Rather than risk further violence from ultra-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall, the Conservative movement is on the verge of agreeing to an Israeli government proposal to move its egalitarian prayer services to the southern end of the wall known as Robinson’s Arch.
“It’s the same wall, the same stones, the same holiness,” said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of Masorti, the Conservative movement’s arm in Israel.
The right of Conservative and Reform Jews to hold egalitarian prayer services in the plaza facing the Western Wall has been the focal point of the pluralism debate in Israel, pitting the movements against Israel’s chief rabbinate and the haredim.
At stake is the hegemony of the Orthodox in Israel and their recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis to perform such rites as marriages, burials and conversions.
Although leaders of the Conservative movement in both Israel and the United States agree that Robinson’s Arch is an acceptable alternative to the Western Wall, Reform leaders are split on the issue.
“Robinson’s Arch is not the shrine of the Jewish people called the Kotel,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsh, executive director of ARZA/World Union of North America. “Robinson’s Arch cannot replace the Western Wall. It will be very difficult to tolerate ceding the Western Wall, a central national shrine of the Jewish people, to an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.
“What are we supposed to do? Tell the tens of thousands of our people who come to Israel each year that they are not allowed to pray at the Western Wall but only at Robinson’s Arch? Is that what Israel wants to be communicating to the diaspora?”
But Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s social action arm, said “some Reform Israelis find Robinson’s Arch an acceptable compromise, but some don’t feel the need to be there altogether.”
“The majority of Reform rabbis in Israel feel there are other places to express a sense of identification and inspiration,” he said.
He pointed out that on Tisha b’Av, a group of 60 Reform university students held egalitarian services at Robinson’s Arch and “found it most satisfactory.”
“We haven’t had a full fledged vote, but it has become clear in recent weeks that the main demand here [for continued use of the Western Wall] came from the international movement,” Rabbi Regev said.
The issue of Robinson’s Arch surfaced in July after two representatives of the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Minister of Internal Security Shlomo Ben-Ami and Cabinet Secretary Yitzchak Herzog, offered its use to the Conservative movement. Rabbi Bandel said the offer came in a bid to convince the movement to cancel a planned egalitarian Tisha b’Av service in the plaza that faces the Western Wall.
Similar services in the last several years resulted in violence when haredim threw stones and feces at worshipers, claiming that men and women praying together at the Western Wall was a desecration of the site.
“We are willing to negotiate and to try to find a way to prevent — God forbid — violence at this holiest of sites for the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Bandel.
In return for canceling the Tisha b’Av service at the Western Wall, the government agreed also to establish a committee chaired by Rabbi Michael Melchior, minister for Israeli Society and World Jewish Community, that would try to resolve pluralism disputes in the state, including conversions, marriage and burials.
“The committee has not had its first meeting yet, but we are in touch with Minister Melchior and I am very optimistic about the way this government is going to handle these issues,” Rabbi Bandel said.
He stressed that although the Conservative movement might accept moving its communal prayer services to Robinson’s Arch, it is not forever abrogating its right to worship at the Western Wall.
“We still think it is the right of all Jews to pray as the Western Wall plaza in accordance with their custom,” Rabbi Bandel said. “We don’t have the right to give up that right.”
He said the Israeli government recognizes that it is its “duty” to properly prepare Robinson’s Arch for worship services. Rabbi Bandel noted that an archeological dig is now in front of the Robinson’s Arch and that the site must be made accessible. And he said he is now preparing for the government a list of items that will be needed for services, including a Torah, ark, prayerbooks and benches.
“If this site is really allocated by the government and it presents us with the equipment we need, it will be a positive step forward,” he said.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he agreed that the “area around Robinson’s Arch is just as appropriate as any other area of the wall [for prayer]. If it brings us together, that is what arches are supposed to do. I am prepared to daven [pray] there and would encourage others to do the same.”
He said the Conservative movement’s response to the government’s offer “is an important gesture on our part to show our willingness for compromise. We should be permitted to pray at the traditional place. However, in the spirit of bridge building, we have to take some big steps. Hopefully other people will also forget the past and try to forge new relations.”
Rabbi Bandel said he hoped the Melchior Commission would convene quickly to begin dealing with the pluralism issues.
“The clock is ticking because on Nov. 8 there will be another hearing of the Supreme Court” asking that the Minister of Interior be ordered to recognize the Conservative movement’s conversion of a child in Israel, said Rabbi Bandel.
He said he preferred a peaceful solution to this issue and suggested that the government agree to eliminate the nationality clause on all Israeli identification cards.
“I would rather have a substantive solution,” Rabbi Bandel said, “but until the chief rabbinate endorses it and cooperates with us, this technical solution is the only one that can now be implemented.”