JERUSALEM — Earlier this month Tsvi and Julie Landau drove from their home in northern Israel to Jerusalem so their daughter Noa could celebrate her bat mitzvah at Robinson’s Arch, the secluded section of the Western Wall where the Conservative movement facilitates bar and bat mitzvahs.
After waiting for other worshippers to vacate the small platform that touches the Western Wall, the Landaus, who are Conservative Jews, and their guests placed a Torah scroll on the site’s reading platform, took out some prayer books, and began to recite Shacharit, morning prayers.
Then something odd happened.
Partway through Noa’s Torah reading, an Orthodox Israeli family with several young children stepped onto the platform. The father, with four young sons in tow, wedged his way into the narrow space between the Wall and the Torah platform, obstructing the bat-mitzvah girl’s immediate view of the Wall. After pointing out the site’s historical significance to his children he began to silently pray. His wife and daughters, meanwhile, prayed next to the wall, but several feet to the left.
When one of the Landau’s friends asked the wife whether her husband and sons could please stand on the side until the end of the bat mitzvah’s Torah reading, she replied in a defiant tone, “This is a public place and anyone can pray here, any time they want to.”
Days after the incident, Noa’s mother, Julie, said she tried to ignore the family’s intrusion, “but I found it distracting that they were sharing our very small space, even though they were quiet.” She recalled how she and her family had waited patiently for others to complete their prayers on the platform before celebrating Noa’s bat mitzvah.
“Why couldn’t we have been shown the same consideration?”
Landau wondered why, “with the entire regular section of the Kotel at the Orthodox family’s disposal, they wanted to pray [next to] an egalitarian minyan if this form of prayer is repugnant to them.”
Deliberately provocative incidents like this — which speak to a larger culture war between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in Israel when it comes to prayer at the Western Wall — have become commonplace in recent months, according to Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel. She said organized groups of Orthodox Jewish nationalists and some individual Orthodox Jews are “trying to turn Robinson’s Arch into the religious equivalent of the traditional Kotel,” or Western Wall, in a sense extending Orthodox rule to that part of the Kotel.
Hess accused the Orthodox visitors of “taking advantage of the government’s refusal to implement the agreement that would have designated Robinson’s Arch the official, government-funded place for egalitarian, pluralistic prayer at the Kotel [Western Wall].”
The cabinet approved this agreement in January 2016, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spearheaded three years of negotiations between the non-Orthodox streams, Women of the Wall, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Israeli government, has refused to implement the agreement out of fears his Orthodox coalition partners will bolt and his government will fall.
Until the agreement is implemented, Hess noted, “there are no regulations” governing Robertson’s Arch, where the Conservative movement facilitates bar and bat mitzvahs at its own expense.
Last week Israel’s Supreme Court seemed to side with the notion of egalitarian prayer. In what is being seen as a “historic” decision handed down last Wednesday, the justices ruled in favor of women being allowed to read from the Torah in the women’s section at the Western Wall, and declared that an egalitarian prayer area set aside at nearby Robinson’s Arch does not constitute access to the holy site.
In an interim injunction, the court gave the Wall’s Orthodox administrators and state agencies 30 days to show cause why women cannot pray “in accordance with their custom” or allow them to pray as they choose.
It also declared that women should not be subjected to body searches before entering the plaza. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox-run body that oversees activity at the site, has authorized such searches to prevent worshippers from entering the women’s side with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, tefillin and menorahs.
Hess said the Orthodox prayer sessions have interfered with scheduled non-Orthodox prayers, including bar and bat mitzvahs.
“Fortunately it was at a time when the site wasn’t packed, so we were able to move families from one [Torah] table to another. If it had been packed, I’m certain there would have been violence. These provocateurs are saying they don’t consider us Jews.”
Hess traced the “provocations” back to June, when Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Rabbi Shlomo Amar brought an Orthodox group to pray at Robinson’s Arch, with a portable mechitza, or divider, between male and female worshippers.
During this unannounced visit, Rabbi Amar made it clear that his intentions was to assert Orthodox claims to the site.
“The “holiness” of Robinson’s Arch “cannot be undone,” Rabbi Amar said. “Not by the courts, the government … or gentiles, the U.N., or any other power.”
Since then, many such prayer services have been held there by activists connected to the organizations Ateret Cohanim, the Liba center and other far-right nationalist groups.
“The issue is much larger than Robinson’s Arch. The issue is the character of the State of Israel,” said Yigal Canaan, who works for Liba, an organization dedicated to making Israel Orthodox.
Caanan said Robinson’s Arch must be run like an Orthodox synagogue, exactly the way the traditional Kotel is run, and that implementing the cabinet agreement would be tantamount to recognizing non-Orthodox Judaism — something he said must be avoided at all cost.
“The government cannot recognize the Reform,” he said, not distinguishing between Reform and Conservative Jews. “The Kotel is not their place.”
A senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Jewish Week,
“The PMO is working hard to bridge the gaps between the parties to ensure that all Jews can feel at home at the Western Wall. Regrettably, statements and actions by both sides have made this effort more difficult. We hope to find a resolution as soon as possible.”
A year after the cabinet voted to approve the agreement, others are also sharing their opposition, but for different reasons.
Cheryl Birkner Mack, a onetime member of Women of the Wall, believes the feminist group — which agreed to relocate to Robinson’s Arch as soon as the government funds the renovation of the prayer space — has betrayed women like her who want to pray in the women’s section of the traditional Kotel, and not Robinson’s Arch.
“It was a sell-out on the part of Women of the Wall,” said Mack, who is one of the four petitioners asking the High Court to permit women to read from Torah scrolls in the women’s section.
Mack said that if it were up to her, “there would be space for everyone at the traditional Kotel plaza,” including sections for egalitarian and women’s-only prayer. “But the Reform and Conservative movement have every right to choose a place to pray,” she emphasized.
Leah Zakh Aharoni, founder of the group Women for the Wall, an organization that opposes non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel, said the outcry over Orthodox prayer in Robinson’s Arch “is nothing short of hypocritical” given that “for the past 25 years, Women of the Wall and their supporters in the Reform and Conservative movements have regularly disturbed the prayer of traditional worshippers at the Kotel without giving a second thought to the feelings of the people around them and concentrating exclusively on attaining their rights.”
Tsvi Landau, unlike his wife, Julie, said he was actually pleased that the Orthodox family stopped by his daughter’s bat mitzvah, even if that wasn’t their motivation.
“I find it a meaningful sign of klal Yisrael if an Orthodox family stops by and simply prays in the middle of our egalitarian service without disturbing us. It is highly problematic, however, if their prayer disrupts our egalitarian service, and unfortunately there are plenty of examples of that happening,” Landau said.
JTA contributed to this report.