ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Inside Story

Red tape keeps non-Orthodox worshipers a stone’s throw from the Western Wall

5 years after stone collapse at holy site, authorities have yet to reopen access to Wall at egalitarian section; religious activists argue delay is deliberate

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Ofri Meoded Danon and his mother celebrate his bar mitzvah at the egalitarian plaza of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel in May 2023. (Courtesy of Meoded Danon)
Ofri Meoded Danon and his mother celebrate his bar mitzvah at the egalitarian plaza of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel in May 2023. (Courtesy of Meoded Danon)

For his bar mitzvah, Ofri Meoded Danon traveled with his nuclear family and friends from their home in the Galilee to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The plan was for everyone, including the boy’s female rabbi and female relatives, to celebrate the occasion together at the so-called egalitarian plaza of the Western Wall. It’s a small section bordering the holy site that the government in 2013 set aside for people who want to worship with members of the opposite sex, and therefore outside the main plaza, where the men and women worship separately.

But upon arriving at the Western Wall, the bar mitzvah posse realized the plan would have to be adjusted. The part of the egalitarian plaza, whose official name is Ezrat Israel, that touches the Western Wall has been closed for the past five years due to the 2018 collapse of a stone from the wall. That part of the plaza has remained closed even though the wall has been certified as safe since 2021. The family had been unaware of this prior to coming.

“It was disappointing,” the boy’s mother, Inbar, told The Times of Israel about the visit last month. The service was held on a section of Ezrat Israel that only overlooks the wall but is not close enough to it to touch the stones. “It felt like we were prevented from doing something that we have every right to do,” she said.

Activists promoting Reform and Conservative Judaism, whose community members are the main users of the plaza because it frees them from complying with the Orthodox rules that apply on the main Western Wall plaza, say that city officials are dragging their feet deliberately, to block non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall in general and access to the stones in particular.

But authorities responsible for the site say that Ezrat Israel is on course for reopening, which will happen when a building permit is issued by the Jerusalem municipality for replacing two columns that support the raised plaza, and which may have been damaged following the 2018 collapse.

Guests attend a bar mitzvah ceremony on the egalitarian Ezrat Israel plaza near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel on June 19, 2023. (Courtesy of the Masorti Movement in Israel)

“Oh, they’ve been giving us the runaround for years,” Orly Erez-Likhovski, the executive director of the Israel Religion Action Center (IRAC), which is the legal arm of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, told The Times of Israel about attempts to reopen the balcony of Ezrat Israel that goes all the way to the Western Wall.

It took IRAC two years just to get an answer from the municipality and other entities involved in running and maintaining holy sites in the Western Wall as to what steps needed to be taken in order to advance efforts to reopen the section.

“It’s a war of attrition meant to delay, subvert and prevent progress,” said Erez-Likhovski of what she described as a campaign led by the city bureaucrats and the municipal council, where more than half of the 30 representatives are observant Orthodox Jews.

The municipality responded to The Times of Israel’s query on the subject with a two-sentence email. “Not all the requirements for the request for a building permit have been met. The Western Wall is holy to the entirety of the Jewish People in Israel and beyond and everyone without exception is welcome to pray there in accordance with the locale’s customs,” the email read.

A fence bearing a no-entry sign, pictured here on May 22, 2023, prevents access to the Western
Wall through the balcony of the Ezrat Israel egalitarian plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. (Canaan Lidor/The Times of Israel)

That may be true, but currently, the only way to touch the wall while complying with the laws and regulations in and around the Western Wall is to go to the main plaza, which is under the purview of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. It operates the site under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Government Companies Authority. The religious authority responsible for the site is the Western Wall Rabbinate, which is a branch of the Chief Rabbinate, a strictly-Orthodox institution.

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett had Ezrat Israel built in 2013,  when he was still religious services minister. Bennett sought to break the stalemate in talks about a solution that would satisfy both Haredi hardliners and Reform progressives, who in the 1980s began clashing around the Western Wall. That was when Women of the Wall, a non-Orthodox activists group, began demanding to worship at the site according to progressive principles, which include women singing and wearing prayer shawls and kippot, and prayer in mixed company.

Then-alternate prime minister Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 18, 2022. (Olivier Fitousi/Flash90)

Bennett’s actions did little to end those tensions: They escalate almost every month as Women of the Wall and their supporters gather to worship at the Western Wall in ways that violate the rules observed by the Rabbinate and prompt protest and often riots by Haredim. Meanwhile, legal challenges and cases surrounding worship at the Western Wall abound.

A compromise announced in 2016 would have created a larger egalitarian plaza than Ezrat Israel in the same area. According to the compromise, visitors would access the egalitarian section through the main plaza and not from around it, as is the situation currently at Ezrat Israel. The compromise was put on ice indefinitely amid opposition by Haredi parties.

Despite criticism from both sides, Bennett plowed ahead with his Ezrat Israel project, setting up a balcony on the southern section of the Western Wall that stands on pillars over Herodian Street, a deep trench running along the wall, and which ends in the divide that sets apart the Wall’s southern section from the main plaza. A 400-square meter (4,000 square feet) area, it had seen hundreds of non-Orthodox religious ceremonies in its first five years in operation, when worshipers could still access the balcony leading up to the wall.

Labor MK and Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv holds up a Torah scroll in the women’s section of the Western Wall on December 25, 2022. (Hila Shiloni/Women of the Wall)

But access to the small balcony ended just before 6 a.m. on July 23, 2018, when a huge stone fell down on the balcony, barely missing a worshiper, Daniela Goldberg, who witnessed the event.

After the accident, several authorities inspected the southern section as well as the main plaza. The Israel Antiquities Authority declared both places safe in 2020 and again in 2021.

Non-Orthodox services continue to be held on the Ezrat Israel plaza, which is run by the Masorti Movement in Israel, one of the two main non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, known also as the Conservative Movement. But to touch the Wall, visitors need to go to the main plaza.

Herodian Street can be accessed and runs along the Western Wall, but large stones on its margins prevent access to the Wall.

A boy celebrates his bar mitzvah on the egalitarian Ezrat Israel plaza near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel on June 19, 2023. (Courtesy of the Masorti Movement in Israel)

“There’s debris in the way,” the Masorti Movement in Israel’s executive director, Rakefet Ginsberg, told The Times of Israel. Even if one wanted to climb the debris to touch the Western Wall, doing so is forbidden because the pieces are archaeological relics.

For visitors like Ofri Meoded Danon, the bar mitzvah boy, and his mother Inbar, the result is “feeling like Moses — to see the promised land but to be denied access,” she said.

Even by the standards of Israeli bureaucracy “five years for a simple repair work is a bit excessive,” said Inbar Meoded Danon, who believes the failure to reopen Ezrat Israel is deliberate. But even if it’s the result of bureaucratic incompetence, “its still unacceptable,” she said.

“The authorities should fast-track, not delay, the reopening of the only place where non-Orthodox denominations, that include millions of Jews, can worship at the Western Wall according to their customs,” she said.

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