February 1, 2016

Western Wall deal hailed by US Jewish groups

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Women of the Wall, who retrieved a Torah scroll from the men's prayer section despite regulations against women reading from a Torah at the Wall, celebrate during their monthly prayer service at the Wall. Photo courtesy of Miriam Alster/Flash 90

Women of the Wall, who retrieved a Torah scroll from the men's prayer section despite regulations against women reading from a Torah at the Wall, celebrate during their monthly prayer service at the Wall. Photo courtesy of Miriam Alster/Flash 90

JERUSALEM (RNS) American Jews are celebrating an Israeli government decision to greatly expand — and fund — a pluralistic egalitarian prayer section adjacent to the Western Wall plaza as a first step toward official Israeli recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

The Western Wall, or Kotel, the holiest site in Judaism after the Temple Mount, is a remnant of the second Jewish Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in the year 66.

Sunday’s Cabinet decision (Jan. 31) will lead to the creation of Israel’s first official prayer site for Jews who wish to pray in mixed-gender groups, and for women who want to read from a Torah scroll.

“The new space is a dramatic, unprecedented and critical acknowledgement by the State of Israel that Judaism’s holiest site — the Kotel — should incorporate the traditions of the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform streams in which men and women pray together,” the Reform and Conservative movements and the Jewish Federations of North America said in a joint statement.


RELATED STORY: Israel approves mixed-gender Jewish prayer site at Western Wall


Although much work regarding the implementation of this decision still remains, the joint statement added, “We are measurably closer today to the ultimate symbol of that reality — one wall for one people.”

The negotiations to create an official mixed-gender space at the southern part of the Western Wall were spearheaded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the urging of non-Orthodox U.S. Jews and the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall.

Israel’s strictly Orthodox establishment has marginalized both groups. The government does not recognize the authority of Reform and Conservative rabbis and institutions and provides them with only nominal funding.

Sunday’s decision concludes more than two years of negotiations between the Israeli government, representatives of the Jewish Federations of North American, the Reform and Conservative movements in the U.S. and Israel and Women of the Wall.

Under the agreement, the government and quasi-governmental Jewish Agency will provide most of the $8.8 million budget over a two-year period. The enlarged prayer space, which the Conservative movement has maintained without government funding for 15 years, will be jointly governed by a new body that will include Women of the Wall and the Conservative and Reform movements and will be led by the Jewish Agency’s chairman.

The deal was necessary, all parties say, because the ultra-Orthodox religious authorities who oversee the main, northern section of the Western Wall compound refuse all but the strictest interpretation of Jewish law.

Over the years, the authorities have called on the police to detain and even arrest members of Women of the Wall who entered the women’s section wearing prayer shawls and tefillin (phylacteries) or attempted to smuggle in a Torah.

Liberal Jews, whose prayer is egalitarian, also find the religious atmosphere, as well as gender-segregated prayer sections, at the wall inhospitable. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have thrown rocks and plastic chairs at liberal worshippers.

Shmuel Rabinowitz, the ultra-Orthodox rabbi of the Western Wall, said in a statement that the decision left him with “a heavy heart” but that he feels relieved that the Women of the Wall group has agreed to pray in the new area.

“Ever since the fringe and vociferous group of Women of the Wall started its mass-media activity,” the wall “went from being a unifying site to one of incessant quarrels,” he said.

Rabinowitz did not address reports that some of the group’s members have vowed to continue praying at the wall even after the egalitarian space is completed.

Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, said the plan required compromise “all along the way,” from all sides, “but at the end of the day we agreed. The fact that nobody is fully satisfied means everybody was listening.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the U.S.-based executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, called the decision “a very important step,” especially because “there has been no previous acknowledgment of egalitarian Judaism by the Israeli government.”

Schonfeld said that although the $8.8 million government allocation for pluralistic prayer is welcome, it is a fraction of the funding allocated to the northern wall’s administration.

“We continue to seek equal funding,” she said.

The movement will also continue its legal battles to obtain equal salaries for the movement’s rabbis, buildings and educational programs, she added.

While the new prayer space is a partnership between religiously liberal Jews and the government, Schonfeld said, “we don’t view this as something the government is doing for the Diaspora. This is something we are doing for Israel, to help build a vibrant democratic state.”

(Michele Chabin is the Jerusalem correspondent for RNS)

  • Garson Abuita

    I applaud this move. However, it may seem today that WoW is a non-Orthodox group, but that was not always the case, at least not from the view of its own members. Its goals were to be allowed to read aloud from a Torah scroll and wear objects like tallit and tefillin, in the women’s section of the Wall, in accordance with liberal rulings of Orthodox authorities. As time and media exposure went on, however, North American Conservative and Reform individuals and groups, including their representatives in Israel, “got involved” and seemed to change WoW’s goals. There has been somewhat of a schism in the group, and these are the women who, the article notes, are going to attempt to keep praying as they wish in the women’s section.

  • rbockman

    dilution equals weakness

  • vanessa ochs

    The Original Women of the Wall (OWOW), a group I am belong to, will not be leaving the Western Wall to go to another prayer space designated for the liberal denominations and Anat Hoffman and her women’s group. Despite the government’s deal, which affirms the hegemony of the ultra-Orthodox at the Wall, we will continue to exercise our rights for women’s prayer at the Wall and will continue to fight for the right to read Torah there once again.
    Rabbi Vanessa Ochs, PhD
    University of Virginia, Department of Religious Studies

  • Jack

    The blond-haired woman is holding the Torah like it’s a large loaf of bread or a 20-roll package of toilet paper.

  • Garson Abuita

    She is holding it correctly.

  • Jack

    Not clear. I showed this to four other people and the verdict was split.

  • Jack

    Sorry, I had texted about it to a fifth person….just checking my primitive cell phone now and that person texted earlier and agrees with you.

    So it’s 3-2 in your favor.

    All five are Jews. Of the three who agree with you, one is Orthodox, one unaffiliated but theist, and the third agnostic. Of the two who disagree with you, one is what I’d call conservadox but grew up Orthodox and the other is unaffiliated but went to a conservative Hebrew school as a kid.

    Given the mixed results, the fair thing is to give the person the benefit of the doubt. That means deferring to your view.

  • Garson Abuita

    I fail to see what’s wrong with it. I guess she could hold it higher on her torso, but this is pretty much what you’d see in dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah [the fall holiday celebrating the re-start of the Torah reading cycle] for example. I’m sure people will criticize her tefillin placement as well. But the key thing is that no one would give a man who did the same “incorrect” things a second look.

  • Jack

    Let me think about that, Garson. I will admit that on the side of my family that includes Jews, they were and are a fairly traditional lot, albeit not Orthodox, and I doubt they favor women wearing tallit.

    Anything’s possible, but I just saw the positioning as off….