The Ministry of Jerusalem and the Diaspora announced on Sunday the opening of a new but temporary plaza at the Western Wall that would host egalitarian prayer services at the holy site during the upcoming High Holidays.
“The Kotel [Western Wall] belongs to all Jews, all over the world, no matter what stream of Judaism they come from,” Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, who also serves as minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora, told The Times of Israel.
The location of the new plaza “is a continuation of the Western Wall, the same wall of the [ancient Second] Temple, just a bit south. Egalitarian Jews are now able to pray at a respectable place” officially designated as egalitarian by the Israeli government, he added.
The new platform, built from wood on scaffolding over the Robinson’s Arch area south of the main Western Wall plaza, measures 450 square meters (4,840 square feet) and can accommodate 450 worshippers. The new section was built quickly over the past two weeks to serve 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.
The area was already designated for egalitarian prayer by the High Court of Justice, and has been used for non-Orthodox prayers for about 10 years, but without government funding or involvement. Until now, the area has been open for prayer services free of charge on weekday mornings until 9:15. Any groups arriving later than that had to pay an entrance fee.
According to the new plan, the area will now be open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The plan would also ensure that Torah scrolls, prayer books and prayer shawls will be available at the site, as well as ushers to help facilitate prayer services. Until now, these items have been provided and funded by the Masorti Movement, the Israeli branch of Conservative Judaism.
The new plan is only an “interim” measure, Bennett emphasized on Sunday.
A government-appointed committee headed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit is preparing a permanent arrangement to resolve the long-standing dispute between the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administrates the main Western Wall plaza, and those demanding access to Judaism’s holiest site for liberal Jewish groups and customs.
The plan is unlikely to please many liberal Jews. It formally recognizes the main prayer plaza as “solely for Orthodox services,” a statement from the Jerusalem and Diaspora Ministry confirmed on Sunday. 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.
A government official familiar with the issue told The Times of Israel on Sunday that “geopolitical considerations” prevented the temporary plaza from offering physical access to the Wall, noting that Israel is careful not to change the status quo at the Temple Mount area, which is also sacred to Muslims.
“Do you see the State of Israel in today’s Middle East building a new platform that’s adjacent to the Western Wall?” the official said. “The Reform and Conservative [movements] understand that. No one says this is a permanent solution, but it’s respectable, accommodating and nice, and more than [egalitarian Jews] have ever had at the Kotel.”
The temporary plaza has garnered criticism from activists who fear it signals that the government is considering offering less-than-equal arrangements for egalitarian prayers in any permanent arrangement.
Critics have also noted that it is unclear what the new plan means for a District Court decision in April that permitted Women of the Wall — a group campaigning for the right to read from the Torah and don prayer shawls and phylacteries at women-only services — to pray at the main plaza.
Women of the Wall’s Anat Hoffman harshly criticized the plan in a video released by the group that shows Hoffman standing in front of the new plaza.
“The government of Israel decided as a ‘gift’ for Rosh Hashanah to solve the issue… by building this sunbathing deck,” she accused, charging that the site “is a way of building a second-rate Wall for second-rate Jews. I refuse to accept it.
“This is no solution,” she continued. “This is actually a symbolic representation of how little Israel thinks of the diversity in the Jewish world.”
Women of the Wall called for a 24-hour sit-in at the Kotel plaza starting Sunday evening.
“We will sleep there, we will eat there, we will drink there, we will use the toilet there,” Hoffman said.
Bennett said the temporary plaza was built in coordination with the Jewish Agency and Prime Minister’s Office, a statement confirmed by the Jewish Agency. But some liberal Jewish leaders noted that it fell far short of the reported provisions of the permanent plan being developed by Sharansky and Mandelblit, especially when it came to the new plaza’s elevation and access to the sacred wall.
According to Rabbi Rick Block, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents thousands of American Reform rabbis, the Sharansky plan calls for “an area equal in size and elevation to the existing prayer zone; secure, common, and equal physical access to both the gender-segregated and the egalitarian/pluralistic areas on a 24/7/365 basis; common entries to the public plaza leading to all sections,” and other measures.
The new plan “falls far short of the Sharansky proposal in both substance and process,” Block wrote in an email to The Times of Israel on Sunday.
“Solving the issues presented by the Kotel situation is essential to Jewish unity and Israel’s strategic interests. I urge the Prime Minister’s Office, in the strongest possible terms, to commit itself to the Sharansky proposal in its entirety, promptly, publicly, and unequivocally, to formulate both interim and permanent plans consistent with that proposal in partnership with all key stakeholders and to refrain from presenting a proposal until those vital tasks are accomplished,” he added.
“If the opportunity for a collaborative process and solution is missed and a plan is put forward that diverges in material respects from the Sharansky proposal, it will exacerbate the tensions so many have worked hard to defuse and set back a process in which so much productive effort has been invested,” he warned.
For his part, Sharansky welcomed the new plan in a brief statement on Sunday, calling it “a gesture of goodwill.”
Other liberal Jewish leaders expressed cautious optimism, even as they called for more equality at the site for liberal streams.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said she hoped Sunday’s “statement and the opening of this new platform signifies several steps forward for the legitimacy of the liberal movements in the State of Israel.”
She warned, however, that the “crucial long-term issue is full equality,” calling for funding for the new southern section to equal what is spent each year on the main northern plaza.
Bennett was unfazed by the criticism.
“I didn’t expect everyone to accept the plan. It was not targeted at 20 to 30 specific people,” he said — a reference to the activists who have led the criticism — “but at the mainstream of Jews who want to pray together with their families. For the first time ever, they can do so. I invite all Jews to come to pray at the Kotel.”
Bennett’s own Jewish Home constituency is almost entirely Orthodox. Asked if they might also object to expanding the existing egalitarian section at the Western Wall, he insisted he was “not sure it’s the popular decision, but it’s the right decision. I’m not focused just on my own voters, but on all Jews.”
Asher Zeiger and Rebecca Shimoni Stoil contributed to this report.