Many Jews of the Diaspora and in Israel are in an uproar following the announcement on June 25 that plans to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall have been formally frozen by the Israeli government following pressure from haredi organizations.
A compromise agreement to create this space at Judaism’s holiest site was passed by the Knesset in January 2016 to international acclaim among non-Orthodox Jewish movements. But the plan’s implementation was delayed when the religious parties that brokered the deal fell back on their promises following condemnation by haredi media and the Chief Rabbinate.
Non-Orthodox Jews have been advocating for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall for years. The group Women of the Wall has been especially vocal, holding monthly protests there for almost 30 years. In 2012, police arrested Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman along with three others for wearing tallit at the Wall. The very public arrest prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appoint a committee to consider the issue, and the compromise agreement came out of that process.
The new space was meant to be a permanent area for Jews of all denominations to pray and was to be governed by representatives of the Jewish Agency, Women of the Wall and the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel.
Following Netanyahu’s announcement, those representatives have expressed disappointment. The Jewish Agency canceled a gala dinner with Netanyahu, and its chairman, Natan Sharansky, said, “I must express my deep disappointment at today’s decision by the government of Israel to suspend the implementation of its own decision to establish a dignified space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
“After four years of intense negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations
and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities. [The] decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.”
Hoffman lamented the government’s decision on the Women of the Wall Facebook page, saying, “This is a bad day for women in Israel.”
In the U.S., major Jewish organizations have likewise expressed frustration.
The Jewish Federations of North America released a brief statement on social media: “We are disappointed that a historic decision made more than a year ago by the government of Israel in support of ‘one wall for one people’ was suspended today. We agree with Natan Sharansky that this will make our effort to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together more difficult.”
The American Jewish Committee, which cheered the decision for an egalitarian prayer space when it was approved last year, also decried the news.
“The Kotel belongs to all Jews worldwide, not to a self-appointed segment,” AJC CEO David Harris said in a prepared statement. “This decision is a setback for Jewish unity and the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews, the two largest centers of Jewish life in the world.”
AIPAC has been silent on the matter, although its leaders recently met with Netanyahu to discuss what they are
hearing from constituents. J Street said it was “deeply disappointed” and also mentioned a controversial bill that
would give the Chief Rabbinate control over conversions in Israel.
“These decisions weaken the ties that bind world Jewry to Israel and are an unacceptable affront to the largest
denominations in the American Jewish community — the Reform and Conservative movements,” read a J Street statement. “They send the message that the Israeli government does not regard Reform and Conservative Jews as authentic members of the Jewish people with an equal stake in the Jewish homeland.”
“We are saddened that a carefully orchestrated compromise to the issue regarding access to the Kotel has fallen prey to political forces,” said Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, on behalf of both the BJC and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
“We joined our leadership together to reach out to the Israeli embassy,” he said. “So much time and effort went into figuring out this compromise that such a broad range of stakeholders agreed to, I really hope a way can be found to go back to it. We all want to see an Israel that is inclusive and welcoming to all Jews. I am hopeful that we can find a solution before we see any kind of lasting damage to [Jewish American] relationships with, or support for, Israel.”
Agudath Israel of America called the decision “prudent and proper” and said it was a “tragedy” that Women of the Wall and its supporting organizations turned a place of peace and Jewish devotion into a place of protest. The group said the Kotel is governed by halacha as the standard for public prayer.
“Those determined to ‘liberalize’ Jewish practice are free to do what they wish in their own synagogues. To cause anguish and anger to the thousands of traditional Jews who regularly pray at the Kotel, however, is not what any Jew should ever wish to do,” the statement said. “Rather than Balkanize the Kotel so that feminist groups today — and, in the future, other groups with their own social agendas — can promote their causes, the Kotel should be preserved as a place of Jewish unity as it has been for half a century.”
While the Rabbinic Council of America did not release a statement on the issue, a June 2013 statement calling for calm at the Kotel read: “Even when there is deep disagreement based on religious principles and traditions, there is no justification for invective, threats, provocation and the hurling of objects attacking those with whom we differ.
The RCA affirms that such unacceptable actions misrepresent the values and practices of Jewish life and the character of the overwhelming majority of those who gather at the Kotel to pray and demonstrate their love for Judaism’s most holy site.”
But amid the divisions, Rabbi Kushi Schusterman of Harford Chabad called for unity.
“A unified Jewish people is always a healthy thing,” he said. “People like to create politics through divisiveness, but the Torah says, ‘Our father blesses us when we are all like one.’ Instead of focusing on what divides us, we should focus on what connects us.”
The JT reached out to a number of local rabbis, in addition to Schusterman, for their thoughts on the controversial decision.
Rabbi Gross reflected on the frustration of many progressive Jewish leaders in America, who she said are often the recipients of criticism based on the manner in which they engage their communities with Israel.
“I think the decision this week reinforces the tension that a lot of progressive Jewish leaders feel. I feel a deep sense of obligation and responsibility as a rabbi to foster meaningful connections between the people that I work with here and the Jewish homeland,” she said. “The religious framework of what constitutes acceptable Judaism is not always reflected in the policies laid by Israel.”
She explained that it is difficult because her belief is that a holistic Jewish identity requires a connection to Israel, but she also feels an obligation to the community around her, which questions why they should make this meaningful connection with an Israel whose policies do not acknowledge their own Jewish practices.
“We [progressive Jewish leaders] get criticized all the time as not being willing to engage seriously with Israel,” said Gross. “But most of us do engage in spite of the fact that our Judaism is not often reflected or on equal playing field in a non-Orthodox framework.”
Gross doesn’t have much hope for a new Kotel resolution.
“I think there is a very strong symbolic statement that is being made,” she said. “At first, the desire to create this space was a win for progressive Jews. Taking it away again reinforces this sense of ‘where do I fit in?’” The decision has Gross questioning the role she is to play in creating relationships between the people she serves and the land she loves.
Rabbi Shapiro draws on his experience studying at Yeshivat HaKotel and praying at the Wall nearly every day when he was there. Given his positive experience, he didn’t understand how the Kotel could have a negative connotation for people — until he returned to Israel on a special leadership program.
“It was Shabbos afternoon in Jerusalem and someone asked me where I had gone to daven that morning,” he recalled. “There are hundreds of different shuls, but I said to the woman, ‘Of course, I went to the Kotel. Where would anyone else go in Jerusalem?’”
The woman told him she felt extremely unwelcome there, which opened his eyes, he said.
“While the Kotel holds such a powerful place in my life, at the same time, is a source of pain for a lot of Jews,” he said.
He was happy when a solution was established that would enable everyone to be able to connect to the Kotel, calling it a true compromise.
“I think that the biggest issue facing global Judaism is the division of our people into two,” said Shapiro. “I have been thinking about this a lot, that it looks like we are coming to a place where there will be two separate Jewish people who refuse to acknowledge each other. And the moving away from this Kotel compromise is a symbol of that taking place before our eyes.”
As a modern Orthodox rabbi, he feels a special responsibility to hold both sides together so that the Jewish people can remain united, as he believes that this is what HaShem wants. He fears that the decision was politically motivated. And while he thinks the conflict will ultimately subside, it will only be after the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews has been further inflamed.
Rabbi Philip Pohl, Congregation Kol Shalom
Rabbi Pohl asserted that fear is the root cause of the trouble surrounding the Kotel.
“We are afraid of that which is different , that we are not used to and things that are strange,” he said. “Ultimately, at the root of all of this is the fear that exists on both sides, from one stream of Judaism to the next, about accepting the presence of the other being legitimate.”
Pohl was delighted when the compromise was first reached because he was excited that it would provide an opportunity for more people to confidently worship in a way that was comfortable for them at the holiest site of Judaism.
“It would help more people to feel even closer to God and to the Beit Hamikdash, the holy temple site,” he said. “It is a privilege that we have access, but not everyone feels that the accessibility allows them to worship in the way that is their preference. This compromise was intended to allow the status quo to remain in the main plaza but provide more accessibility and opportunity for others not comfortable in Orthodox worship to have an option.”
Pohl expressed disappointment with the plan’s freeze because he feels it will alienate Jewish men and women alike who are looking for a way to get closer to Judaism spiritually and to worship in a more meaningful way at the Kotel.
While Pohl does not believe the plan’s halt would have any major ramifications for most American Jews, he feels it might do damage to relationships among major Jewish organizations in America, which invested a lot of time and effort into the plan, and their counterparts in Israel. He believes a solution can be found if non-Orthodox Jews make their voices heard.
Rabbi Andrew Busch, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation
Rabbi Busch is looking forward to exploring the reactions to this decision in person when he travels to Israel for the next two weeks. While he was excited when the compromise was initially announced and has prayed in an egalitarian service at the current site, he is “sadly not surprised that this hasn’t yet worked out,” putting it down to the complicated nature of Israeli politics.
He said that the Kotel decision goes hand in hand with the recent conversion bill brought to Knesset by a cabinet committee. The controversial law, advanced by haredi parties in Knesset, would grant the haredi Chief Rabbinate total control over Jewish conversion in Israel, which was approved for passage to the Knesset by the government on June 25.
While Busch foresees the Kotel conflict will take a long time to work out, he is pleased with the broad consensus of reactions from Jewish communities across America. He said that the decision is upsetting, and he expects it will be spoken about at every congregation.
“We saw the sharp reaction of the Jewish Agency,” he said. “I think this is a negative step in the relationship of
Diaspora Jewry and organizations to Israel.”
Like some of his colleagues, Rabbi Pinsker worries about the growing rift in the Jewish community.
“Defending and reinforcing religious intolerance and opposition to pluralism will only hurt the multiple expressions and experiments with Jewish identity that we need in order to live in a world that expects pluralism and diversity of healthy societies,” he said. “By declaring one iteration of Jewish life to be the exclusive arbiter of Jewish identity, we would risk ending the ancient, many-faceted character of Jewish life that existed even in Second Temple times.”
He believes there should be some kind of challenge to the Israeli government but does not endorse action that causes harm to charitable organizations.
“In my opinion, calls to halt tzedakah do not represent an effective response to the decision to freeze the development of an egalitarian Kotel space,” he said. “The less well-publicized and equally regressive conversion bill to grant exclusive official authority for conversion in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate represents an unprecedented consolidation of power over the Law of Return and as such would change the character of aliyah and eventually create a centralization of Jewish practice unprecedented since the Second Temple era.”
He said this is “a violation of the de facto historical pluralism that enabled the Jewish people to adapt and flourish.”
“It remains to be seen what the best way for Diaspora Jewish communities to communicate the importance of Israel’s current leadership to acknowledge through action those founding guarantees of freedom and respect for diversity of religion, opinion and culture,” he said.
Marc Shapiro contributed to this report.