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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Chief Rabbi of the Kotel, Shmuel Rabinowitz, said Monday that those who conduct services deviant from Orthodox customs should not pray anywhere along the length of the Western Wall.
Rabinowitz was referring particularly to the non-Orthodox customs of egalitarian prayer in which men and women have equal roles and pray together.
Non-Orthodox prayer sessions have been held for the past seven years at Robinson's Arch, inside an archeological park at the southern tip of the Wall. Under an agreement finalized on Sunday, the Masorti (Conservative) movement was given extended hours of unpaid access to the arch. But Rabinowitz, whose authority does not extend to this area, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that he strongly opposed granting any such access to non-Orthodox worshipers.
"Whoever wants to celebrate a bar mitzva, but does not want to do it according to Jewish custom, should go elsewhere," said Rabinowitz.
"It makes me sad that there are people who do not want to respect the Kotel as a place of unity and togetherness for the entire Jewish people," said Rabinowitz, using the term "Kotel" to apply to the entire exposed area of the Wall, rather than the familiar expanse under his direct supervision, bounded to the south by the Mughrabi Gate, in which worshipers are segregated into separate praying areas by a mehitza.
Rabinowitz, whose official title is chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, was speaking to the Post following the deal finalized Sunday between the government and the Masorti Movement.
According to the agreement, the movement has free access to the southern tip of the Kotel, which is known as Robinson's Arch, in the morning hours, on Friday nights and on some holidays.
Masorti prayer groups are different from their Orthodox counterparts in certain liturgical changes and, more importantly, the lack of gender separation.
Rabinowitz is also responsible for upkeep and maintenance of Rachel's Tomb near Bethlehem. He oversees rituals at Judaism's holiest spiritual epicenter, such as bar mitzvas, Torah scroll processions, and remembrance ceremonies.
"The Fund for the Traditions of the Kotel provides guides who can help families celebrate a bar mitzva in accordance with tradition or put on tefillin or read a Torah scroll," said Rabinowitz. "Many Reform and Conservative families use our services."
Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Masorti Rabbinical Assembly, said in response that "if anyone is acting out of respect for Jewish tradition and unity it is the Masorti Movement.
"From the very beginning we showed a willingness to move away from the main section of the Kotel in order to prevent a clash with ultra-Orthodox sensitivities. Nor did we ever try to deny anyone else their customs out of sincere respect."
Sacks said the controversy over Robinson's Arch raises the fundamental question of to whom the Kotel belongs.
"Should it be controlled by a small group of ideologues or should it be accessible to the entire Jewish people regardless of religious leaning?" he asked.
"The Kotel is not and should not be considered an Orthodox synagogue," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, leader of Reform Judaism in North America.
"My own view is that the Kotel should be divided up equally between Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism," Yoffie said. "The Orthodox may find it offensive to see men and women praying together or keeping rituals according to egalitarian values. But they should learn how to respect the faith of others."
Yoffie added that "Rabinowitz's comments did not reflect the sensitivity and concern befitting a rabbi of the Kotel. The Masorti Movement's willingness to restrict its prayers to Robinson's Arch was already a significant compromise on their part."