Israel approves liberal Jewish prayer at Western Wall

USA Today/January 31, 2016

By Greg Toppo

Israel’s Cabinet voted Sunday to allow non-Orthodox Jewish prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a move that for the first time would officially recognize the rights of Conservative, Reform and other Jewish denominations to hold organized prayer at the site.

The new policy, at one of Judaism’s holiest sites, would create a space for egalitarian prayer and mixed-gender ceremonies for non-Orthodox Jews. Men and women would be able to pray side-by-side next to an existing area run by ultra-Orthodox rabbis that is now split into prayer sections for men and women.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed the plan in an attempt to please American Jews, a key source of support for Israel, the Associated Press reported.

Netanyahu supported the change despite stiff opposition by ultra-Orthodox and religious nationalist elements. More liberal Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism are dominant in the USA.

“I know this is a sensitive topic, but I think it is an appropriate solution, a creative solution,” Netanyahu said at the start of Sunday’s Cabinet meeting.

Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella organization representing hundreds of Jewish groups, said, “The Jewish state has always held a promise that it is for all Jewish people, and the Wall is such an amazingly spiritual and inspirational place.”

Israel's Cabinet voted to allow non-Orthodox Jewish prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The plan will build a new plaza for mixed gender prayer at the Western Wall, adjacent to the Orthodox prayer plaza but separate from it. (Jan. 31) AP

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the New York-based Union of Reform Judaism, toldThe New York Times that the decision was “obviously the result of years and years of advocacy and agitation.”

He added, “It is about the legitimacy of the Judaism we practice here.”

The plan was drafted by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and outgoing Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit, The Washington Post reported.

A remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple complex, the Western Wall is the holiest site where Jews may pray. The site is administered by ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authorities who have a monopoly over religious affairs in Israel.

A leading women’s prayer group, Women of the Wall, caused controversy for years by holding monthly non-Orthodox prayers at the site. Police arrested women carrying Torah scrolls and wearing religious articles traditionally reserved for men, practices ultra-Orthodox Jews oppose and consider a provocation.

The $9 million initiative will build a permanent mixed-gender prayer area where a temporary platform is today. It will also create a new entrance to the area so both Orthodox and non-Orthodox prayer areas will be given equal prominence. The new area will be managed by a committee including representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements.

“It stands to open the floodgates of women’s rights in the public sphere in Israel … and opens the floodgates for Jewish pluralism in Israel,” said Shira Pruce of Women of the Wall. “This is unprecedented change.”

Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, said in a statement that he received news of the decision “with a heavy heart and a sigh of relief.”

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

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