'Egalitarian section could be ready in 10 months'

Jewish Agency chairman Sharansky says construction of new Kotel section could start within a month of approval.

WoW April 11 arrests 4 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
WoW April 11 arrests 4 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said on Tuesday that it would take 10 months to construct the first stage of an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall once a decision is formally taken to implement his plan for the site.
Sharansky has been tasked by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to formulate a solution to the demands of the Women of the Wall activist group for equal rights at the Kotel for women wishing to pray at the site in a manner different from traditional Orthodox practice.
Speaking at a hearing of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, he said that construction could begin within one month once the plan is approved.
It is understood that the first stage of construction will include the building of a platform approximately 30 meters in length along the southern section of the Western Wall in what is known as the Robinson’s Arch area, comprising in total an area of over 400 square meters.
The final prayer area, as envisioned in Sharansky’s plan, will run some 50 or 60 meters along the length of the wall and could be completed within two years.
Interim arrangements for Women of the Wall prayer services at the Western Wall until the first stage of construction is completed were also discussed at the hearing, arrangements which will be heavily influenced by a recent Jerusalem District Court ruling that reinterpreted the regulations pertaining to religious practice at the site and argued that “local custom” does not necessarily mean Orthodox practice, as has been hitherto understood.
In light of this ruling, the Attorney- General’s Office announced Monday night that Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett would address the issue through amendments to the regulations on religious practice at the site arrangements of the matter through amending the regulations of the Law of the Holy Places, through “consultation with the relevant authorities.”
Until the regulations are amended at least, the district court ruling, which reinterprets the regulations to allow non-Orthodox practice at the Western Wall, will be upheld, said a representative of the Justice Ministry present in Tuesday’s Knesset hearing.
Women of the Wall will hold their monthly Rosh Hodesh prayer service at the Western Wall on Friday and have declared that they will wear prayer shawls and tefillin, as is permitted by the district court ruling.
A representative of the Jerusalem Police stated at the hearing that the police would not act against the district court ruling regarding religious practice on Friday, meaning that for the first time, participants in the Women of the Wall service who chose to wear prayer shawls and tefillin will not be subject to arrest.
Earlier on Tuesday, Women of the Wall officials met with Bennett and Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, who runs the ministry, to discuss the matter.
Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman described the meeting as positive, adding that this was the first time in the history of the organization that they had met with a religious services minister.
Following the attorney-general’s announcement Monday night, the religious rights organization expressed concern that the amendments being pursued by Bennett and Ben-Dahan would seek to circumvent the district court’s ruling and explicitly define “local custom” as Orthodox practice.
However, following the meeting with Bennett, Hoffman stated that the impression she got was that Bennett would not seek to revoke the group’s new-found rights and that he was interested in dialogue.
Regarding the upcoming service on Friday, Bennett asked that Women of the Wall not read from the Torah, as it had planned to do, a request with which the group said it would comply.
Senior sources in the Bayit Yehudi party added that there was also an agreement from Women of the Wall that its prayer participants would not don tefillin, although this was denied by the group.