Progressive Jewish group brings, reads Torahs at Western Wall despite ban

“Jerusalem unites all of us, but it also obligates all of us."

May 18, 2017 21:15
4 minute read.
reformed jews western wall

MEMBERS OF THE World Union for Progressive Judaism pray in the Western Wall plaza. (photo credit: YEHUDIT HOFMAN)


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Some 450 people participating in a conference of the World Union for Progressive Judaism were allowed to bring Torah scrolls into the Western Wall plaza and read from them undisturbed on Thursday morning.

The group brought in five Torah scrolls, despite the ban by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation against bringing in private Torah scrolls.

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Regulations drafted by Western Wall administrator Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz in 2010 prohibit bringing private Torah scrolls into the Western Wall plaza, and were introduced to prevent the Women of the Wall prayer rights organization, and all progressive Jewish groups, from reading from the Torah at the site.

The ban has been vigorously enforced by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation that administers the site, although Women of the Wall has smuggled in Torah scrolls on several occasions.

Thursday’s progressive prayer service appears to be the first time that a non-Orthodox group was permitted to bring in and read a Torah at the site.

The group first prayed in the egalitarian prayer area at the southern end of the Western Wall outside the main site, and went to the central plaza to read from the Torah.

When they arrived at the entrance to the Western Wall, security officials of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation said that bringing the Torah scrolls in violated its policies, but when the group insisted they wished to enter with them they were allowed to do so.

No less remarkable was the almost complete absence of harassment and protests of any kind against the progressive service, which was conducted in the upper plaza just behind the men’s and women’s section.

Rabbi Daniel Freelander, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, described the service as “a perfect experience” and a statement that progressive Jews want to be a normal part of activities at the Western Wall.

“This was a very different experience then we’ve had in the past; there were no protests, no upset and no violence, and hopefully this is a sign of where things are moving,” Freelander told The Jerusalem Post.

“We want to pray at the Western Wall the way we do in our home communities, and we therefore want the government resolution to be implemented,” he continued in reference to the cabinet decision last year to create a state-recognized egalitarian prayer area at the southern section of the site.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, noted that there had been no massed ranks of schoolgirls or yeshiva students protesting against the service, as has frequently occurred at past non-Orthodox services, and neither was there women blasting on whistles, verbal abuse or any other harassment.

Kariv said that three yeshiva students began singing in their direction, which was the only form of protest that was encountered.

He added that the officials from the progressive Jewish denominations had directly informed the Prime Minister’s Office about the scheduled service and that they believed the PMO had asked the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and Rabinowitz to allow the Torah scrolls to be brought in.

Kariv said that the lack of protests on Thursday was proof that the opposition to progressive prayer at the Western Wall was purely political.

“When Rabbi Rabinowitz does not arrange for orderlies to prevent our services, when the haredi parties do not bus in haredi schoolgirls and when Mati Dan from Ateret Cohanim [an NGO with a yeshiva located in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem] doesn’t organize protests from Ulpana [religious high-school] girls we see there’s no problem and that Jews are able to get along with each other,” said Kariv.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment as to whether it had asked the Western Wall Heritage Foundation to allow the Torah scrolls to be brought in.

Rabinowitz’s office also declined a request for comment as to why its usual ban on bringing in Torah scrolls was waived.

During Thursday’s prayer service, a group of 12 women between the ages of 40 and 60 participated in a collective bat mitzva ceremony, a rite they had never previously celebrated.

The event was held in the framework of the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s 38th annual CONNECTIONS conference, marking the umbrella organization’s 90th anniversary, and drew more than 450 lay leaders, rabbis, students and congregants from Progressive, Reform and Liberal communities from 30 countries.

On Wednesday night, the conference kicked off with a gala ceremony at the Olmaya Hall on Jerusalem’s Haas Promenade during which Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California presented a 500-year-old Torah Scroll – which survived the Holocaust and has resided in their synagogue for the last several decades – to the leadership of Kehillat Sheket, the only deaf congregation in Minsk in the Republic of Belarus.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky addressed the audience saying: “Jerusalem unites all of us, but it also obligates all of us. It’s not enough that we say that all Jews of the world are welcome here. Every Jew must feel welcome here with his or her community, with his or her spiritual leaders, with his or her style of prayer. The Kotel, like every place in Israel, should have enough room for all the prayers of the Jewish people.”

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