In a letter to Reform and Conservative rabbis around the world, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett called on Thursday for Israeli and diaspora leaders “to open a new page in the Israeli-Diaspora relationship.”
He urged diaspora support for the expanded egalitarian section he ordered built at the Western Wall, and said the holy site “belongs to all Jews, from every walk of life no matter what they believe or how they might practice.”
The new section is on a platform built just south of the main Western Wall plaza in recent weeks to accommodate throngs of worshipers expected to come to Jerusalem for the High Holiday period, which begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, on September 4.
“This is historic. For the first time since the liberation of the Kotel [Western Wall] in 1967, all Jews can pray [at the site] freely and respectably,” Bennett wrote in the letter.
The platform, measuring 450 square meters (4,840 square feet), was built along the Robinson’s Arch archeological park, an area already designated for egalitarian prayer by the High Court of Justice that has been used for non-Orthodox prayers for about 10 years. In addition to expanding the prayer area, Bennett has also granted, for the first time, government backing that ensures the site will be open and freely available to worshipers around the clock.
The opening of the new platform drew the praise of some liberal leaders, including the heads of the Conservative Movement in the United States, and the criticism of others.
The egalitarian prayer group Women of the Wall was particularly vocal in panning the new initiative, calling it “the very definition of separate, and not nearly close to equal.”
The group won a District Court judgment in April granting its members the right to pray with shawls and phylacteries — customs reserved for men in Orthodox prayer — at the women’s section of the main plaza.
Bennett’s plan formally recognizes the main prayer plaza as Orthodox and defines the much smaller platform as the location for egalitarian prayer, a fact that some Women of the Wall activists have said effectively reverses their court victory.
The Western Wall’s state-appointed rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, told Orthodox rabbis during a visit to North America earlier this year that attempts to “divide the prayer plaza or delineate hours [designated for egalitarian services] will face strong opposition and bring about a civil war,” according to a statement released by Rabinowitz in April.
The new plaza also does not offer direct physical access to the stones of the Western Wall, generally a key part of the prayer experience at the site for visiting Jews.
Bennett unveiled the site in a video posted to YouTube earlier this week.
Bennett acknowledged the criticism on Thursday, saying the solution was for a limited time.
“It is important to stress that the new platform is temporary,” he wrote in the letter to the rabbis.
“I know that the temporary platform is not perfect. But, in the spirit of Rosh Hashanah, I felt an obligation to provide an immediate solution so every Jew can pray at the Kotel,” he explained.
“What happened to the Jewish Temple 2,000 years ago serves as a warning for us today. While we might have differences, we need to work together to solve them while remembering that we are one nation,” he added.
He stressed that the platform was only a stop-gap measure, and that he remained “committed to the government’s efforts to advance the ‘Sharansky Plan’ as well as to continuing a dialogue with representatives from all religious movements and all parts of the Jewish nation.”
The Sharansky Plan is a plan for a permanent egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall which is expected to recommend the construction of a larger, higher, and more accessible platform for non-Orthodox services.
“My ultimate objective is to improve Israel’s ties with all Jewish communities in the Diaspora,” Bennett concluded.
“Please view this letter as an invitation to turn to me when you encounter problems and difficulties in the future,” he told the rabbis.