Will new pluralist prayer plaza build bridges for Israel and Diaspora?
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Reform leader: 'Symbolically this decision shifts how we think about ourselves, how we think about the state'

Will new pluralist prayer plaza build bridges for Israel and Diaspora?

Nearly euphoric liberal Jewish leaders praise 'highly symbolic' cabinet decision on Western Wall -- while still taking a 'we'll believe it when we see it' approach

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

Women dance with a Torah scroll as they attend a monthly prayer service at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, on April 20, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Women dance with a Torah scroll as they attend a monthly prayer service at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, on April 20, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In the rosy glow of victory following the Israeli cabinet decision Sunday that will see a new pluralistic plaza built at the Western Wall, the head of the Reform Movement Rabbi Rick Jacobs described a scenario in which a family from Nahariya makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

As a matter of course, one of its stops in the capital would be the Old City’s Western Wall, noted Jacobs. Today, the male and female members of the family are forced to encounter the holiest Jewish site in the world separately — regardless of their prayer practices.

But after the ratification of Sunday’s cabinet decision, Jacobs projected, in the not too distant future, this Israeli family — and millions of non-Orthodox Jews around the world — should soon be able to decide where, and more importantly, how, to have their personal Jewish experience.

“They will get to the site and see there’s a place for men, a place for women, and now an alternative. There is now a choice,” said Jacobs.

“Clearly there’s more than one authentic way to be a Jewish person, and the state of Israel is built on that, but it hasn’t always lived up to it,” said Jacobs. “Today it is echoing in our communities… in Kansas and in Oregon, that the state of Israel knows they are there. Symbolically this is something that shifts how we think about ourselves, how we think about the state.”

The pluralist section, shaded in blue, will double in size to nearly 10,000 square feet. The Orthodox section, shaded in purple, takes up some 21,500 square feet. The area in back of the Orthodox section is meant for national ceremonies. (JTA)
The pluralist section, shaded in blue, will double in size to nearly 10,000 square feet. The Orthodox section, shaded in purple, takes up some 21,500 square feet. The area in back of the Orthodox section is meant for national ceremonies. (JTA)

All the American Jewish leaders who spoke with The Times of Israel on Sunday said it was clear that with an ever-growing rift between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, there was much more at stake in reaching this compromise at the Western Wall than partitioning prayer.

Four years in the making, Sunday’s decision comes on the heels of high-profile conciliatory statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at November’s Jewish Federations of North American GA, in which he stressed his intent to mend bridges with the Jewish Diaspora after a summer fraught by inflammatory rhetoric surrounding the Iran nuclear deal.

The decision was backed by ongoing intense negotiations. Led by head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky and outgoing Israeli Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit, other key players included representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements from Israel and North America, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which was responsible for archeological concerns, and female activist prayer group, Women of the Wall.

Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit (L) seen with Attorney General of Israel Yehuda Weinstein (R) during the weekly government conference at PM Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on January 31, 2016. (Amit Shabi/POOL)
Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit (L) seen with Attorney General of Israel Yehuda Weinstein (R) during the weekly government conference at PM Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on January 31, 2016. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

Sharansky, who was roundly lauded by those involved as a visionary force in reaching the historical compromise, said the issue of the Kotel was symbolic of much deeper concerns.

“I personally believe… that the biggest challenge for the Jewish people… our biggest internal problem is how not to become two different people,” said Sharansky on Sunday at a press conference in Los Angeles, where he participated in the opening of a new chapter of Limmud FSU.

The Western Wall, said Sharansky, is merely “the most visual example of the problem.”

“Why is the Kotel such a big problem? It is the number one religious site, and the number one national site. There is no place in the world which is at the same time that is the number one religious site, the closest place to God, and number one national site which includes all our history, from King David through the Six Day War,” said Sharansky.

A man holds an Israeli flag during a march in support of the city of Jerusalem at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City on October 22, 2015, following a wave of terror attacks. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
A man holds an Israeli flag during a march in support of the city of Jerusalem at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City on October 22, 2015, following a wave of terror attacks. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

Sharansky said that a new Jewish homeland existing side-by-side with an ongoing Diaspora Jewry is an “absolutely a unique experiment.”

“So how to build this nation of Jews — Israel — and how to keep it as one nation, between Jews who live in the Diaspora and Israelis?” asked Sharansky.

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky watches over the Old City of Jerusalem (photo credit: Oren Fixler/Flash90)
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky (photo credit: Oren Fixler/Flash90)

One wall for one, or many, people?

The Western Wall is honored by Jews as a remnant of a wall supporting the Second Temple complex, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. On its other side is the compound housing the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.

Illustrating the Old City’s complicated close quarters, the new pluralistic complex will be separated from the current plaza by the ramp leading up to the Mughrabi Gate, the only entrance for non-Muslims to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which Jews call the Temple Mount.

For those who prefer traditional Orthodox prayer, the current facilities offering gender-segregation through a mehitza — dividing and blocking the other sex from view — will still be on offer. Although Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz said he received the decision Sunday “with a heavy heart” since he disapproved of egalitarian prayer, he also gave “a sigh of relief” as the Women of the Wall would no longer be praying in the traditional women’s section.

As in the case of Rabinovitz, for the majority of world Judaism, the decision goes well beyond the simple practicalities of where and how to pray.

For the Women of the Wall, it’s been a principled 27-year battle for recognition as well.

“In approving this plan, the state acknowledges women’s full equality at the Kotel and the imperative of freedom of choice in Judaism in Israel. The creation of a third section of the Kotel sets a strong precedent in women’s status in Israel: women as administrators of a holy site, women as leaders, women as influential force not to be ignore or silenced,” wrote the Women of the Wall in a statement.

All visitors to the site will walk through an entrance at the Jerusalem Old City’s Dung Gate, then separate into three corridors, shaded here in pink. Visitors to the Orthodox men’s section will go to the left. Visitors to the Orthodox women’s section will walk down the middle. Visitors to the non-Orthodox section will go to the right. The yellow corridor is an exit. (JTA)
All visitors to the site will walk through an entrance at the Jerusalem Old City’s Dung Gate, then separate into three corridors, shaded here in pink. Visitors to the Orthodox men’s section will go to the left. Visitors to the Orthodox women’s section will walk down the middle. Visitors to the non-Orthodox section will go to the right. The yellow corridor is an exit. (JTA)

On Sunday, members of the negotiating team told The Times of Israel that there were several points in which a compromise seemed close. The committee tasked with finding a solution was formally named back in May 2013. However, at the changing of the guard in the Prime Minister’s Office with chief negotiator Mandelblit moving to become the attorney general on Friday, another push was made in January to bring a compromise to the table.

At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu publicly praised Mandelblit, and called the plan “a compromise on this delicate issue in a place that is supposed to unite the Jewish People.”

“While I know that this is a delicate issue, I think that this is a fair and creative solution. The most complex problems usually require such solutions and I congratulate you on what you have submitted for a decision by the Cabinet,” said Netanyahu.

‘This was a good compromise in which nobody gets everything they want’

“This was a good compromise in which nobody gets everything they want,” laughed Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, the Chief Executive Officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “It’s enough at this moment to say we have made historic steps towards the issue of religious pluralism in Israel, especially at the Kotel, and this opens up the opportunity for more. It is a hugely symbolic step, that’s where the victory is.”

At November’s JFNA GA, Netanyahu told Diaspora leaders, “You are Israel’s partners, you are my partners in building the Jewish future… There is only one Jewish people. There is only one Jewish state. And now, more than ever, we must work together to unite the Jewish people and secure the Jewish state.”

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)

On Sunday, Wernick praised Netanyahu’s commitment to this vision in pushing for the new plaza compromise.

“It’s no secret that the past several years has seen division with the Diaspora and Israel,” said Wernick. According to Wernick, some 90% of North American Jews self-define as something other than Orthodox and that the two denominations with the greatest engagement with Jewish life there are Reform and Conservative.

However, when they come to Israel and to the Western Wall in particular, they “feel like second-class citizens, feel harassed by Haredi [ultra-Orthodox Jews],” said Wernick. He said with the increase of women rabbis and committed women praying in egalitarian services, “it’s a real problem.”

“But that fact that we’re able to do this and have the government as our partner in getting here — that’s the win for klal yisrael [for the entirety of the Jewish People],” said Wernick.

But will it come to fruition?

The plan calls for a budget of NIS 35 million (almost $9 million) between 2016-2017. According to the cabinet decision, NIS 5 million will come from the Prime Minister’s Office, NIS 5 million from the Diaspora Ministry (2017) and NIS 5 million from the Finance Ministry. JAFI has pledged another NIS 10 million. and the Finance Ministry has 30 days to find the remaining NIS 10 million for 2016.

The plan approved Sunday would create a unified, 9,700-square-foot prayer space that touches the Western Wall at a narrow point in the southwest corner and broadens as it extends backward. The prayer space would touch a 31-foot segment (9.5 meters) of the wall. This picture also shows what the section’s entrance will look like: a wide staircase and flat walkway leading to the prayer space. (JTA)
The plan approved Sunday would create a unified, 9,700-square-foot prayer space that touches the Western Wall at a narrow point in the southwest corner and broadens as it extends backward. The prayer space would touch a 31-foot segment (9.5 meters) of the wall. This picture also shows what the section’s entrance will look like: a wide staircase and flat walkway leading to the prayer space. (JTA)

As to where those extra funds may come from, head of the Jewish Federations of North America Jerry Silverman provided an elusive answer.

Silverman opened our conversation by saying he is “living the dream,” but when asked about where the funds will come from, he told The Times of Israel that he expects the government will find them. However, if there is a shortfall, “the Federation has made the commitment that every I is dotted and T is crossed so the resolution comes alive for the entirety of the Jewish community.”

‘It’s a historic moment that the Jewish state really is for all Jewish people — that there is a space for all Jews to pray’

An almost euphoric Silverman added, “It’s a historic moment that the Jewish state really is for all Jewish people — that there is a space for all Jews to pray.”

In an early Sunday morning telephone call only a few hours after the decision was announced, a much more cautious Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, agreed that the plan is a “significant step… but the real test is we need it to get built. We need for this to get built,” she emphasized.

“We see no reason why construction shouldn’t start immediately,” said Schonfeld, adding that the decision asks for “modest money for a modest plan.”

Providing it does gets built, Schonfeld feels it is a good first step for world Jewry.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld delivers a psalm at the presidential inaugural service at the National Cathedral. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (Ron Kampeas/JTA)

“But there are many other significant injustices that non-Orthodox Jews continue to suffer in the State of Israel and we need to address them,” said Schonfeld. “This significant symbol will inspire to further those issues and educate Israeli Jewry that there are options,” she said, citing the need for freedom of marriage, and other concerns including conversion, burial, and equal access to funding for all denominations.

For the Women of the Wall as well, the seed of doubt over the reality of the future plaza colors the organization’s celebratory enthusiasm.

“If and when this transition is complete, the new section will make way for great change: women will pray at the Kotel, as equals, as active participants and leaders in rituals, ceremonies and of course in reading from the Torah,” said the organization.

Like other leaders, the Conservative movement’s Schonfeld said she is “gratified” the decision passed. Now she is anticipating its swift implementation.

“Things have been promised — a more robust physical site, an autonomous governing body and budgets have been promised — now we’re waiting to see these promises brought to fruition,” said Schonfeld.

— JTA and AFP contributed to this report

Conservative Jews pray at the section prepared for prayer for the Women of the Wall at Robinson's Arch in Jerusalem's Old City on July 30, 2014. (Robert Swift/Flash90)
Conservative Jews pray at the section prepared for prayer for the Women of the Wall at Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem’s Old City on July 30, 2014. (Robert Swift/Flash90)
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