US Jews hope for equitable solution to Western Wall strife

Federation leader praises police, ultra-Orthodox leaders for preventing violence at Sunday’s women’s prayer gathering

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Women of the Wall members wearing prayer shawls pray at the Western Wall (photo credit: Sarah Schuman/Flash90)
Women of the Wall members wearing prayer shawls pray at the Western Wall (photo credit: Sarah Schuman/Flash90)

NEW YORK — A top US federation leader praised on Sunday the actions of Israeli police and Haredi leaders who sought to prevent violence at the latest Women of the Wall prayer service at the Western Wall Sunday morning.

The services have been taking place at the start of each Jewish calendar month for 24 years, and often see many participants wearing prayer shawls and singing aloud, behavior that many traditional Jews consider a violation of Jewish laws and traditions related to public prayer. Some 300 women participated in Sunday’s service at the wall while hundreds of police officers stood watch and limited access to the plaza in order to prevent a possible clash.

“The police looked like they handled it very well,” Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, told The Times of Israel Sunday. “I also give the rabbi of the Kotel [Shmuel Rabinovitch] and ultra-Orthodox leaders a lot of credit for handling it. Their direction was to try to discourage some of the more aggressive people from coming to the Kotel.”

Last month’s service saw hundreds of young Haredi men protesting the women’s presence, with a handful throwing various items at the women.

The services have attracted growing attention among diaspora Jewish communities, leading to government support for Women of the Wall and growing interest among diaspora leaders to questions of religion and state in Israel.

“The prospect of clashes has unsettled the Jewish world,” a group of Los Angeles rabbis wrote last week in an open letter about the tensions at Judaism’s holiest site.

Last month, the rabbis wrote, the two sides’ “differences led to an ugly confrontation. As the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a generation ago, ‘From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring.’ From the place where we are right, violence erupts.”

The letter was signed by 11 rabbis from different denominations, including Orthodox, Reform and Conservative, who are part of a local Task Force on Jewish Unity convened by the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles.

It called for calm and dialogue. “Matters of conscience are not themselves amenable to compromise or negotiation. Still, we all believe that a principal element of conscience is to listen and learn from one another and to show the respect and dignity that befits an ancient people and a great tradition.”

Israel’s Consul-General in Los Angeles David Siegel, who initiated the task force, said engaging diaspora Jewry on the Kotel issue “is very high on our list of priorities.”

Ultra-Orthodox men protest against the Women of the Wall's start of the month prayer gathering at the Western Wall on Sunday, June 9 (photo credit: FLash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men protest against the Women of the Wall’s start of the month prayer gathering at the Western Wall on Sunday, June 9 (photo credit: Flash90)

According to Siegel, the Jewish community in the US is paying attention. “We’re actually looking at a crisis, or what could become a crisis, and we’re trying to turn it into an opportunity. We’re working with all streams of Judaism, making sure that they feel closer to Israel and can come and engage when they feel challenged.”

The Kotel debate “relates to the soul of the Jewish world and the Jewish community. People will disagree on theology but they need to talk to each other,” Siegel said.

David Wolpe, an influential Conservative rabbi who is one of the signatories to the letter, warned that tensions between Israel and the American Jewish community could grow if the Kotel crisis “remains unsolved. It is at present a confirmation for some of bias, to others an irritant, and to an increasing number a cause of real distress. ‘Solving’ the question would be a feat of diplomatic legerdemain that the Jewish world would applaud.”

Some observers believe the crisis may have a silver lining in mobilizing diaspora interest in Israel and strengthening a sense of attachment to events there.

“In my view, the Kotel crisis has empowered the liberal American Jewish community,” influential Reform Rabbi Laura Geller, another signatory to the letter, told The Times of Israel.

“American Jews are paying attention. It reminds them that what happens in Israel actually does matter to them,” Geller said.

The crisis has also led to “real change,” she added. “Now women can pray at the wall with tallitot [prayer shawls] without being arrested or without having their tallitot confiscated as mine was in December. Now the police are protecting the [Women of the Wall] in light of the threat of violence against them. Now the Religious Services Ministry has announced it would fund both Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis in communities across the country, instead of directly funding only Orthodox rabbis. This too is an important step in the right direction.”

Instead of distancing American Jews from Israel, Geller said, “the Kotel crisis is bringing the communities closer together by showing a way that liberal American Jews can advocate for and support those Israelis working to create the Israel they believe in.”

For some diaspora leaders, hope for a solution lies with a proposal being developed by Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency and a former minister in charge of diaspora affairs and Jerusalem. Sharansky was charged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with developing a plan that would enable all Jewish denominations to pray at the Kotel according to their customs.

The rabbis’ letter praised Sharansky’s plan for the Kotel, which would see an expanded plaza and an egalitarian section beyond the current men’s and women’s sections.

“The Western Wall serves as a place to pray for countless Jews. But it also serves as a powerful focus of national Jewish yearning and aspiration, quite apart from religious belief. Somehow, both have to be satisfied, and that is what [Sharansky’s] plan would try to do, embodying the key Jewish and democratic values of mutual respect, inclusion and tolerance,” the letter reads. “Sharansky and the Government of Israel should be commended for engaging in this ambitious effort to resolve such a difficult problem.”

Wolpe and Geller both called on Jewish leaders to express support for Sharansky’s plan, which has yet to be formally presented to the government or the public.

The JFNA’s Silverman said he was “cautiously optimistic and hopeful” that the plan, which is expected to have the support of Netanyahu, “will bring a solution.”

The issue “is creating a lot of very healthy dialogue in the American Jewish community,” Silverman said Sunday. “There’s real dialogue, a real commitment, and a sense of the unity of the Jewish people. That alone is a great thing.”

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