Sharansky to serve extra year as Jewish Agency chief
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Sharansky to serve extra year as Jewish Agency chief

Former prisoner of conscience says he’s motivated by need to resolve egalitarian prayer issue at Western Wall

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky addresses Jewish leaders from around the world at the Knesset on November 1, 2016. (Nathan Roi/Jewish Agency for Israel)
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky addresses Jewish leaders from around the world at the Knesset on November 1, 2016. (Nathan Roi/Jewish Agency for Israel)

Chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Executive Natan Sharansky announced Tuesday he would continue to lead the organization for another year, citing the need to create an egalitarian plaza at Jerusalem’s Western Wall as a key factor in the decision.

“Although I was skeptical of the value of remaining for an additional year, what has taken place in recent months has convinced me that it is important that I remain,” Sharansky said in a statement.

The Jewish Agency’s board of governors announced Tuesday that Sharansky had agreed to its request that he stay a year past his second four-year term, which ends in June. The announcement came at the closing plenary of the board’s winter meetings in Tel Aviv.

Sharansky had said in September that he would not remain past June, despite a request from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Our ongoing discussions with the government on the Western Wall and related matters have reached a sensitive point, and I will do everything necessary to ensure that the successful negotiations of recent years bear tangible fruit,” said Sharansky.

“Additionally, the events of recent months have resulted in a deep polarization between some Jews in America and some in Israel, and it is imperative that we do whatever we can to unite our people. That will be our task in the year to come.”

Ultra-Orthodox men protest against the Women of the Wall movement as they hold a monthly prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, February 27, 2017. )Hadas Parush/Flash90(
Ultra-Orthodox men protest against the Women of the Wall movement as they hold a monthly prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, February 27, 2017. )Hadas Parush/Flash90(

In the face of staunch opposition from Orthodox Jews, Women of the Wall — an organization of progressive Jewish women — has battled since 1988 for the right to sing, pray, read aloud from the Torah and wear religious garments normally worn by men at the site.

In January 2016, the cabinet approved a plan for a new area at the wall that would be earmarked for egalitarian prayer and which would not be under Rabbinate control.

Members of the Women of the Wall movement hold a monthly prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, February 27, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Members of the Women of the Wall movement hold a monthly prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, February 27, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But since then, Netanyahu has balked in the face of opposition to the plan from Orthodox parties within his governing coalition.

Last month a High Court ruling ordered the immediate halt of the practice of searching women on their way into the Western Wall plaza for ritual items such as Torah scrolls, and gave the state 30 days to find “good cause” why a woman may not read aloud from a Torah scroll as part of prayer services at the Western Wall.

Also last month, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party proposed a bill that would define the entire area as a holy site governed under the same definitions of religious practice and law set by Israel’s rabbinic courts and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Prayer services would thus be limited solely to state-approved Orthodox practice.

In addition to his recent efforts to find a compromise for an egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall, Sharansky — a former Soviet prisoner of conscience — has called for wider recognition by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate of conversions done by rabbis outside the Jewish state.

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