It is growing increasingly likely that a solution for egalitarian and non-Orthodox prayer will not conform to the demands of the Women of the Wall activist group, the main driver behind the campaign for equal prayer rights at the Western Wall.
The Jerusalem Post understands that a solution that is being drawn up by a committee headed by cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit will fall short of what the group has requested.
Specifically, it is understood that the area set aside at the Robinson’s Arch section for the Women of the Wall and non- Orthodox prayer will not be raised to the same height as the rest of the Western Wall Plaza, and will not afford sufficient access to the stones of the wall itself.
Women of the Wall has explicitly stated that any prayer area built to accommodate its needs must be a homogeneous part of the Western Wall Plaza to secure its agreement.
On Sunday, the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry – headed by Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, who serves as the religious services minister – announced the completion of what it called an “interim solution” for those wishing to hold egalitarian and pluralistic prayer services at the Western Wall.
The ministry, in coordination with the Prime Minister’s Office and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, has constructed a large platform of approximately 450 square meters at the Robinson’s Arch area to serve as the site for non-Orthodox prayer, but stressed it was intended as “a temporary solution to enable prayer services during the upcoming high holiday season.”
In a statement to the press, the ministry said that the site, to be called “Ezrat Yisrael,” will be open free of charge, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can accommodate up to 450 worshipers. Prayer books, Torah scrolls and prayer shawls will be made available.
But the Women of the Wall organization held a press conference on Sunday afternoon adjacent to the new prayer platform and called for a boycott of the site, claiming that it amounted to support from Bennett for the terms of Mandelblit’s proposals, and was an attempt to cast the group “out of sight and out of mind,” and to silence its claims for equal prayer rights.
The group further said that Bennett’s solution was not intended to be temporary and that Mandelblit’s solution would not differ substantially from the newly created prayer platform.
Several members of WoW began a 24-hour sit-in at the Western Wall Plaza on Sunday night in protest of the suspected proposals for the arrangement.
“The stage is in no way equal topographically or geographically to the original plaza, nor does it come close to the [Western] Wall itself, as it stands to the back of the Robinson’s Arch area,” the group said, adding that since the prayer area does not have a gender separation barrier it is inappropriate for WoW since it is a women’sonly prayer group.
“Women of the Wall rejects the Mandelblit plan which dangerously circumvents the pluralist Sobel district court decision,” said WoW in a statement to the press, referring to a Jerusalem District Court decision in April providing for equal prayer rights for women praying in a non-traditional fashion at the Western Wall Plaza.
“We are at a crossroads for religious freedom and freedom of expression in Israel. Today this affects Women of the Wall, but tomorrow it will affect every Israeli and Jew around the world.
What has been proven today is that the bullies were victorious – with their assault, spitting and cursing at women. Mandelblit and Bennett have given in to the threats and violence of the haredi extremist minority in Israel and this is a dangerous precedent for our democracy.”
WoW chairwoman Anat Hoffman made a direct plea to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to reject Mandelblit’s plan.
In addition, Hoffman criticized Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for marginalizing proposals made by Sharansky for a solution for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.
Although WoW expressed reservations about the Sharansky plan when it was first publicized several months ago, the group said that in general the proposals were a positive development.
Hoffman alleged on Sunday that the prime minister dispensed with Sharansky’s proposal for political reasons and appointed Mandelblit’s committee to circumvent it.
Sharansky issued a statement to the press praising Bennett for his efforts.
“This temporary prayer plaza is a gesture of goodwill on behalf of Minister Bennett toward Judaism’s religious streams,” Sharansky said, and added that he hoped it would help improve the feelings and relations between the government, the various Jewish denominations and the Jewish Agency in order to reach a permanent arrangement at the site.
Bennett’s office said in response to the criticism from Women of the Wall that the solution was a “compromise aimed at unifying the Jewish people to enable all Jews from all walks of life to pray freely at the Kotel.
“This plaza was constructed as a primary prayer site for pluralistic, progressive and egalitarian prayer services, and was built for millions of Jews around the world who deserve a respectable place to pray at one of Judaism’s holiest sites,” an official in Bennett’s office told the Post.
The Prime Minister’s Office issued a media statement saying “The committee appointed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to examine the issue has yet to finish its work. When it does, its recommendations will be submitted to the prime minister.”
The Reform Movement in Israel expressed concern with the emerging details of Mandelblit’s plan.
“On the face of things, it seems that there are substantial differences between the apparent recommendations of the committee headed by the cabinet secretary and the plan of Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky which garnered wide support in Israel and the Diaspora,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel.
“The Reform Movement will wait for clarifications, but in any eventuality we will insist that the egalitarian prayer area will be an inseparable part of the state and national site of the Western Wall, and on the presentation of a clear timetable for the implementation of the Sharansky proposals in full.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said that although serious questions remained to be answered regarding the final government proposals for non- Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall, the fact that the Robinson’s Arch area had been improved as a place of prayer was a positive step, describing the upgraded site and prayer amenities as a “dramatic improvement.”
Schonfeld noted that the Conservative Movement has been conducting prayer services at Robinson’s Arch for the past 12 years and said that approximately 20,000 people had prayed at the site in Conservative services over the past year alone.
She said, however, that issues such as having one entrance to the entire Western Wall Plaza with direct access to the non- Orthodox section would have to be clarified before the movement could fully formulate its approach.
“The Conservative Movement has been seeking equality for non-Orthodox denominations at the Western Wall for a long time and this is still the goal,” Schonfeld told the Post. “And the situation at the Western Wall is a symptom of the larger struggle for religious equality in Israel which we will continue to work toward.”
www.jpost.com; by Jeremy Sharon, Photo: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post