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Agenda stalled, progressive Jews plan Western Wall protest prayer

With pluralist pavilion delayed, Reform and Masorti leaders call on public to join egalitarian worship next to segregated plaza

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

People pray on either side of the dividing wall that separates the male and female prayer sections at the Western Wall, June 14, 2016. (Wajsgras/Flash90)
People pray on either side of the dividing wall that separates the male and female prayer sections at the Western Wall, June 14, 2016. (Wajsgras/Flash90)

With a deal to create an egalitarian space at the Western Wall stalled in the face of ultra-Orthodox pressure, pluralistic Jewish leaders have called for a mass prayer service to be held Thursday adjacent to the Orthodox-run prayer plaza, in contravention of the usual practice at the site.

Reform and Conservative leaders “will gather in the large plaza behind the mehitza [separation]-divided prayer area,” at 5 p.m., according to a blog post by rabbis Pamela Frydman and Stanley Davids published on The Times of Israel.

The move comes as a response to a series of setbacks that have prevented the creation of a non-Orthodox prayer space at the Western Wall, despite a government compromise deal reached in January.

Religious Affairs Minister David Azulai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party slammed the planned move saying he would “not allow deliberately provocative actions in the Western Wall plaza.”

“I fully condemn the disgraceful decision of this noisy fringe group,” Azulai said.

Highlighting the intense opposition to the plan from within the ultra-Orthodox community, Jerusalem’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar on Monday held a separate service at the site designated for non-Orthodox prayer. Speaking after the service, Amar said a mixed-gender plaza constituted an “unforgivable wrong” that will “weaken Jerusalem” and the Jewish people.

Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar speaks at the mixed gender Western Wall plaza on June 14, 2016. (screen capture: Ynet)
Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar speaks at the mixed gender Western Wall plaza on June 14, 2016. (screen capture: Ynet)

Frydman, who currently chairs the Executive Committee of Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel, and Davids, a former chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, condemned Amar’s move, calling it a “desecration” of the designated prayer space.

“We call upon Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and all responsible members of the coalition and opposition in the Knesset to condemn Rabbi Amar for desecrating the holy site by using his presence to instill hatred toward other Jews and to prevent Rabbi Amar from continuing such desecration,” they wrote.

The Western Wall compromise, passed in a January 31 cabinet decision that reflected the work of years of negotiations, called for a permanent prayer platform to be built along the southern end of the Western Wall in an area of the Davidson Archaeological park, otherwise known as Robinson’s Arch. There is currently a temporary prayer platform set up there in two distinct areas of the park.

The plan was heralded as a symbol of Jewish unity throughout much of the Jewish Diaspora. But within days of its jubilant announcement — a headline which splashed across international media — the cabinet decision drew the ire of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s tenuous coalition who view the Western Wall pavilion as an open-air Orthodox synagogue. Its implementation has been stymied for the past four months.

Reform female and male rabbis pray together at Robinson's Arch, the Western Wall site slated for future egalitarian services, on Thursday, February 25, 2016. (Y.R/Reform Movement)
Reform female and male rabbis pray together at Robinson’s Arch, the Western Wall site slated for future egalitarian services, February 25, 2016. (Y.R/Reform Movement)

Two weeks ago, at the end of the latest 60-day extension delaying the beginning of the implementation of the plan, American Jewish religious leaders met with Netanyahu to try and find a way to resolve the impasse. Netanyahu’s office issued a statement after the meeting saying that he continues to work on the issue and is committed to resolving the matter. However, some warned a crisis could be in the offing.

“There’s no parallel to the level of crisis with the Jewish Diaspora if a quick and respectable solution to this crisis is not found,” said Yizhar Hess, head of the Conservative Movement in Israel, also known as Masorti, at the time.

Thursday’s service is expected to be prevented by police, working under the instruction of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation which manages the site.

Women of the Wall Executive Director Leslie Sachs carrying a Torah scroll as she is escorted away from the Western Wall plaza by police, June 7, 2016. (Michal Fattal)
Women of the Wall Executive Director Leslie Sachs carrying a Torah scroll as she is escorted away from the Western Wall plaza by police, June 7, 2016. (Michal Fattal)

Last week the executive director of the Women of the Wall group, which calls for equal prayer rights for women at the Western Wall, was detained for smuggling a Torah scroll into the traditional Western Wall prayer plaza during a service.

A police spokesperson said Sachs was detained for questioning and not arrested. Police have largely stopped arresting Women of the Wall members for their monthly services at the Western Wall, as a High Court petition on the use of Torah scrolls by women waits to be decided.

“We call upon Israeli security forces to move competently to prevent any threats of violence against this act of worship and political consciousness raising. We also invite everyone to witness this mixed gender worship,” Freedman and Davids concluded in their blog post.

Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.

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