U.S. organizations committed to religious pluralism in Israel hailed the announcement Sunday, Jan. 31, of an expanded egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.
“We applaud Israel’s historic decision to create a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall,” Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO Jerry Silverman, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick, and Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said in joint statement issued after the Israeli Cabinet formally approved the proposal on a 15-5 vote.
The three American leaders called the mixed-sex space “a dramatic, unprecedented and critical acknowledgement by the State of Israel that Judaism’s holiest site — the Kotel — should incorporate the traditions of the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform streams, in which men and women pray together.”
A new organization that includes Women of the Wall and the Masorti and Reform movements and is led by the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel will administer the nearly 10,000-square-foot non-Orthodox section, slightly less than half the size of the adjoining Orthodox area. The haredi Western Wall Heritage Foundation will continue to manage the Orthodox section.
The plan, whose timetable is not clear, appears to end decades of disputes between Orthodox groups and other Jewish denominations over pluralism at the Western Wall. Monthly Rosh Chodesh worship led by Women of the Wall has at times been met with violence, sparking anger between Diaspora leaders and Israeli religious authorities.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the Jan. 31 Cabinet meeting that the Kotel should be a place that unites the Jewish people. “While I know that this is a delicate issue, I think that this is a fair and creative solution.”
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky has led planning for the expansion of the egalitarian section since December 2012, a response to the arrest of Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman two months earlier for wearing a tallit during the Rosh Chodesh service. More than two years ago he announced an initial plan to build the egalitarian plaza.
“The vision of the new section of the Kotel is a physical and conceptual space open to all forms of Jewish prayer,” Women of the Wall said in a statement. “Instead of splitting up the existing pie into ever more divided, smaller pieces, we are making the pie much larger and sharing the new space.”
Sharansky told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the expanded section will run along a 31-foot section of the wall in the Robinson’s Arch area and will be able to accommodate about 1,200 people. He said construction of the area will take about two years.
Not surprisingly, the plan does not please everyone.
Youssef Ideiss, the Palestinian Authority’s minister of Waqf and religious affairs, criticized the construction plan as an effort to change the Temple Mount status quo and “Judaicize the holy site,” according to the Walla news website.
The Jordanian-run Waqf administers the Temple Mount, where Muslim but not Jewish prayer is allowed, but not the plaza in front of the Kotel, which is an ancient retaining wall for the Temple Mount. The Palestinian Authority tried to have the United Nations declare the wall a Muslim holy site in October.
Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, meanwhile, said Israel’s plan “profanes the holy site” and “creates yet a further lamentable rift between Jews.”
Agudath Israel said only the maintenance of the standard of Jewish religious tradition has allowed Jews of all types for decades to pray side by side at the Western Wall, a “minor miracle” that’s perhaps unique in the world.
Some supporters of Women of the Wall have vowed not to abandon the Orthodox section of the Kotel, as agreed to in the government plan. Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer wrote that instead of a compromise, the plan should be seen as a “complete capitulation” to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation because it will reassert full control over the plaza viewed internationally as the holy site while non-Orthodox prayer is shunted to the side.
But Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt seemed to sum up the consensus view in the Diaspora, at least among non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, in a statement that celebrated the recognition that all Jews should have a place to pray at the wall in a way that is meaningful to them.
Greenblatt congratulated Women of the Wall and the Conservative and Reform movements and thanked Sharansky for “sending the message to Jews around the world that there is one Kotel for one people.”