Dozens of Orthodox yeshiva students hold separate-gender services every day at a Western Wall prayer space specifically set aside in a government decision for egalitarian, pluralistic worship, The Times of Israel has established. The site is one of the most politically charged spaces in the Jewish world.
The prayers take place at an area known as Robinson’s Arch, south of the main prayer plaza, which since the year 2000 has allowed non-Orthodox services at the site abutting the Western Wall.
Every weekday at the larger of two open-air egalitarian platforms at the site, students at Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim bring a mehitza — a gender partition — to pray the brief minha afternoon service.
A source told The Times of Israel that the students chose the afternoon prayer so as not to interfere with an egalitarian prayer service there, which usually occurs in the morning.
On other occasions, such as the Sabbath, the week-long holiday periods of Sukkot and Passover, as well as on mornings marking the new Hebrew month, the Ateret Yerushalayim students are joined by students from Yeshivat HaKotel, located in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. On these days of festive worship, Yeshivat HaKotel is responsible for bringing the gender partition. Crowds of up to 100 can gather, The Times of Israel was told.
The yeshivas’ prayer is held at the site in protest of a government plan to build a large, permanent egalitarian prayer pavilion there. In a move that is contentious even within his own Likud party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing forward the construction of the pavilion, partially in order to try to heal a rift with Diaspora Jewry, the vast majority of which is not Orthodox.
A modern hydra
The ongoing conflict at Robinson’s Arch is in some ways a many-headed creature of the government’s own making: The area is administered by The Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, which was formed by the government in 1968. It is owned by the State of Israel via the Finance and Construction ministries, which appoint the Company’s board of directors, according to its website.
The move to built a permanent pavilion has angered many in Israel’s national religious camp, some of whom have spent the past two years protesting by praying — with a portable mehitza to separate men from women — at the mixed-gender platform, according to Oren Henig, spokesman of the Liba National Religious organization, which works to strengthen Israel’s Jewish Orthodox identity.
Several American Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders witnessed the mehitza being used at the platform when visiting the area recently during services held for Rosh Hodesh, the new Hebrew month. In seeing men and women praying there separately, the liberal Jews expressed dismay that the specific area at the Western Wall intended for pluralistic prayer was being used instead in a way that would make it discomfiting, if not impossible, for men and women to pray together there. When a large group prays at this part of the site, a smaller, non-contiguous area is blocked for other groups.
The area earmarked as an egalitarian pavilion is currently in a denominational no-man’s land. There is still no formal document or agreement stating that the site is to be used only for egalitarian prayer, although this language has been used in several hearings held over the matter, attorney Orly Erez-Lachovsky told The Times of Israel. Erez-Lachovsky heads the legal department at the Israel Religious Action Center and is representing liberal Jewry and the Women of the Wall group in their fight to implement the government’s now frozen 2016 decision to build a permanent prayer platform at Robinson’s Arch.
In March 2018, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit stated in a High Court of Justice response that the Robinson’s Arch area should not be under the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate and that the site should be administered through the Prime Minister’s Office. Currently, special adviser to Netanyahu Ronen Peretz is charged with forming a committee and overseeing planning and development at the site.
However, since 2000, the Israeli Masorti movement, analogous to the United State’s Conservative movement, has had a continuous presence at the site and administers private functions, such as bar mitzvas. Twice weekly, its yeshiva students hold Torah reading morning services there.
Masorti movement head attorney Yizhar Hess condemned the use of the Ezrat Yisrael egalitarian platform for gender-segregated Orthodox prayer by the yeshiva students as a “provocation.”
“The attorney general has established that there is no more room for fooling around. It is a constitutional right to pray in an egalitarian manner next to the Western Wall, and the attempts to erase, circumscribe it, humiliate or repress it are incompatible with the right of freedom of religion,” Hess told The Times of Israel.
Location, location, location
The Western Wall is revered by Jews as a remnant of a wall supporting the Second Temple complex, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Because prayer on the Temple Mount itself is forbidden for Jews by the State of Israel, aside from the subterranean Temple Tunnels, the Western Wall (or Kotel, in Hebrew) is the closest Jews can worship.
The Robinson’s Arch section was demarcated for egalitarian prayer in a 2000 High Court case after several decades of negotiations and court battles. A small platform was constructed in the corner of the park adjacent to the wall in 2003.
A second, larger “temporary,” 450-square-meter (4,800-square-foot) platform section called Ezrat Yisrael was added in August 2013 after years of high-profile conflict at the Western Wall prayer plaza between Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox worshipers and the Women of the Wall, who meet monthly to read Torah and pray.
Upon its construction, then-minister of Jerusalem Naftali Bennett, head of the largely national-religious Jewish Home party, described the new platform “as an interim but primary place of worship for Jewish egalitarian and pluralistic prayer services.”
Its use as a mixed-gender prayer space is condemned by some Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox leaders, who refuse “to give status to the Reform movement alongside the remains of our Temple,” according to Liba.
“The thousands of male and female worshipers who have over the past two years come to pray pray in the Western Wall’s southern section [Robinson’s Arch] with a partition [to separate men from women], show the healthy and natural treatment of the wall for the nation’s silent majority, as opposed to the Reform movements that use the wall as a political tool and leave it desolate,” said spokesman Henig.
“According to the rulings of the Chief Rabbinate for generations, the sanctity of the Western Wall must be preserved throughout its length, to preserve the unity of the Wall and the unity of the people,” he added.
A solution for the entire Jewish people on this issue is a long time coming: Negotiations began in 2012 to find a compromise solution for the ongoing conflict at the Western Wall Plaza over the worship of the Women of the Wall and the liberal Jewish movements. The government announced a three-pronged decision in January 2016 that called for a new joint entrance to all portions of the Western Wall, a much enlarged pluralistic prayer platform (which would have allowed for a temporary mehitza once a month), and a governing council of representatives of liberal Jewry and the Prime Minister’s Office.
On June 25, 2017, that decision was frozen, but Netanyahu promised Diaspora Jewry that he would still implement the construction of the permanent platform in place of the temporary one built by Bennett. Finalization of that plan has hit obstacles, but the Israel Antiquities Authority has begun archaeological checks in the place that is marked to become the prayer platform’s new entrance.
The Masorti movement’s Hess, who supports the construction of the permanent prayer platform, said there have been many attempts by “extremist elements” who are trying to create provocations through interfering with prayer there. They are making their presence known at Ezrat Yisrael through sex-segregated prayers in the plaza, and disturbing egalitarian prayers and ceremonies there, he said.
“In contrast to their attempts to bully and harass us, we are witness to a constant rise in the number of visitors and families who want to hold an egalitarian Jewish service there,” said Hess.
Pleas for tolerance — from both sides
According to Masorti Rabbi Sandra Kochmann, who oversees the management of the events at the site, the prayer services held by Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim are a politically motivated act protesting the mixed-gender platform at the Western Wall.
By contrast, “there are many Orthodox families who hold events with us, and the men and women stand to each side, without a physical mehitza,” said Kochmann, who welcomes families of all Jewish denominations to the site. “The prayer books and Torahs at the site belong to the Masorti movement, and we are happy to give service to all who wish to pray there,” said Kochmann.
There are many Orthodox families who hold events with us, and the men and women stand to each side, without a physical mehitza,
Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim, whose students pray daily at the site, is located in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter and connected to the far-right religious Ateret Cohanim organization. It is headed by Beit El Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of the leading voices in the national religious movement.
In a recent column for the Hebrew-language religious media site Srugim, ahead of flareups between the Women of the Wall and his constituents at prayer services at the Western Wall, Aviner counseled against violence or disrespect and called for thousands of worshipers to come to the Western Wall at all hours and fill it with devoted prayer.
He wrote, “Know that it is not by force that we will win spiritual struggles, rather with spirit. It will not be determined by secular Knesset members, not the money of the destructive New Israel Fund, not the support of the Reform movement in America. All will evaporate in the wind.
“Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails,” wrote Aviner, quoting from Proverbs 19:21.