Jews gather to pray at the Western Wall during Succot.
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
I celebrated my bar mitzva there 43 years ago on my family’s first trip to Israel. Returning to the Wall on a personal visit 10 years later, I was “picked up” by a rabbi who guided me to my first real Shabbat dinner and later a month of yeshiva study, experiences that helped develop my desire to make aliya.
A few years later I marked the end of my basic training and official induction into the IDF at a ceremony in the Western Wall plaza, probably the most shared common experience among Israelis at this sacred site.
And like most Israelis, even many who live in Jerusalem within walking distance of the site, I’ve rarely set foot there over the past few decades – with most of my visits taking place in the context of my journalistic work.
One reason is that while I value the Wall as a religious, historical and cultural Jewish touchstone, I have not found it an amenable place for Jewish worship.
That’s because the Western Wall plaza is basically an open-air Orthodox synagogue – and an increasingly haredi one to boot – while I have chosen to join an egalitarian non-Orthodox congregation as my preferred mode of Jewish observance.
That’s why I was heartened by the government’s decision earlier this year to finally set aside a section of the Wall plaza on the southern side of Robinson’s Arch for egalitarian, non-Orthodox prayer services.
While substantial credit certainly goes to lobbying pressure by the Reform and Conservative movements, the main trigger was likely the grassroots activism of the local Women of the Wall movement, which has campaigned for decades for the right to conduct egalitarian prayer services at the site.
Yet just months later, the program to develop the Robinson’s Arch prayer site is in danger, most seriously by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent decision to order a reconsideration of the plan, in the face of haredi political pressure from within his government.
But the plan is under attack from the other side, from some veteran WoW activists who consider it a sellout, an unacceptable compromise of the group’s original intention to end the restrictions on female observance at the existing Wall prayer spaces and elsewhere in the plaza.
A delegation of US Reform and Conservative movement leaders is reportedly heading to Jerusalem this month to lobby Netanyahu against making any significant changes in the program. Here’s hoping they succeed – and that also those WoW activists frustrated by the compromise, come to realize that the idea of developing a new and separate prayer space from the existing Orthodox arrangement is ultimately the best way of achieving their larger goal of having non-Orthodox egalitarian worship equally accepted by Israeli society.
(I say this even while fully aware of the years of effort and risk undertaken by WoW, whose members have faced the threat of arrest and violence in pursuit of their goal; several of the campaign’s leaders are my co-religionists at Jerusalem’s Kehilat Kol Haneshama synagogue, and my own daughter has occasionally taken part in their prayer services at the Wall.) As is well known, while most Israelis reject an Orthodox lifestyle, they have yet to accept the concept of non-Orthodox observance as an acceptable alternative – or as the saying goes, an Orthodox shul is the one they don’t go to.
In reality, the way many Israelis do mark the Shabbat and Jewish holidays, or observe Jewish customs, is often more closely akin to accepted Reform or Conservative practices. Yet they don’t associate it as such, because they lack any real exposure to non-Orthodox strains of Judaism, due to historical circumstance and the government’s acceptance of an Orthodox monopoly on any public display of Jewish practice.
While it may seem paradoxical, I’ve long believed that despite the far greater prevalence of the Reform and Conservative movements in the Diaspora, the real future for non-Orthodox Judaism lies in here in Israel.
Here it can serve as a smoother inroad into Jewish practice for the secular majority, rather than as the path to assimilation that it often does abroad.
For that to happen, though, egalitarian non-Orthodox Judaism needs a higher-profile showcase than it has ever enjoyed here – and what better spot than the Western Wall plaza, alongside and in open competition with the haredi shuls on the other side of Robinson’s Arch, vying for the hearts, minds and souls of Israelis? I suspect the haredi leaders have also come to realize this is the real threat posed to their exclusivity at the Wall, rather than the campaign over the existing prayer spaces that they now exploit to rile up and rally their flocks. This is why they have so fervently lobbied the government to backtrack on its deal.
So I say keep up the pressure on Netanyahu to stick by his word, and create an egalitarian prayer space by the Wall in which all varieties of Judaism can bloom in full view of the Israeli masses.
I’m not promising to come to the Wall more often – but at least from now on, this will be the synagogue at the Wall I don’t go to.Calev Ben-David is the political/diplomatic correspondent for IBA English TV News.