Arnold Resnicoff’s first “tour of duty” was spent at a kibbutz in Israel on the Jewish Agency’s Sherut La’am (Service for the Nation) program for young American Jews.
During that year — between his sophomore year and junior year at Dartmouth College — Resnicoff toured and experienced Israel. But since he left just prior to the 1967 Six Day War, he didn’t get to see Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
That loss was rectified in a big way during his next stint in Israel.
It was 1983 and Resnicoff was by then a decorated naval officer who had enlisted and served in the Vietnam War, a Conservative rabbi ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a chaplain for the United States Sixth Fleet.
From his home in Washington, DC, the retired chaplain recalled for The Times of Israel how it came to pass that he was able to lead what is probably the only mixed-faith, mixed-gender prayer service at the Western Wall.
Between 1982-1984, Resnicoff served on the Sixth Fleet command staff, stationed on its flagship USS Puget Sound, in Gaeta, Italy.
“I was part of a rabbi-priest-minister chaplain staff,” he said. “My job was to go ship-to-ship, plus visit the US forces (mostly Marines) attached to the US component of the Multinational Force in Beirut.”
US Navy chaplains serve the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, and minister to soldiers of all faiths, regardless of the chaplains’ backgrounds.
Disembarking at Haifa port meant many things to the Sixth Fleet, many of whom had been aboard ship — without leave for months on end — off the coast of Lebanon. It was a chance to meet up with spouses, see the sights, and get their land legs back for a few days at the very least.
Until 1983, American vessels involved in the Multinational Force tried to maintain a veneer of neutrality regarding Middle Eastern countries, especially Lebanon and Israel, so the ships avoided port calls in Israel. But now, the US and Israel were open to increasing cooperation and tourism.
“The visit of the 6th Fleet flagship was an important symbolic piece of this change,” said Resnicoff.
Most of the wives were stationed in Italy and, although primarily non-Jews, looked forward to touring Israel and seeing its holy sites. Knowing that Resnicoff had spent a significant amount of time in the country previously, they asked him to be their guide.
He demurred, but said that when they reached Jerusalem, he would go with them to the Western Wall, and they would do something special.
Even he didn’t know just how prophetic his words would be.
“I thought I’d meet them and explain the history, but during my stay in Israel I met a lot of different people. There was a lot of interest among Israelis that there was a rabbi on the staff of the Sixth Fleet. I had a meeting at Misrad Hadatot [the Religious Affairs Ministry] with Yonatan Yuval, who said he would help me out,” said Resnicoff, who still today sounded surprised.
The group of Sixth Fleet officers and their wives were taken to a little chapel just off of the Western Wall in an archaeological find called Wilson’s Arch, a massive freestanding masonry arch, which is a stone’s throw away from the prayer plaza at the Western Wall.
Discovered in 1864 by explorer and surveyor Charles William Wilson — after whom the site is named — Wilson’s Arch is one of a series of arches upon which was built a bridge that connected the Temple Mount to Jerusalem’s ancient Upper City. The dating on the arch is not conclusive, with some archaeologists putting it in the period prior to the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70 CE), and others dating it to the Arab Umayyad Period (651–750).
“I wanted to do something special at the wall, at the Kotel [Hebrew for the Western Wall], for the crew and spouses, but I never expected it to be a service right against the wall,” recalled Resnicoff.
“To go back to Israel and have the Kotel open to us was already special,” he said. To add in the unique prayer service, in the equally unique setting, astounded him.
“Most of the people in the service didn’t realize how unusual that service was. I knew in my heart it was almost unique since the time that the Kotel had been liberated,” he said.
The areas surrounding the Western Wall were still being excavated at that time and the chapel that Resnicoff’s group used was small and intimate. They sat, men and women together, on rough wooden benches for their 10-minute service, which ended with the rabbi reciting the Priestly Benediction.
Today, the Wilson’s Arch synagogue is massive, climate controlled, with webcams for online prayer — and has a women’s balcony.
“My hope was that it would be the area for special prayer, including interfaith,” said Resnicoff.
According to a September 1983 article in The Jerusalem Post, Ministry of Religious Affairs representative Yonatan Yuval said the ministry was pleased to organize the ecumenical service for the visitors. However, when The Jerusalem Post asked whether it would be a precedent to allowing mixed-sex civilian prayer led by an American Conservative rabbi, Yuval said it would be “impossible.”
Resnicoff commented this week — in the wake of the Israeli cabinet’s decision to freeze a January 2016 government decision to create a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion in the archaeological park known as Robinson’s Arch — that the Israeli government “lost an opportunity” with Wilson’s Arch.
Wilson’s Arch is close to the Western Wall, but at the same time, somewhat secluded. It is a place where people could pray and see the holy site, but not really be seen themselves.
“I’m sorry it didn’t continue to be used for interfaith prayer,” said Resnicoff.
“I never thought that from that day in 1983 until now, things wouldn’t change and there wouldn’t be any more prayer like this,” Resnicoff added.