Pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties could lead Netanyahu to change plan to erect an egalitarian prayer space for non-Orthodox, mixed-gender Jewish ceremonies, prompting rabbis to plan urgent visit.

The leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in North America are organizing a special trip to Israel later this month to notify Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in person of their strong opposition to any changes in the plan to build a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

According to the plan approved by the government in January, a new platform would be erected at the southern expanse of the Western Wall where Reform and Conservative Jews could hold mixed prayer service for men and women and where Women of the Wall – the multidenominational feminist prayer group – could hold its less traditional monthly service.

The visit is meant to coincide with the deadline issued by Netanyahu for addressing objections raised by the ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition to key elements of this plan.

Among those tentatively scheduled to participate in the delegation that will meet with the prime minister, Haaretz has learned, are Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform movement in North America; Rabbi Steven Wernick, the chief executive officer of the Conservative Movement, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement.

In late March, under mounting pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, the Israeli prime minister instructed his bureau chief David Sharan to present recommendations for changes in the deal that would be acceptable to both sides.  Sharan was given 60 days to draft his recommendation. Last week, he met with representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel as well as with a board member of Women of the Wall for what were described as exploratory talks.

According to sources apprised of developments at the meeting, Sharan notified the delegation that Netanyahu was averse to reopening negotiations and submitting a new plan to the government. At the same time, Sharan made clear he would be proposing several changes to the original government-approved plan, in response to objections voiced by the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Although Sharan did not specify what those changes would be, the ultra-Orthodox parties have expressed objections to several key elements of the plan. As approved in the cabinet in late January, the plan would provide access to the new egalitarian space through a common entrance with the existing gender-segregated prayer spaces. For the Conservative movement especially, this shared entryway was seen as a key element of the deal, symbolizing the equal status of all Jewish worshippers at the holy site. But in recent weeks, the ultra-Orthodox have been demanding separate entrances.

Another clause in the agreement widely opposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties would grant the Reform and Conservative movements representation on the board of governors that will administer the mixed prayer area. They also object to funding the new egalitarian space through the official state budget, preferring that the money come from non-governmental or quasi-governmental organizations like the Jewish Agency.

After the cabinet approved the plan earlier this year, Minister of Religious Affairs David Azoulay, from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, refused to sign the regulations that would have moved it forward.  Another major obstacle was later created when Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the custodian of the Western Wall, reneged on his earlier support for the deal under pressure from the chief rabbis of Israel.

The leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have warned that they will not accept any significant changes to the original plan. If such changes are forced on them, they have said they will petition the Supreme Court and demand that a prayer space be allocated to them in the existing northern expanse of the Western Wall.

Judy Maltz

Haaretz Correspondent