‘Betrayed’ by freeze, Conservative head vows fight for Western Wall deal he never sought
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InterviewIsrael is 'allowing itself to come under the restrictive control of a very fundamentalist Jewish politic'

‘Betrayed’ by freeze, Conservative head vows fight for Western Wall deal he never sought

Rabbi Steven Wernick says Netanyahu recruited progressive Jews to find a compromise for the holy site; now that the PM has reneged, world Jewry won't be silent

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Rabbi Dr. Amy Wallk Katz (left) leads as Rabbi Steven Wernick (far right), CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, prays at the Western Wall plaza, in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Rabbi Dr. Amy Wallk Katz (left) leads as Rabbi Steven Wernick (far right), CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, prays at the Western Wall plaza, in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The fight for pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall is a battle already won by Jewry’s Conservative movement. For some 20 years, Conservative Jews have inhabited a spiritual home at Jerusalem’s contentious holy site, which they won through a series of Supreme Court cases — in a section allocated to the Davidson Archaeological Park.

The Conservative prayer section (Reform Jewry was initially uninterested in prayer here), sees some 50,000 penitents a year. Often called “Robinson’s Arch,” after a first century BCE Second Temple structure built by Herod the Great, prayer is performed on platforms built among the ancient stones.

So why the recent headline-grabbing saga between embittered Diaspora Jews versus Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall?

In a visit to the Jerusalem offices of The Times of Israel this week, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Steven Wernick, explained the tipping point for the some 600 Diaspora congregations in his movement: After years of praying in an area that is “hidden away like a servant’s entrance,” progressive Jewry was promised separate but equal status at the Western Wall by the Israeli government in January 2016.

That promise was put on ice last week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — the same person who had initially dangled the possibility of legitimacy and recognition at the holy site.

“Israel, from its founding, has positioned itself as the homeland of the Jewish people. If it’s going to legitimately play that role, then the Jewish people in all of its manifestations need to be recognized by the Jewish state as being a legitimate expression of Jewish peoplehood,” said Wernick.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the chief executive officer of umbrella body USCJ. (Ethan Weg)
Rabbi Steven Wernick, the chief executive officer of umbrella body USCJ. (Ethan Weg)

Based in New York, Wernick speaks as the head of a network of Conservative synagogues throughout the Diaspora and Israel. As he puts it, although the 2013 Pew Report on American Jewry noted a loss in Conservative Jewry’s “market share,” the 100-year-old movement has birthed generations of thought leaders who influence the Jewish peoplehood on both sides of the ocean.

Sipping tepid water on a steamy day, Wernick said the movement is soon to celebrate 40 years in Israel, where there are 80 different Conservative communities throughout the country. Polls put the combined numbers of Reform and Conservative Jewry in Israel to 5-8 percent of the total population — up to 500,000 people. To these Jews, and their much more numerous brethren abroad, the struggle for parity at the Western Wall has become a symbol of the Israel-Diaspora divide.

“You’re talking about the holiest site of the Jewish people, someplace where North American Jews, when they come to Israel, always visit. It’s an absolute must on Birthright and any other kind of congregational kind of trip, and not only do we not have the ability to celebrate and worship according to our traditions, which are part of a vibrant Diaspora community, but when we go there, we’re very often harassed for it, and that’s the issue,” he said.

‘We not have the ability to celebrate and worship according to our traditions’

A little background for those who haven’t kept up with all the byzantine twists and turns of the Western Wall saga: Aware of dissatisfaction among Diaspora Jews following the high-profile 2012 arrest of Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman for praying with a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, Netanyahu initiated talks to solidify the presence of progressive Jews in this “alternative” section of the Western Wall.

A compromise was reached after three and a half years of talks, chaired by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, with members of the Israeli government, Women of the Wall, the heads of the major non-Orthodox streams in Israel and the Diaspora, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation (which oversees the “mainstream” prayer pavilion), and the Jewish federations.

The government of Israel passed a decision in January 2016 that would enlarge the prayer platforms, create one entrance for both the “mainstream” and pluralistic prayer pavilions, and create a joint council made up of members of these same negotiating partners control over — and a budget — for the southern portion of the Western Wall.

Now, with the June 25 freeze of the Western Wall plan, Wernick’s communities, he said, feel betrayed and delegitimized by the very government that had taken the initiative to embrace them.

“I think certainly the Kotel [Western Wall] is more important for Diaspora Jewry, unfortunately, than it is for Israeli Jewry, aside from the Haredi. When Jews from North America come, it’s on a pilgrimage,” said Wernick.

The section prepared for prayer for the Women of the Wall by Robinson's Arch in Jerusalem's Old City is open for Jews, both men and women, to pray together as seen here, on July 17, 2014. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
The section prepared for prayer for the Women of the Wall by Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem’s Old City is open for Jews, both men and women, to pray together as seen here, on July 17, 2014. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

 

Over a lengthy conversation with The Times of Israel, Wernick discussed the minutiae of the Western Wall plan — and the temperature of his communities in light of its freeze.

Times of Israel: Can you give us a rundown of the basic tenets of the Western Wall compromise which was passed by the Israeli government in January 2016?

Wernick: So the agreement had three essential elements: It had modifications made to the site, modest expansion, but the more important element than the size was the direct access to the Kotel.

[Then Religious Affairs Minister Naftali] Bennett overnight, before Rosh Hashanah one day [in 2013] built the “sun deck” [a temporary bleacher-like platform that is not adjacent to the Western Wall] as Anat Hoffman calls it, and, it’s ugly. And it’s not indicative of a national historic religious site of the Jewish people. So let’s make something beautiful, and permanent that shows that this is mamash a place where Jews are welcome to come and pray according to their tradition. And that included cleaning up all the garbage that’s up top, and opening up a line of sight, so that it’s not hidden away like a servant’s entrance, but that it’s really part of the Kotel complex.

But it was meant to be one joint entrance, correct?

Well, that’s the second element of the agreement. Now the Prime Minister’s Office is saying that [the joint entrance] and the third element were all symbolic. Actually I think he’s got it backwards. The second element was for it to be “one wall for one people” — so not only should you have a line of sight, and a dignified place to pray, but you should have one entryway, so that people can come in and choose “his,” “hers” and “theirs,” and that’s all part of the same complex.

And the third key element was that the government was to create an oversight committee for the southern plaza. All the members would be appointed by the Prime Minister, so it’s a government committee, and the PM would appoint the chair of the Jewish Agency to be the chair of the committee. And then on that committee would be two representatives each from Masorti Israel, from Reform Israel, from Women of the Wall, there’d be someone from the archaeologists, and then there’d be three or four at-large government appointees to apply oversight and the use of budget and whatnot for security, cleaning, all the other stuff that goes into taking care of the site.

The now-frozen plan for the pluralistic section, shaded in blue, was for it to double in size to nearly 10,000 sq. ft (929 sq m). The Orthodox section, shaded in purple, takes up some 21,500 sq. ft. (nearly 2,000 sq. m.). The area in back of the Orthodox section is meant for national ceremonies. (JTA)
The now-frozen plan for the pluralistic section, shaded in blue, was for it to double in size to nearly 10,000 sq. ft (929 sq m). The Orthodox section, shaded in purple, takes up some 21,500 sq. ft. (nearly 2,000 sq. m.). The area in back of the Orthodox section is meant for national ceremonies. (JTA)

The word “budget” that you just mentioned — where was that to come from, who was supposed to pay for it?

I think it was a combination of money from the government, I’m not sure which bucket the Prime Minister was going to take it from – it certainly wasn’t the Ministry of Religion [laughing]. The government [already] pays for, there’s one rabbi that gets paid by the Ministry of Sports and Culture

There’re at least six, actually, but yes…

But it wasn’t from the Ministry of Religious Affairs. [laughing] But it was supposed to come from a government bucket, a Jewish Agency bucket, and fundraising.

The plan’s implementation would have cost NIS 35 million. Would it have also meant a yearly budget designated for this?

Yes, because there’s regular upkeep. What the government would not agree to, was to fund — like in the same way that they fund the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, where there’s a marketing budget, and there’s an educational budget, and so forth — the government did not agree to do that, and we knew that if we were going to do that we were going to have to raise that money ourselves. But I’m just thinking — just give me the opportunity to raise that money — “Have I got a wall plaque for you!” Let me raise that money. It’s like, next! “Have I got a wall we could put your name on!” [laughing]

But the government didn’t agree to do that, the government agreed to provide a budget for basic maintenance and upkeep. We understood that it was not an overt recognition, it was not in the regulations, it was in the narrative before the regulations that this was going to take place.

US President Donald Trump (R) stands near Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch (C) during a visit to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 22, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN)
US President Donald Trump (R) stands near Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch (C) during a visit to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 22, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN)

The whole thing was negotiated with the Rav HaKotel’s [Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch] well-being in mind, with the Haredi parties, too. It was designed to have tacit recognition, not overt recognition. And that was important to us. Because to have a site, but then to have the Rav HaKotel potentially to have the oversight for that, I mean, we didn’t trust that there wouldn’t be one day where the trash wouldn’t be collected, or the electrical bill unpaid, it just leaves us open all these issues.

And what was interesting was that the hardest thing to negotiate was the oversight committee. Less difficult was the entry way, because we were told the police would want that anyway. Why would the police want to deal with two physical entryways?

But even harder to negotiate was the physical site. Not because of the Haredim, it was difficult to negotiate because of the archaeologists and the Wakf [Islamic trust that administers the Temple Mount].

How did the Wakf come into play during the years of negotiations?

[Former Cabinet Secretary] Avichai Mandleblit, from what I understand, consistently communicated with them about what we were doing and wanted to make sure we were being sensitive to the geopolitical situation —

Because immediately after the January 31, 2016 announcement, the next day, the Wakf condemned it —

Yes, of course they did…

But what you’re saying is that it was just pro forma, just a press release?

It was pro forma in the same way that the Haredi voted against the regulations in the government meeting in January of 2016. No one expected the Haredi parties to vote for it, but the general thinking at the time was — what was brilliant about the deal — what we gave up and what the Haredi parties would have gained, which was very painful to do, is that we would have codified according to the regulations that the northern plaza would function as an Orthodox synagogue. That’s not the law right now, which is why every time we’ve gone to the Supreme Court about this, the Supreme Court has either chastised the government or ruled in our favor. And by “our” I mean Women of the Wall, Reform, and Conservative movements.

Jewish women and men pray in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, during the Cohen Benediction priestly blessing at the Jewish holiday of Passover, April 09, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Jewish women and men pray in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, during the priestly blessing at the Jewish holiday of Passover, April 09, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

So what we were giving up was that right. We were basically agreeing for the northern plaza to be as a matter of law an Orthodox synagogue. And in exchange for that what we were gaining was that the southern plaza was according to law was going to be a pluralistic synagogue space.

What was ironic about that was that we were going to allow a mechitza [a barrier to separate between men and women] once a month for the Women of the Wall. Nashot HaKotel [Women of the Wall] doesn’t want to have mixed prayer; Nashot HaKotel wants to have a women’s only minyan, where even Orthodox women could come and participate according to so-called “Torah egalitarian” or whatever it is.

When I’m writing about it, I call it the “pluralistic” prayer pavilion.

Because it’s not necessarily egalitarian, right, it’s pluralistic. And so that was the idea. The Orthodox would have gained something significant as a matter of law. And it would have been codified, and Women of the Wall, and we, would have gotten out of their hair.

Now without that, we’re going to continue to be in that space, fighting for what we believe is a question of Jewish peoplehood.

The Conservative movement has been using the Robinson’s Arch area, since…

Twenty years. That’s why the notion of the Prime Minister’s Office that the last two issues are symbolic is really false. Because we already have the space. There’s nothing that changes for us, other than the entryway and it being a little more permanent, nothing much changes for us practically.

Two Jewish men and two women stand in front of the Western Wall, Jerusalem, circa 1908. (Underwood & Underwood/Library of Congress)
Two Jewish men and two women stand in front of the Western Wall, Jerusalem, circa 1908. (Underwood & Underwood/Library of Congress)

The hours, that’s already been accomplished. It’s open 24 hours a day. The entryway, if you come from Dung Gate, the entryway is after the entryway to the Davidson archaeological center, and before you get to the Shokin gate. You have to look for it. It’s hidden in a way like a servant’s entrance.

But it’s open 24 hours if you know where you’re going.

If you know where you’re going, it’s open 24 hours.

Has signage been an issue?

Signage has definitely been an issue. I mean, there’s one little tiny sign that points to the direction. Part of the agreement was that there was going to be more signage. If it’s going to be a real place, people need to know how to get there.

If you’re a tourist and you’re not familiar with the space or all the politics that goes with this, if you’re standing in the northern plaza, you have no idea that you can go a little bit south and get into the very lovely… frankly, I like the southern plaza more than the northern plaza, not because of the mechitza, which of course I don’t like, but because it’s a little quieter, which is better for introspection, but also being embedded in the archaeology, for me, just gives it a greater context. But if you don’t know that, you stand at the northern plaza, you think your only choice is to go here or here [men or women].

Is this something that you’re working toward right now, or is that battle for more signage on hold in the meantime?

Unless the southern plaza, the Robinson’s Arch area, is really elevated to be part of the Kotel complex, of “one wall for one people,” there’s no impetus for the government or anyone else to provide more signage. Because otherwise it’s treated as an archaeological site where the “Reformim” [derogatory Hebrew term for non-Orthodox Jews] can go and do whatever they want, out of sight, out of mind.

Do you have any idea how much it’s being used currently?

Right now, certainly in the summer months, it’s packed in the morning, as all the tourists from abroad come and perform b’nei mitzvah there. It’s packed. Our understanding is that 50,000 people go through there annually, and people are there every day. We send from the Conservative yeshiva, which is at the Fuchsberg Center around the corner, we have a daily shacharit [morning] minyan Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the Robinson’s Arch. It’s also used for Tisha B’Av.

During the heavy tourism months, it’s packed. There’s probably six, seven, eight bnei mitzvah happening at a time.

File: Jewish women of the Women of the Wall organization read from the Torah and pray at Robinson's Arch at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 12, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
File: Jewish women of the Women of the Wall organization read from the Torah and pray at Robinson’s Arch at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 12, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

What to you is the greatest impact of freezing the Kotel plan?

What makes this so disappointing and at the core of all the anger, is the prime minister started this whole thing. He asked for Natan Sharansky to engage, he put serious resources in Avichai Mandelblit to negotiate for three and a half years. We reached an agreement, everyone knew what the agreement was about — there were no surprises here about those three elements. At no point did they say “we can’t guarantee any element of this.” And then it went to the cabinet and it was accepted.

And then it was essentially frozen, and then now, the source of the anger is that it’s not a freeze, it’s really killed. If it requires a vote from the cabinet to come back to life, it’s killed, it was not a freeze. It was already frozen, it wasn’t going anywhere, so there’s no practical meaning of a freeze, if you need another vote now, other than the fact that it’s dead.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015, in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

So it’s that sense of betrayal that hurts so much. You get beyond the hurt and the betrayal, you have to figure out what comes next. And in some ways, what the prime minister is experiencing now is what we’ve been telling him all along. That the Diaspora community on these issues is becoming more and more impatient, and is not accepting the historic Israeli line about the status quo.

‘Status quo is not a policy, it’s not progress’

Status quo is not a policy, it’s not progress, status quo is actually staying the same, and the world is progressing in a lot of different ways, so the status quo is no longer a sustainable option with regard to the Diaspora community over the issues of religious pluralism at the Kotel and so forth.

So what he’s hearing is the anger at all levels of the American Jewish community — I mean, it’s unheard of for AIPAC to come, for philanthropists to say what they’re saying. We’ve never seen that before. And nobody’s asking these people to do that.

Youth from the Conservative Noam youth movement participate in prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Youth from the Conservative Noam youth movement participate in prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on July 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But moving forward, I think that on the Kotel, now’s the time to even deepen the engagement and fight harder. I don’t think Conservative Jews are going to disengage. I think the message that we’re going to give to Conservative Jews is that we need to reengage. I think we need more investment in the movement to create an even greater viable alternative to Judaism within the Jewish state. We need more investment in an education campaign for the everyday Israeli to understand how important these issues are strategically to Israel, but also how they’re tied to the issues that Israelis care about.

So you’re talking about changing the hearts and minds of Israelis at this point.

At the end of the day, politics are local. So I think that at the end of the day we’re going to have to build stronger alliances with those political allies that we can, and that we have to redouble our efforts to build the movements in Israel, and continue to fight at every opportunity that’s available to us in the courts, in the Knesset, and the realm of public opinion.

Since the Conservative movement was really the leader in establishing Robinson’s Arch as a prayer pavilion, had Netanyahu not restarted the negotiations over the Robinson’s Arch area, would there be less hurt at this point — because of a deal that has been promised and frozen — had there just been no deal, and you had continued how you were? Would the Kotel have even been an issue for Conservative Jews in America?

The answer is yes, it would have been an issue, and the reason for that is that over the last 15 years, as more and more women rabbis have been ordained — it’s been 30 years since women have been ordained as rabbis within the Masorti movement — as they have been taking pulpits and other leadership roles within the movement, as egalitarianism has become so firmly established within Conservative Judaism, with women wearing the tallit and tefillin and reading from the Torah and so forth, there has been an increase in Conservative women and male allies for Women of the Wall. And what triggered all of this was when Anat Hoffman was arrested for bringing the Torah into the Kotel…

A group of American Conservative and Reform rabbis and the Women of the Wall movement members hold Torah scrolls during a protest march against the government’s failure to deliver a new prayer space, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, November 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
A group of American Conservative and Reform rabbis and the Women of the Wall movement members hold Torah scrolls during a protest march against the government’s failure to deliver a new prayer space, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, November 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

This was in 2012?

Yes. And she was arrested for carrying the Torah, and treated like a common criminal. And in the minds of Conservative and Reform Jews, it’s like: How is it possible that in 2012, that any Jew, let alone a woman, is going to be arrested for a public display of Judaism in the Jewish state?! And so that’s what upped the ante, so to speak, and Anat’s picture on the front page of The New York Times, being arrested, is what triggered the prime minister to ask Natan Sharansky to deal with this.

So I think that there’s a larger paradigm shift that’s taking place. It’s a global paradigm shift, but certainly in North America, that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back on this issue. So I think that Netanyahu came forward with an imperative to try to solve this problem because of the level of importance that this issue became on the minds of Diaspora Jewry. So whether or not he made a deal and reneged on it, right now we have a sense of betrayal because there was a deal, but whether or not there had been a deal, you still would have seen this issue as one of the top three issues of Diaspora Jewry in relation to Israel.

What are the other two?

I think that Diaspora Jewry are concerned about Israel’s security and well-being. Diaspora Jews are very much concerned about Israel’s security, they’re very concerned about BDS [Boycott, Disengage and Sanctions] and delegitimization of the Jewish state, and they’re very concerned about religious pluralism within Israel. Those are the top three issues for Diaspora Jewry.

And the delegitimization of Diaspora Jewry is making the other two issues much harder for Diaspora Jewry. Because we’re the ones who have to explain to those who don’t necessarily understand, to the people who are not necessarily as connected to the Jewish State as people of my generation and older are, why this matters. So not only do we have to overcome what’s becoming increasingly leftist politics, but now we also have to explain about the religious stuff, too.

So not only does Israel not represent your political view in terms of the “occupation,” it also doesn’t represent any Judaism that you recognize. And it appears that it’s allowing itself to come more and more under the restrictive control of a very fundamentalist Jewish politic.

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