Progressive Jewish leaders blast 'mixed-sex space' at Kotel, call for real solution

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October 30, 2017 13:07

The rift over the future of the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall continues to deepen.




Birkat Kohanim at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Birkat Kohanim at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.. (photo credit:MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The leaders of the progressive streams of Judaism will not settle for less than “one Wall for one people,” Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs told The Jerusalem Post Monday during a visit to the egalitarian prayer space named “Azarat Yisrael,” adjacent to the Western Wall.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, coordinator of the efforts to find a solution to the crisis over the canceled Kotel deal, spoke with members of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors on the second day of its autumn meetings.

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But the bitter disappointment felt by progressive Jews since the government in June reneged on its resolution to create a state-recognized egalitarian prayer section at the southern end of the Western Wall remained keenly visible.

Members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors pray at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, October 30, 2017. Photo credit: David Shechter for The Jewish Agency for Israel.

“It’s clear that Hanegbi came with enormous goodwill, but what he basically said to us was that the unilateral decision of the Israeli government to throw a few crumbs towards Diaspora Jewry, and the overall majority of Jews in the world both here in Israel and around the world, should be good enough, that we should say thank you for giving us a few crumbs,” Jacobs told the Post.

“We said and we continue to say, there was an agreement which was more than a few crumbs, it was for the first time a genuine agreement with the government of Israel and the streams and Women of the Wall that it would be a site that is one Wall for one people, and we will not settle for less,” he said.

“The Jewish people not only deserves that, it’s a right of the Jewish democratic state, and we’re adamant about that, and we say that, with love for the Jewish state... the promise of Zionism was not that this would be a state for some of the Jews or to privilege some over all the other Jews, and that must no longer be the status quo – and we will stand against that until it is no longer the case.”

The original resolution determined that a large, state-recognized egalitarian section would be created at the southern end of the Western Wall, would be accessible from the main Western Wall complex and would be run by a board including progressive Jewish representatives and those of the Women of the Wall organization.

The temporary platform constructed in 2013 is set to be expanded, but Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told the gathering that “the issue is much more complex than having the space that we have had for the past 25, almost 30 years.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick at Jewish Agency meetings in Jerusalem on Kotel deal cancellation, October 30, 2017. (Tamara Zieve)

The lack of visibility of the egalitarian space was highlighted as a key issue troubling the progressive leaders, after having come to a resolution on the matter, only to have it nixed with the collapse of the deal.

“The issue is about legitimization, it’s about recognition,” Wernick said, highlighting the importance of the part of the deal that would have allowed for a joint entry to both the traditional space at the northern part of the Wall and the pluralistic section at the southern end of the Wall.

The entries are currently separate, and the egalitarian prayer space is not visible to those entering the main plaza. Wernick said everyone coming to pray should see that they have a viable option for pluralistic prayer as well as traditional, segregated prayer.

“We achieved a solution, minister, we did it,” he said, addressing Hanegbi. “And you know something? On that day in June, you betrayed us, because that agreement was passed by the government....

There is no excuse for a government that makes a promise and then rescinds on that promise for purely political reasons.”

Sharansky did his best to keep the peace between Hanegbi and the progressive representatives, encouraging the latter to use the time to pose constructive questions to the minister.

“We will do it together,” Hanegbi told the crowd. “We need to find solutions to the issue of visibility and fences, but it’s a process and people need to know this exists.”

“If the Reform leaders will be less ready for confrontation and more ready for dialogue, I believe we will reach an agreement,” he said, adding that he thinks they prefer to go via the court rather than via direct negotiations, a statement that triggered objections by many members of his audience.


Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Minister Tzachi Hanegbi speak to members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, October 30, 2017. Photo credit: David Shechter for The Jewish Agency for Israel.

“It’s time for us to realize that there is no good that will come from the current Israeli government. This is fake news and fake facts,” Israeli Reform leader Rabbi Gilad Kariv responded to the claim.

Masorti Movement director- general Yizhar Hess struck a similar note.

“The space where Minister Tzachi Hanegbi stood this morning next to rabbis Wernick and Jacobs could have been a place of Jewish unity, but the government of Israel turned the place into a symbol of revulsion and insult,” he said. “Minister Tzachi Hanegbi did his best to represent the position of the government in which he is a member, but there are no longer any words in the dictionary to describe the foot-dragging,” he added, regretfully stating that a “brave compromise” had been “trampled under the interests of the haredim and the prime minister’s helplessness.”


“‘One Wall for one people’ are Netanyahu’s own words,” Sharansky told the Post. “And we are still waiting,” he added, describing the affair as “very sad.”

“This is a strategic issue for the State of Israel and the Jewish world, how we can move forward together, and how Israel continues to be a home for every Jew,” he said.


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