groundbreaking. NPR's Emily Harris explains.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The holiest place Jews can legally pray is a wall of huge stones in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, the Western Wall. It's part of an ancient Jewish temple complex.
BATYA KALLUS: So we're standing here in the women's section of the Western Wall.
HARRIS: Israeli Batya Kallus explains that right now, the area where you can walk directly up to the wall and touch it is divided. One stretch of the wall is for men. A smaller area is for women. They pray separately. And they pray differently. An Orthodox government Rabbi sets the rules.
KALLUS: According to Jewish - Orthodox Jewish tradition, a woman's voice should not be heard publicly in prayer. Women don't read from the Torah or sing out loud.
HARRIS: But Kallus does these things when she prays. As part of a group called Women of the Wall, she helped negotiate a deal. The government will build and maintain a prominent new space at the base of the Western Wall where Jewish men and women can pray together any way they'd like. Kallus wanted choice.
KALLUS: The state of Israel doesn't need to impose only one narrow way of being a Jew.
HARRIS: Not just in prayer. Marriage in Israel, divorce, adoption, death - all of these are governed by Orthodox rules. Kallus hopes these rules might loosen after the decision to loosen the regulations on prayer at the Wall. She also believes American-Jewish support for Israel would increase if the country were more open to non-Orthodox practices. Several years ago, women were arrested while praying at the Wall. Kallus, herself a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, says this shocked some American Jews.
KALLUS: They see women being arrested, shackled, detained because they put on a prayer shawl or sang out loud, and they are appalled by that. I have to say, it was all due credit to Prime Minster Netanyahu. He understood that.
HARRIS: Netanyahu approved the deal as a fair and creative solution.
(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHT RAIL)
HARRIS: A short light rail ride and up into an office overlooking Jerusalem, another other religious Jew sees things very differently.
LEAH AHARONI: My name is Leah Aharoni. I'm a business consultant, and I work with women who are in small businesses and organizations.
HARRIS: Aharoni immigrated to Israel from Russia after spending her teen years in the United States. She practices Orthodox Judaism now. And although in business she works to break boundaries for women, in faith she says she doesn't feel them.
AHARONI: As a devout woman, I don't find shortage of ways to become close to God, to worship, and I don't feel insignificant, no matter what prayer practices I adopt.
HARRIS: Aharoni co-founded an organization to keep prayer at the Western Wall from changing.
AHARONI: What makes the Western Wall so special is that we can set aside our individual differences and set aside whatever we do home and really come together as one people around one tradition that's been around for 1700 years.
HARRIS: Different places at the Wall for different practices she says undermines Jewish unity.
AHARONI: And I think Jewish unity is the most supreme value that we need to preserve as a people because otherwise we would just stop being a people.
HARRIS: Many groups face this struggle - how to preserve unity despite differences. Aharoni opposes what she sees as the government giving in to a relatively small group of protesters.
AHARONI: Because instead of creating a place for small group of women to pray, it actually creates two walls for two people.
HARRIS: Batya Kallus, who worked hard for the prayer space where any Jewish expression is welcome, calls it one people, many practices.
KALLUS: Let the best wall win (laughter).
HARRIS: The new prayer space, showcased by a revamped entrance to the Western Wall area, could be built within a year. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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