After three years of negotiations, government tentatively scheduled to vote Sunday on plan to create area where men and women from Reform, Conservative denominations could hold services.

Almost three years after the idea was first broached, a plan to create a special prayer space in the southern expanse of the Western Wall where the Conservative and Reform movements can hold gender-mixed services is tentatively scheduled for a government vote this Sunday.

Sources involved in the negotiations told Haaretz that intense efforts are under way to finalize details of the plan in the coming days, so that it can be approved before Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit takes up his new post next week as attorney general. 

Mendelblit has played a key role over the past two years in managing the negotiations between the sides and trying to reach a deal acceptable to the ultra-Orthodox foundation that supervises prayer services at the Jewish holy site, on the one hand, and all the non-Orthodox groups fighting to pray as they see fit at the Western Wall, on the other. These groups include the Conservative and Reform movements, as well as Women of the Wall, the multi-denominational feminist prayer group that holds a monthly service at the Kotel.

Yet to be resolved are two key issues: the physical characteristics of the new prayer space and the future status of what is known as the “upper plaza” – the area of the site that is not part of the official prayer sections. According to sources involved in the negotiations, there is still no agreement on how large a space will be allocated for egalitarian prayer services. Neither has the current custodian of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, accepted the demand of the non-Orthodox groups that the “upper plaza” be wrested from his control and redefined as a “national” site where mixed-gender military ceremonies can be held and where female soldiers would be allowed to sing (strict orthodoxy bans women from singing in public).

Should the two sides reach an agreement by Sunday and the plan be approved, it would be the first time that an Israeli government will have supported egalitarian worship at a place that is recognized as a Jewish holy site.

One source estimated the likelihood of an agreement by Sunday as “50-50,” while another observed that “whatever happens, there is clearly a lot of goodwill on all sides.”

In order to prevent a backlash from the Jordanian authorities, which control the Muslim holy sites above the Western Wall, the non-Orthodox parties to the negotiations have reneged on their earlier demands for a major overhaul of the new egalitarian space site that would involve considerable new construction in a very politically sensitive area.  They had originally demanded that the new space be equal in size and look to the existing gender-segregated prayer spaces. 

All sides have agreed, however, that the new prayer space will enjoy equal visibility and be accessed through a common entrance. Agreement has also been reached on the amount of government funding that will be allocated to the new area.

If the deal is approved, Women of the Wall have agreed to move their monthly prayer service from the women’s section of the Western Wall – where they have held it for more than 25 years – to the new egalitarian space. This controversial decision, approved by the board last year, was rejected by some Women of the Wall founders, who have since split off and started their own group known as Original Women of the Wall.

The plan to create an egalitarian space that would service the non-Orthodox movements was first announced by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky in April 2013. That followed months of clashes at the Western Wall between ultra-Orthodox worshippers and Women of the Wall activists. Under pressure from leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements in the United States, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assigned Sharansky with the task of resolving the ongoing controversy over prayer at the Western Wall.


Reprinted with thanks to Judy Maltz, Ha’aretz