(WOMENSENEWS)–A 15-year struggle by women’s group for equal access to Jerusalem’s Western Wall ended in failure this week, when Israel’s Supreme Court ordered that women should pray at a site near–but not in–the broad plaza that fronts the wall, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The ancient wall is revered by Jews as the remnants of the biblical Second Temple. Men are allowed to pray aloud in front of the wall wearing shawls.

Anat Hoffman, one of the leaders of an Israeli and U.S. group called Women of the Wall, began a crusade in 1988 for women to be allowed to read from the Torah and wear the “tallitot” while praying at the wall. Hoffman said she was devastated by the ruling. It was, she said, an unexpected setback after a court found in the women’s favor nearly three years ago–a decision swiftly appealed by the state and in effect overturned Sunday.

“What a sad, sad day,” said Hoffman, an Israeli-born graduate of the California State University of Los Angeles, and a former member of the Jerusalem City Council. “This sets women apart, treats us as second-class citizens. . . I truly wish our court had been more brave,” the Los Angeles Times quoted her as saying.

Women are allowed to pray at the Western Wall, but in a separate section. And they are expected to pray silently or inaudibly, lest the sound of their voices prove a distraction to male worshipers nearby.

Over the years, efforts to change the status quo led not only to legal battles but to ugly confrontations in the shadow of the wall. Women who prayed aloud together faced a barrage of catcalls from fellow worshipers and sometimes a hail of hurled objects. Perhaps with such scenes in mind, the court accepted the government’s argument that the women’s prayers posed a threat to public safety.

The women had sought the right to pray aloud for only an hour on the first day of each new month of the Hebrew calendar, and on the Jewish New Year. But tradition-minded Jews–including the rabbi who oversees the wall, which is considered an open-air synagogue–defended the rule that female worshipers’ activities strictly conform to Halakha, or Jewish law, at all times.

“Any woman can come to pray,” Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich told Israel Radio International after the court ruling. “And I urge them to come and pray–according to Jewish tradition. The wall is open to every religious and nonreligious Jew who prays according to Jewish tradition.”

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