Following a carnival-like atmosphere outside Jerusalem’s City Hall Tuesday
afternoon – featuring costumed stilt-walkers, dancers, protesters and
impassioned speeches from political leaders – hundreds of delegates from the
General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) marched to
the egalitarian section of the Western Wall to pray as one.
Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Jewish
Agency chairman Natan Sharansky spoke of the sanctity of Jerusalem and the
threat of Iran, the overriding theme of the GA’s closing ceremony was
unquestionably Jewish unity at the Western Wall.
Indeed, speakers at the
final gathering for the three-day event overwhelmingly framed the Western Wall
as a primary symbol of the importance of ensuring Jews of all denominations are
treated equally and with dignity at the holy site.
“The Kotel is the
foundation of the Jewish people – it belongs to each of us and all of us,” said
JFNA president and CEO Jerry Silverman, before introducing Barkat.
I want us all to embrace Natan Sharansky’s bold, forward-thinking and
pluralistic plan for shared use of the Kotel.”
As Barkat spoke of the
importance of pluralism, a group of nearby protesters from the Jerusalem
Foundation of Modern Democracy could be heard shouting their disapproval of the
mayor’s coalition with Arieh King, chairman of the United Jerusalem Party, whom
they called a racist for his divisive campaign for city council.
of the participants held placards reading “Save Jerusalem from the King” and
shouted “We voted for Barkat, not the KKK!” Unfazed by the outburst, Barkat went
on to describe Jerusalem as the “foundation of modern democracy” and emphasized the importance
of tolerance here among different religious factions.
Barkat’s sentiments, adding that it was imperative to ensure the Western Wall
served as “one Wall for one people.”
“The Kotel is about history and the
connection to all Jewish people in the world,” he said. “The moment that is
undermined, millions of people will become disconnected – and nobody wants that
this connection is weakened.”
Sharansky then added: “Now, let’s go to the
Kotel so everyone can pray and feel connected to Israel.”
As roughly 700
GA delegates marched to the Wall, several people expressed gratitude about
finally being able to pray together at the holiest site for Judaism.
think this is a powerful ending to the conference and a meaningful way for Jews
in the Diaspora to speak loudly in support of the Wall belonging to all Jews,
regardless of the stream of Judaism they belong to,” said Michael Wise of
Stephen Kulp of Chicago said the egalitarian section made him
“feel good about Jerusalem” by ceding power away from haredi dogma and what he
deemed the disproportionate influence of the ultra-Orthodox.
“I can now
go to the Wall and pray with my wife, which is the most important thing to me,”
he said. “I’d rather have it like this than not at all.”
Still, not all
the delegates expressed complete satisfaction over the compromise to make
Robinson’s Arch, which sits dozens of meters away from where most Jews pray, the
final destination for egalitarian prayer.
“The section is fine, but it’s
not the same,” said Lili Kaufman of Tampa, Florida, while another participant
said the removed location made him feel like a “second-class
However, Kaufman’s friend Dorothy Wizer expressed pragmatism,
saying she understood that the Western Wall served as a metaphor for “the bigger
picture” of Jewish life and therefore required compromise.
over a little bit along the [Wall] makes for peace, then it’s fine with me,” she
said. “We can’t continue fighting each other – we have enough
After the group sang several prayers together as the sun set,
leaving behind the light of an incandescent half moon, Sharansky conceded that
Robinson’s Arch was not an ideal location for the egalitarian section but
represented a “first step.”
“This is not what we dreamed of, but it is a
beginning,” he said. “It’s very important that when people speak to God they
speak in a way they are comfortable, and that’s the power of the Kotel – it’s
long enough to include all our people.”
Noting the ongoing contentious
impasse between the ultra-Orthodox community and Women of the Wall, who have
been seeking egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, Sharansky said the incongruity of
tradition and pluralism must not pit Jews against one other.
from all of this is that we must not fight to see how we can defeat each other;
we must fight to see how we can be one people,” he said.
Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said she viewed
the egalitarian prayer space through a historical spectrum.
“For me, we
are one Jewish family that has taken many different directions over many years
to help the Jewish community thrive, and this is one of the most significant
steps in helping us do it together,” she said. “We have multiple ways we seek to
achieve [unity], but we must do it together.”
Meanwhile, Rabbi Steven
Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, described
Robinson’s Arch as an “interim step” in actualizing Sharansky’s vision of a more
unified Western Wall.
“We’re waiting to see the prime minister’s next
step,” he said. “If it is consistent with Sharanky’s plan, then it will be time
Wernick added, “Now is the time to be grateful.”