US Conservative, Reform leaders praise Kotel plan

Jewish Agency chairman Sharansky says he feels “encouraged” by reception to his proposal for an egalitarian prayer area at Wall.

Anat Hoffman arrested during Women of the Wall service 370 (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Anat Hoffman arrested during Women of the Wall service 370
(photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
American Orthodox organizations offered muted responses to a proposal announced yesterday by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to create an egalitarian prayer area for non-Orthodox services at the Western Wall.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, Sharansky said that he saw no reason not to implement a solution in which “all the Wall will be accessible 24 hours a day... there will be the opportunity to touch the Wall on all its length,” and “there will be one entrance through which the people are coming.”
“I hope that we can really come to a very broad consensus,” Sharansky said, indicating that he felt “encouraged” by the reception his proposal garnered.
Conservative and Reform leaders in the US were optimistic regarding the plan, even as they expressed some minor reservations.
The strident tone that many expected to hear coming from the the traditional camp was largely absent from statements issued by major American Orthodox groups.
In an email to the Post on Wednesday, Rabbi Steven Weil, Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union, wrote that he wanted to “express profound gratitude” to Sharansky for his efforts “in trying to tone down animosity between Jew and Jew. He has gone out of his way to hear, understand and be sensitive to all concerned parties.”
“There are some extremely significant challenges which face the Jewish people, including a growing percentage of unaffiliated Jews, the threat of a nuclear Iran, and tens of thousands of rockets massed on Israel’s southern and northern borders. Hopefully, Jews across the world can focus on these issues and not expend our energies on intra-Jewish hostility and rancor,” Fertig wrote.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, told the Post that his organization’ s view has always been that “Jewish religious tradition is the ultimate unifier of Klal Yisrael [the Jewish collective]” and that, as such, it “should be what prayer at the Kotel reflects.”
However, rather than disparage Sharansky’s efforts, Shafran simply stated that “as to any proposals to accommodate those who disagree, we defer, as always in Eretz Yisrael matters, to the highest religious authorities in Israel.”
English language haredi news websites either ignored Sharansky’s announcement or made minimal mention of the issue and, so far, it seems that the haredi rabbinic leadership to which Shafran defers has been silent on the issue.
Mindy Stein, the chairman of the Board of the women’s religious Zionist organization Emunah, was also low key in her response, telling the Post that she prayed that “ as Sharansky said... there will be a solution that will unify our people.”
She also hoped that the solution “will not undermine our different religious practices.”
The reaction of non-Orthodox groups was decidedly more emphatic, with broad support shown for Sharansky’s efforts, even while groups admitted reservations regarding specific points of his plan.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism told the Post that he was “encouraged” by Sharansky’s efforts and that “while his proposals are not all we had hoped for, they represent a dramatic step towards a State of Israel that respects and protects the rights of non-Orthodox Jews.”
“There are many crucial details to be worked out, but in general I am hopeful that we are moving towards a solution that would affirm the unity of the Jewish people and the many authentic ways to practice Judaism,” Jacobs said.
The Conservative movement expressed a similar sentiment.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told the Post that “what we were presented with was a concept that aims to resolve the issue of access to the Kotel. The proposed concept is significant and there was good will about continuing to talk about refining it.
There are still many details to be worked out but overall, the response was good.”
Marcie Natan, National President of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, issued a statement on Wednesday, congratulating Sharansky and “applaud[ing] Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu for commissioning this undertaking.”
“Hadassah,” Natan wrote, “urges the Israeli government to continue working with Natan to ensure that the Western Wall is a symbol of Jewish unity and diversity.”