Space at the Kotel for progressive Judaism means more than a new shul

Far beyond the new physical space, this has consequences that set the stage for a truly pluralistic Israel.

Jews gather to pray at the Western Wall during Succot (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Jews gather to pray at the Western Wall during Succot
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
I’ve always felt uncomfortable when visiting the Kotel. The heavy security, the immediate mandatory separation of men and women and the loud prayer on the men’s side matched by near-silence from the women. At the holiest site of my faith, my values are nowhere to be seen. This acts as a reminder to me that my Judaism, egalitarian and pluralistic, is not truly welcome in Israel.
Now, though, after years of organizing, struggle and arrests of the Women of the Wall, we have a place to go. The formal creation of a new egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, to be administered by a collective of the Women of the Wall, the Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Israeli government, is a hugely important victory.
Far beyond the new physical space, this has consequences that set the stage for a truly pluralistic Israel.
The new governing body of this egalitarian prayer space is the first time that Jewish clergy previously unrecognized by the Chief Rabbinate have been given religious authority. While the Israeli state has recognized non-Orthodox practice in the past, it has always found a way to avoid directly limiting the reach of the Chief Rabbinate. These compromise solutions – whether recognizing Diaspora Reform conversions but not domestic ones, paying Reform rabbis but only through the Ministry of Culture and Sport, or building a “temporary” platform at Robinson’s Arch – have been better than nothing, but they are deeply imperfect and vulnerable to reversal.
This new body, however, will not be so easily undermined. With officially recognized control over a part of Judaism’s holiest site, the state has recognized the legitimacy of non-Orthodox religious institutions – rather than acceding to the fact of non-Orthodox practice – in a powerful way. The precedent has been set that progressive Judaism is not only legitimate, but deserves a real say in the governance of religious spaces. This, then, is not just a space for egalitarian prayer. It is a key chink in the armor of the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on what it means to be an Israeli Jew. It is the creation, to borrow a phrase, of irreversible “facts on the ground.”
While demanding our rights is important, creating the institutional and legal groundwork for a truly pluralistic Israel is essential to make future progress. The secular legal systems of Europe were not built overnight: it took hundreds of years of political struggle. The LGBT rights movement did not start with fighting for marriage equality: it started with fighting for the legal right to exist. Incremental steps that set legal and social precedents, that provide a focal point for organization, and act as models to build on (one can imagine the new governing body of an egalitarian prayer space functioning as such) are the building blocks of a progressive Israel.
Progressive Judaism has newfound political force in Israel. Despite the outward hostility of current Knesset members and the Orthodox establishment, we have repeatedly made significant incremental advances in our battle for equality and our vision of Israel. This past week, we took a great step forward.
When I visit our new space, I won’t just see a place where all Jews can worship God together. I will see a vision of a pluralistic Israeli future.
The author is a development associate at the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He previously interned in J Street’s New York office after graduating in May 2015. He was raised in the progressive Jewish movement at Congregation Darchei Noam in Toronto, Canada, and attended both NFTY-NEL and URJ Camp George. He has a lifelong passion for politics and social justice.