NEW YORK - Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews filled the streets in lower Manhattan on Sunday to protest Israel's proposal to draft strictly religious citizens into its army.
The gathering took up a stretch of 10 blocks, with dark-clothed demonstrators standing behind police barricades amid tight security. Organizers kept to tradition, with men and women in separate groups as they are at religious events.
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 the rally.
Of the Israeli Orthodox young men 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."
Sunday's prayer event brought together a community of New York's most Orthodox Jews, based in Brooklyn and in the village of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, north of the city.
"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."