“There must be a section for egalitarian prayer” at the Western Wall, Jewish
Agency chairman Natan Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. Speaking
from New York after a meeting with representatives of the various religious
denominations comprising American organized Jewry, Sharansky confirmed rumors
that he is pushing for the addition of a third section at Judaism’s holiest
Earlier in the day, sources within the Yesh Atid party who have
been involved in negotiations on the matter confirmed to the Post that the idea
of a space for pluralistic worship was the principle solution under discussion,
although the full details have yet to be finalized.
The Women of the Wall
activist group has of late stepped up its campaign to change the current prayer
arrangements and bring attention to what it describes as “an unjust
The law forbids performing religious ceremonies “not according to
local custom” or which “may hurt the feelings of the worshipers” at holy sites,
including the Western Wall, which the police interpret as meaning anything
deviating from Orthodox practice.
Practices conducted by men in Orthodox
communities, such as wearing prayer shawls, reading from the Torah, and other
customs are therefore forbidden to women by law at the Western
Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer service at the Western
Wall has become a flashpoint over the past 18 months, with women
regularly detained at
the site for wearing the large, black-and-white prayer shawls classified
police as “male-style” tallitot.
“Female-style” tallitot, on the other
hand, are smaller, colorful prayer shawls generally worn around the neck, rather
than over the shoulders.
A spokesman for Women of the Wall said that any
solution in which their group would have to pray separately from the main
Western Wall Plaza would not be acceptable.
However, Sharansky said that
he was told that Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman has expressed
“cautious support” for his proposal.
In the Supreme Court ruling on the
matter in 2003, the court ordered the government to create a prayer space by
Robinson’s Arch, part of the Western Wall but farther south from the main
This area was created, although it is not accessible at all times
of the day since it is within an archaeological park and requires an entrance
fee. It also lacks basic prayer facilities such as tables, chairs, prayer books
and Torah scrolls.
Sharansky expressed sympathy for the Women of the
Wall’s objections to being relegated to Robinson’s Arch, telling the Post that
conditions there are “very different” from those other worshipers
The religious activism group has stipulated that any solution must
allow for women-only prayer to be conducted within the prayer area since some of
its members are Orthodox.
The group has also demanded that the
prohibitions on women seeking to pray according to their own customs in the
current women’s section must be lifted immediately.
A spokeswoman for
Women of the Wall said that the establishment of a new prayer area would likely
be a lengthy process, and that the repeated arrests of women for wearing
tallitot and performing similar practices must end.
The organization will
be seeking intervention from either the Prime Minister’s Office or the Justice
Ministry to change the current law at the site.
American Jewry has taken
an intense interest in the matter and in December 2012, Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu tasked Sharansky to find a compromise deal to end the internecine
conflict over the holy site.
Sharansky told the Post that there was no
reason not to implement a solution in which “all the Wall will be accessible 24
hours a day... there will be the opportunity to touch the Wall on all its
length” and “there will be one entrance through which the people are
After consulting with ministers and MKs along with both Orthodox
and non-Orthodox leaders in Israel, Sharansky said he decided to test the waters
in the United States.
“I hope that we can really come to a very broad
consensus,” Sharansky said, indicating that he felt “encouraged” by the
reception his proposal garnered.
“It’s true that in 1968 there was a
decision to keep part of the Western Wall for prayer and part for excavations,
but the excavations finished long ago,” he said, noting that the Mughrabi
Bridge, which leads to the Temple Mount, could serve as a “natural divider”
between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox sections of the wall.
while that is the “basic idea,” he said, “the important thing is details” and
Sharansky would not comment on the exact composition of
the group convened for Tuesday’s meeting in New York, but did note that among
the groups represented was the Chabad Lubavich hassidic sect and other Orthodox
“Without going into details,” he said, “everybody has his or her
objections, but I think in the end everybody understands that here is an
opportunity to make the Kotel again into the place and symbol that unites all of
us, and not divides.”
Both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams have the
right to pray in their own fashion, he said, but the “challenge” is to figure
out how “everybody can pray without undermining the other.”
has to make some sacrifices or to compromise on something,” he
Religious organizations in the US expressed cautious optimism
regarding Sharansky’s proposal, although they remained vague as to the specifics
of the plan or their concerns regarding it.
Farley Weiss, the president
of the National Council of Young Israel, a Modern Orthodox organization,
confirmed to the Post that a representative of his organization was in
attendance at the meeting and his associate executive director, Rabbi Bini
Maryles, said that he was “greatly appreciative of Natan Sharansky’s efforts to
come to a resolution on the issue of prayer at the Kotel which I am hopeful will
lead to the avoidance of future altercations.”
“The import of the Kotel
for all Jews cannot be overstated and it is imperative for all of us that it be
a place where shalom exists among our people,” Maryles said.
Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of inter-religious
affairs, said that a proposal for an egalitarian section would “be met with much
approval by the vast majority of American Jewry and I imagine most Israelis
would approve as well,” although it would probably “spark extreme reactions from
haredi and many Orthodox groups.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for
Reform Judaism also said that he was “encouraged” by Sharansky’s efforts and
that “while his proposals are not all we had hoped for, they represent a
dramatic step towards a State of Israel that respects and protects the rights of
non- Orthodox Jews.”
“There are many crucial details to be worked out,
but in general I am hopeful that we are moving towards a solution that would
affirm the unity of the Jewish people and the many authentic ways to practice
Judaism,” Jacobs said.
The Conservative movement expressed a similar
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of
Conservative Judaism, told the Post that “what we were presented with was a
concept that aims to resolve the issue of access to the Kotel. The proposed
concept is significant and there was good will about continuing to talk about
refining it. There are still many details to be worked out but overall, the
response was good.”
The meeting, he said, was “positive and
“General principles of [Sharansky’s] recommendation – though
not entirely what we would have liked – indicate that he is listening to us and
wishes to address our concerns.
We look forward to working with Mr.
Sharansky to find a solution that is good for the entire Jewish people,” Wernick
Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North
America also sounded upbeat about the meeting, saying that “it was a really good
dialogue. People felt comfortable expressing their opinions and it was really
respectful and dignified with real depth.”
Jewish Agency spokesman
Benjamin Rutland issued a statement after the meeting, saying that “after
significant thought and multiple discussions with Knesset members and a wide
range of stakeholders in Israel and the Diaspora, Sharansky will present his
recommendations to Prime Minister Netanyahu upon the chairman’s return to Israel
from his visit to college campuses in the United States.”
Sharansky as calling for the Kotel “once again [to] be a symbol of unity among
the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife.”
While efforts at
building a consensus were being made in New York, the battle over prayer at the
Kotel continued in Jerusalem.
Despite a police warning on Tuesday stating
that the High Court’s ruling prohibiting women from wearing religious garments
while praying at the Western Wall will be enforced, a Women of the Wall
representative said the group will continue to pray as they choose Thursday
“We meet every month at the Kotel for a pluralist
women’s prayer for Rosh Hodesh, and have been for 24 years,” said Shira Pruce,
director of public relations for Women of the Wall.
being accused of being a ‘provocation’ and we always say that 24 years is a
local tradition, not a provocation.”
Pruce said there will likely be 100
or more women attending the 7 a.m. morning prayer.
“The only thing we do
is pray,” she said. “We are really clear, and always have been, that the Women
of the Wall do not participate in rallies or protests – we are a prayer
Still, Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the head of
the Jerusalem Police District, Yosi Perienti, has made it clear that the High
Court’s decision will be upheld by police.
“The Israeli police will be at
the Western Wall on Thursday to ensure the law is enforced and that the Women of
the Wall do not take advantage of the High Court’s decision forbidding them from
praying with religious garments in restricted areas,” said
While Rosenfeld said the designated area at Robinson’s Arch
had been established to allow women to pray wearing religious garments without
defying the court’s decision, Pruce called the alternative a form of
“The Women of the Wall has never accepted the exile to
Robinson’s Arch,” she said. “It is not the Kotel, it doesn’t feel like the
Kotel, doesn’t look like it, and nobody prays there as if it were the Western
Wall. If it was the Western Wall, the ultra- Orthodox would be praying there, as
Pruce continued by saying that “on Thursday, like any other month,
we will come at 7 a.m. to pray in the women’s section as we always do and hope
for as little police intervention as possible, which we do not believe we
Pruce emphasized that women who choose to wear religious shawls
will not pray without them under any circumstance, stating such a restriction is
“against their religion and violates their Jewish beliefs.”
have detained 40 women at the Kotel over the last six months, so we are,
unfortunately, quite prepared for this scenario,” she said. “However, it’s
important to note that these women have been ‘detained,’ not ‘arrested.’” Pruce
said the distinction is important, because when a woman is detained by police
for praying with a shawl, she is typically held in custody for three hours,
during which time she is questioned, fingerprinted and released without a
criminal record or file of any kind.
“We’re experiencing being detained
as a form of police intimidation, much more than the pursuit of law-breakers,”
she said. “If they were looking for a criminal they would press
Rosenfeld said the police are highly sensitive to the nature of
the conflict and will do everything possible to uphold the law without further
“We are dealing with a situation that is both serious
and sensitive and are taking consideration of the implications,” he said.