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Is New Kotel Plan Meant To Split Advocates For Equal Prayer Rights?

Is New Kotel Plan Meant To Split Advocates For Equal Prayer Rights?

Surprise announcement of non-Orthodox zone approved, reluctantly, by Reform and Conservative, but not Women of the Wall.

Jerusalem – What the Israeli government is calling an “interim” arrangement to enable more non-Orthodox Jews to pray at Robinson’s Arch has received grudging support from Reform and Conservative leaders but not from Women of the Wall.

The arrangement is the brainchild of Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett, who this week called it “an immediate solution to enable all Jews to pray freely at the Kotel.” It provides a large prayer space and, for the first time, government-funded Torah scrolls and prayer books, plus 24/7 access for Jewish worshippers at the Arch. The government designated it a non-Orthodox prayer site – with major limitations – back in 1998.

But the plan doesn’t address a main issue for Women of the Wall, a pluralistic all-female prayer group that has been fighting a 25-year battle for women’s equality and the right to pray in the women’s section at the Kotel, or Western Wall, itself. Nor does it address the fact that some of the group’s core members are Orthodox and feel religiously bound to pray in a women-only prayer space.

Part of the Jerusalem Archeological Park and Davidson Center, Robinson’s Arch is a tranquil, picturesque site filled with ancient ruins. Its centerpiece is the southern section of the Western Wall, a continuation of the northern Western Wall that Jews everywhere associate with the word “Kotel,” and the site of the main men’s and women’s sections.

WATCH: Bennett Gives A Tour Of The New Prayer Area On YouTube

While the new 4,840 square-foot platform can accommodate 450 worshippers, it falls several yards short of the southern wall itself. To touch the wall, visitors must use a small platform built in 2004.

Photos distributed by Bennett’s office, taken from above, show that Robinson’s Arch is indeed a continuation of the traditional Kotel, separated only by a thick stone wall. But it is impossible to see the larger Kotel from the platform because it is on much higher ground.

Archaeologists reportedly nixed efforts to build a higher platform, believing it would destroy precious artifacts.

Bennett said the platform’s construction “was coordinated with the Reform and Conservative leadership in the United States,” but Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative/Masorti movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said movement leaders initially assumed that the government was merely fulfilling its preexisting promise to expand the prayer space to meet the needs of worshippers.

It was only in days leading up to the announcement that the liberal movements, anxiously awaiting the implementation of a grander plan brokered by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, were informed that the platform was part of a more ambitious, if temporary, plan.

(A source familiar with the Bennett plan confirmed that his office informed the non-Orthodox streams of the interim plan “a few days before it was announced.”)

On the positive side, Rabbi Schonfeld said, her movement believes the platform, “which sprang up overnight under our feet, obviously improves the place where we are already davening. That’s a step forward.”

Until now, she noted, worshippers had to pay to pray at the Arch after 9 a.m., and there were no chairs, tables, Torah scrolls or prayer books for public use. The hours were severely limited and visits, especially those involving a wheelchair, had to be coordinated with the Davidson Center.

“At the same time,” the rabbi continued, “we do not have clear details on the rest of [Bennett’s] plan vis-à-vis control and governance of the site, and continue to have significant ongoing concerns on how to go from where we are to full religious equality.”

For non-Orthodox Jews to have full equality in Israel, Rabbi Schonfeld said, the Israeli government must provide the same type of recognition and funding it provides to Orthodox clergy and institutions.

“For us, it is as important to have equality in religious governance and religious principles as it is to have an equal physical structure” in which to pray.

Many are questioning the timing and intent of Bennett’s announcement, given that the committee charged with finding a permanent solution to accommodate Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox streams has yet to complete its work

In a Haaretz article on Bennett’s plan, a “well-placed government source with knowledge of the committee’s activities,” says, “It is not clear who authorized Bennett to do this, but what does seem obvious is that he wanted to create facts on the ground.”

The article notes that “neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the office of Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky was prepared to comment publicly on what appears to have been an attempt by Bennett to bypass the cabinet.”

Sharansky did call the “temporary prayer plaza” a “gesture of goodwill” in a separate statement.

The plan Sharansky hopes to implement would create an egalitarian prayer section of equal size to the men’s and women’s sections, though not in the same location, and provide direct access to the Wall. But it is costly and controversial and would require several years of work once fully approved.

The other night at 10 p.m., during a hastily organized sit-in at the Western Wall Plaza held directly behind the women’s section of the Kotel, Women of the Wall Chairwoman Anat Hoffman said the Bennett plan is a dangerous development.

The arrangement, she said, “cannot be an excuse to throw us out. The government of Israel, is trying to break the bonds between the Women of the Wall and the [Reform and Conservative] movements,” which have been “very supportive,” Hoffman said.

If the government was committed to upholding the ruling by a Jerusalem judge allowing Women of the Wall to pray at the Kotel, “it should have told us that until the full Sharansky plan is implemented, you could pray as you please. Instead we’re being told, ‘Get the hell out of here, out of sight and out of mind. ‘“

If Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox worshippers are shuttled to Robinson’s Arch, “what will push the government toward the Sharansky plan?” Hoffman asked. While the group respects the fact that the movements have their own needs, based on their own religious sensibilities, she hopes they will continue to press for Women of the Wall’s “right to pray in the women’s section” of the Kotel.

Rabbi Schonfeld vowed that the Conservative/Masorti movement will continue to be supportive of Women of the Wall’s struggles “for religious equality.”

But she noted, too, that her movement and the women are waging “two parallel religious struggles.”

The rabbi said that Conservative Jews decided to move their services to Robinson’s Arch after being subjected to the extremist haredi harassment and violence now being directed toward Women of the Wall.

“We determined we needed a place to worship immediately. At the same time, we hope the day will come when Women of the Wall will be able to pray in the women’s section, the way they wish.”

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