Craig Ruttle, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Lower Manhattan turned into a human river of black-garbed people on Sunday as tens of thousands ultra-Orthodox Jews took to the streets, their anguished prayers booming through loudspeakers in protest of Israel's proposal to draft strictly religious citizens into its military.
Amid tight security, they stood behind police barricades stretching across 10 blocks.
Organizers kept to tradition, with men and women in separate groups as they are at religious events — the men wearing skull caps or black top hats.
Their message to Israel was simple.
"We're all united against military service for religious men in Israel because it doesn't allow for religious learning," said Peggy Blier, an interior designer from Brooklyn. "The Israeli government is looking to destroy religious society and make the country into a secular melting pot.
Israel's parliament, the Knesset, is expected to vote on the conscription bill later this month.
The bill, which would not go fully into effect until 2017, would impose criminal sanctions on ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers. However, yeshiva students would have the right to defer service until age 26.
Shmuel Gruis, 18, a rabbinical student from Phoenix studying at a Long Island yeshiva, was clutching two tomes of Jewish prayers as he hurried to the male section of Sunday's rally.
Of the Israeli Orthodox youths who would be affected by a mandatory draft, he said, "These kids, a lot of them don't know how to hold a gun. They don't know what physical warfare is."
"Their whole world and their whole lifestyle is peace and love and in doing mitzvahs," he said, using the Yiddish word for good deeds. "And you take a bunch of kids out of the environment where they come from — in my eyes, it's wrong."
The gathering came a week after about 300,000 demonstrators in Jerusalem protested the Knesset proposal by blocking roads and paralyzing the city.
In New York, the activists poured out of Manhattan subway tunnels onto Fulton, Water and Pearl streets — just steps from Wall Street.
Sunday's two-hour rally brought together New York's most Orthodox Jews from various sects, many based in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island, others living in the village of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, north of the city.
Organizers put the crowd count at over 50,000.
Some of the Hebrew prayers were led by Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, a spiritual head of the Satmars living in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood.
As the largest Jewish community outside Israel, the New Yorkers have tight bonds with Orthodox Israelis, some of whom emigrated from the United States.
"The problem is, anyone who goes into the Israeli military becomes secular, and that would erase our whole tradition," says Yitz Farkas, a member of the Brooklyn-based True Torah Jews organization.
Since Israel's founding in 1948, the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 8 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens, largely have been allowed to avoid compulsory military service to pursue their religious studies.
The ultra-Orthodox insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, maintaining a pious way of life that has kept Jewish culture alive through centuries of persecution.
But the exemption issue has ripped open a huge gash between Israel's secular majority and a passionate religious minority.
Enraged secular Israelis say the ultra-Orthodox are not doing their fair share by being exempt from service that is compulsory for other Jewish Israelis.
The issue was at the core of last year's election, which brought to power a center-right government that has been pushing for reforms requiring the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the military.
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