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Israel forbids mixed-gender prayer service at Western Wall

In a letter to Reform and Conservative Jews, government cites rule against hosting ‘religious ceremonies’ in holy site’s plaza

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)

Israel will not allow non-Orthodox Jews to host a mixed-gender, egalitarian prayer service at the Western Wall on Thursday, citing a 2013 rule that forbids “religious ceremonies” in the entrance plaza to the holy site.

The Reform and Conservative movements were informed of the decision on Wednesday in a letter from attorney Yisrael Patt, the legal adviser to the Ministry of Religious Services, the Walla news site reported.

The pluralistic services were scheduled for 8:30 a.m. and planned to coincide with the new Jewish month of Tamuz.

Though the sectioned-off area directly in front of the Kotel, as the holy site is known in Hebrew, is specifically designated for prayer, the letter informed the groups that the open plaza that stretches down to the Western Wall is not meant to be used for spiritual gatherings, according to a 2013 decision by the Western Wall’s chief rabbi and the Justice Ministry.

Police officers walking at the Western Wall plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem on September 13, 2015. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers walking at the Western Wall plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem on September 13, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“This has no connection to the type of prayer or religious ceremony,” Patt wrote.

This decision was approved by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who has not forbidden mixed-gender prayer services at the Western Wall in the past, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

However, Mandelblit will not intervene in a separate service for the new month by female-only Women of the Wall group also planned for Thursday morning.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in Jerusalem on July 05, 2015. (Emil Salman/POOL)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in Jerusalem on July 5, 2015. (Emil Salman/POOL)

The Kotel has two sections for prayer, one for men and one for women, in accordance with the Orthodox tradition. The Reform and Conservative movements have on occasion hosted prayer services in the space behind those two sections.

This occurred most recently on Monday, to no great controversy. But when a similar prayer was held last month, a group of ultra-Orthodox men at the site tried to disrupt that service, leading to scuffles.

According to Haaretz, Mandelblit said he would no longer allow the services by the Reform and Conservative movements after the Ministry of Religious Services asked him to halt the planned prayer.

Almost exactly one year ago, Religious Services Minister David Azoulay came under fire in Israel after saying he does not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish.

Religious Services Minister David Azoulay during a press conference in the Knesset on March 08, 2011. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
Religious Services Minister David Azoulay during a press conference in the Knesset on March 8, 2011. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

“A Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say that he is a Jew.” Azoulay, a member of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party, added: “These are Jews that have lost their way.”

A service by the progressive streams last month was not opposed by Mandelblit, though it drew violent protests from ultra-Orthodox worshipers at the site, the holiest spot where Jews can pray.

The move comes as liberal Jewish streams have protested foot dragging by the government in pushing ahead with a plan to create a new multidenominational prayer space directly south of the Western Wall plaza.

In response, the Reform movement said it will not break the law, but will still convene tomorrow at the Western Wall, as well as prepare a court challenge, Haaretz reported.

After Monday’s mixed-gender prayer service at the Kotel, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called for the government to change the status quo and allow for a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall.

Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs, center, participating in a prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, July 4, 2016. (Courtesy of the URJ)
Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs, center, participating in a prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, July 4, 2016. (Courtesy of the URJ)

“With our proposed change — in favor of which the government ruled — every single day there will be groups of Jews from around the world who will come to this place and not feel like visitors, quietly and meekly taking our place-but in full voice, be who we are, saying ‘this too, is our place,’” Jacobs added.

In response to the decision by the Ministry of Religious Services, the Reform and Conservative movements insisted they would not break the law, but vowed to “put an end once and for all to the Western Wall’s chief rabbi thuggish takeover of this site, which is sacred to the entire Jewish nation.”

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