Activists and members of liberal streams of Judaism celebrated a “historic” compromise officially allowing mixed-gender non-Orthodox Jewish prayer at the Western Wall Sunday, even as ultra-Orthodox and religious nationalist lawmakers came out strongly against the move.
Anat Hoffman, who has been at the center for the struggle for a space as head of the Women of the Wall group, which advocates for increased female prayer rights at the site, called the agreement “groundbreaking.”
“After years and years of insisting that we have an equal place for prayer, after enduring campaigns of abuse against us, and being encouraged by a wave of Jewish support from across the globe, we have accomplished this extraordinary first step,” Hoffman said in a statement released by the Reform Movement.
The landmark agreement approved by the government cabinet will officially set aside an egalitarian prayer space at the Orthodox-controlled Western Wall for the first time in the country’s history. According to the government plan, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, Israel will build a new plaza adjacent to the Orthodox prayer plaza.
If the plan is approved, “it stands to open the floodgates of women’s rights in the public sphere in Israel … and opens the floodgates for Jewish pluralism in Israel,” said Shira Pruce of Women of the Wall. “This is unprecedented change.”
The Masorti or Conservative movement said in a statement it was “thrilled” over the “historic” move.
“Twenty-five years in the making, the decision brings us measurably closer to the simple, basic fact that there is more than one way to be Jewish and that there should be ‘One Wall for One People,’ the group said in a statement.
But Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who heads the Reform Movement, said advocates still had work to do.
“This is a moment to celebrate, but not to retreat. There will be many bumps in the road to full implementation, & we will need to keep up the very pressure that brought about this critical advance,” he wrote on Facebook.
Hiddush, an Israeli NGO that promotes religious pluralism, responded to Sunday’s announcement with ambivalence, calling the deal a “painful compromise.”
“But it should be clear that this was a painful compromise. While liberal Jews will be forced to move over to Robinson’s Arch, the ultra-Orthodox continue their occupation of the traditional Kotel [Western Wall],” Hiddush’s executive director Rabbi Uri Regev said in a statement on Sunday.
Israeli Conservative Movement CEO Yizhar Hess said in a statement that the deal enshrines a legal precedent of ensuring non-Orthodox rights.
“The right to equality has received governmental recognition,” Hess said. “From now on, solutions to arguments on issues of religion and state will require recognition of the legal right to freedom of choice.”
The Jewish Federations of North America, which lobbied heavily for the compromise, said in a statement that it “sends a powerful message to Israelis and Jews across the Diaspora about the permanent value of Jewish pluralism and about what we can do when we work together.”
‘We will never recognize this group of clowns’
The far-reaching plan, which advocates say marks an unprecedented government support for liberal streams of Judaism, was backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I know this is a sensitive topic, but I think it is an appropriate solution, a creative solution,” Netanyahu said at the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, where members voted on the plan.
But some in the government lambasted the compromise agreement.
Uri Ariel, a hard-line minister from the Orthodox-leaning Jewish Home party, said he opposed the initiative, which was okayed by a majority of Netanyahu’s cabinet.
It “gives standing to the Reform. Their intention is to create conflict and dispute. It’s not appropriate. The Western Wall is a place of unity,” Ariel said on Israeli Army Radio.
Ariel was one of five ministers to oppose the measure, along with Aryeh Deri (Shas), Yaakov Litzman (UTJ), Zeev Elkin (Likud) and David Azoulay (Shas).
“Israel for all of its years has been administered by devout Judaism. All this problem with Reform and Conservatives never existed in Israel, and there is no reason it should now,” Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and serves as interior minister, told Army Radio.
The head of the Knesset Finance Committee, Moshe Gafni (UTJ), also came out against the compromise and called Reform Jews “clowns.”
“The Reform are a group of clowns stabbing the holy Torah,” Gafni charged according to the Walla news website. “We will never ever recognize this group of clowns, not at the Western Wall nor anywhere else.”
Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical establishment wields a monopoly over key aspects of religious life in the country, such as marriage, divorce and burials while Reform and Conservative rabbis are not recognized and their movements are largely marginalized. Unlike in the US, most Jews in Israel, while secular, follow Orthodox traditions.
The Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple complex, is the holiest site where Jews may pray. It is currently administered by ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authorities. The site now designates separate men’s and women’s prayer sections and forbids non-Orthodox prayer, like mixed-gender services and women-led prayers.
Western Wall rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch downplayed the significance of the decision to expand the mixed-gender plaza Sunday.
“I can’t say that the government decision made this step historic,” he told Army Radio. “It was an option all along.”
Women of the Wall has caused controversy for holding monthly non-Orthodox prayers at the site. Police have arrested women carrying Torah scrolls and wearing religious articles traditionally reserved for men, practices ultra-Orthodox Jews oppose and consider a provocation.
The Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism have supported the group’s cause and demanded representation at the holy site. Netanyahu appointed a committee in 2013, led by the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, to seek solutions for non-Orthodox prayer there. Shortly after, a temporary prayer platform was erected for mixed-gender prayer, but advocates say it was not an official site and that it was not always open.
These long-simmering tensions between Israeli and American Jews — the world’s two largest Jewish communities — have been aggravated by a series of steps by religious elements in Netanyahu’s coalition government meant to halt attempts by the liberal streams to win recognition in Israel.
The religious-nationalist government last year canceled reforms meant to ease conversion to Judaism, unraveling painstaking efforts by the previous government to weaken the grip of Israel’s Orthodox establishment. That was followed by inflammatory rhetoric from Azoulay, the religious services minister, who said he does not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish. Netanyahu distanced himself from the comments.
A larger pie
The $9 million initiative would call for building a permanent mixed-gender prayer area where the temporary platform is today. It would also create a new entrance to the Western Wall area so both Orthodox and non-Orthodox prayer areas will be given equal prominence. The pluralistic prayer area would not be managed by the ultra-Orthodox rabbi of the Western Wall, but by a committee including representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements. The new prayer area would allow Women of the Wall to hold women’s prayers.
The size of the non-Orthodox section of the Western Wall will double to nearly 10,000 square feet — half the size of the Orthodox main section just to its north.
“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,” Women of the Wall said in a statement
Plans for the non-Orthodox section’s expansion began in December 2012, spearheaded by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky. In October of that year, police had arrested Hoffman for wearing a talit during the group’s monthly service — an act that, at the time, was illegal at the site.
Talks over a plan to expand the non-Orthodox section of the wall, located in an archaeological park known as Robinson’s Arch, began in April 2013. The negotiations were led by Sharansky and outgoing Israeli Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit, and included representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Heritage Foundation and Women of the Wall.
Almost three years later, the deal enacted Sunday calls for the creation of an “official and respected,” 9,700-square foot prayer space in the non-Orthodox section of the Western Wall, running along a 31-foot segment of the wall, that Sharansky said will fit around 1,200 people. It will have a government-funded staff, Torah scrolls and other ritual objects, and be open to all forms of Jewish prayer. Sharansky estimated its construction could take up to two years.
Even after it is completed, the non-Orthodox section will remain smaller than its Orthodox counterpart. The Orthodox section measures some 21,500 square feet, adjacent to a nearly 200-foot segment of the wall, and has some 27,000 visitors on an average day.
JTA contributed to this report.