In strategy shift, Women of the Wall seek egalitarian prayer area

Group willing to move from women's prayer section to a newly created section under certain conditions.

Women of the Wall say the ‘Shema’ near the Western Wall 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Women of the Wall say the ‘Shema’ near the Western Wall 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Prayer activist group Women of the Wall resolved this week to lobby the government to create a third prayer section in front of the Western Wall that would be under the administration of a multi-denominational, gender-equal board.
The move is essentially a proposal whereby Women of the Wall would agree, under certain conditions, to relocate its services from the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza to a newly created area, as long as the group received administrative and budgetary clout in the site’s management.
The group has held prayer services in the main women’s section, leading to objections from ultra-Orthodox protesters.
Violent clashes and arrests have been a frequent occurrence since the group began holding prayers.
“After going through a comprehensive and emotionally trying decision-making process, Women of the Wall’s multi-denominational Executive Board has voted in vast majority to create a future in which, under the right conditions, the women’s prayer group would pray in an equal and fully integrated third section of the Kotel,” the group said in a press release.
“The new area will be governed not by [Western Wall Chief Rabbi] Shmuel Rabinowitz, but by a board of Jewish leaders, including equal representation of women, who value women’s prayer and reject all forms of violence,” it said.
The organization claimed victory in a groundbreaking legal ruling earlier this year, when the Jerusalem District Court upheld an earlier decision by the local magistrate’s court that women who wore prayer shawls (“tallitot” in Hebrew) at the Western Wall Plaza were not contravening “local custom” or causing a public disturbance, and therefore should not be arrested.
The issue of equal prayer rights at the site has risen to the forefront of public debate in recent months due to the frequent arrests of women participating in the prayer services that the Women of the Wall hold there.
The controversy prompted Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to seek a compromise that would satisfy all sides. The chairman’s plan involves the expansion of the Western Wall Plaza to comprise an area running from the northern end of the site down to the southern end of the wall by Robinson’s Arch.
The plan calls for the current prayer area at Robinson’s Arch, which the Supreme Court designated for non-Orthodox prayer in 2003, to be elevated to the same level as the plaza area, and for the area running along the Western Wall to be divided into three equal sections – one for men, one for women, and one egalitarian – with a single entrance to the entire complex.
Women of the Wall has expressed opposition to a proposal by cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, which would not allow for the elevation of Robinson’s Arch and would essentially cut off the prayer section from the Western Wall stones.
The group was adamant that its new proposal was not tantamount to a compromise, but a necessary shift in strategy in light of the prevailing reality. It said it would continue to pray in the main women’s section until the government agreed to its conditions for the new, egalitarian third section.
The decision engendered praise from the US Conservative Movement.
Rabbinical Assembly Executive Vice President Rabbi Julie Schonfeld and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick welcomed “the news that Women of the Wall has reached a decision in regard to the government’s anticipated offer to create an interim solution towards the implementation of the Sharansky Plan for the Kotel.”
While they said that “the search for compromise amidst the legitimate struggle for equality is difficult and painful,” they added that the Conservative Movement looked forward to “working with WoW leadership and with the Reform Movement to clarify and implement these long-needed changes at the Kotel and to continue to work towards increased religious pluralism in Israel.”
Sam Sokol contributed to this report.