Into the fray comes the Reform movement. On Sunday, members of the Conservative movement were verbally accosted by some ultra-Orthodox teenagers while praying in a mixed-gender service at the Western Wall on Shavuot morning. There was pushing and shoving as well, according to eyewitness accounts.
Now the Reform movement is planning its own morning prayer service at Judaism’s holiest site, and despite repeated requests it has yet to receive an assurance of protection from the Israeli government when it brings about 150 of its leaders to the Wall on June 14, the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations told The Jewish Week.
“We initially went to the prime minister and the minister for internal security, and they referred us to the authorities at the Wall,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie said. “We’ve made several requests of them telling them our plans, and as of [Monday] we haven’t received a response.”
Israeli officials in charge of administering Jerusalem’s holy places could not be reached for comment.
Rabbi Yoffie said he is not worried about his own safety but that of some of the elderly members of the Reform delegation who are joining him in a one-week pilgrimage to Israel to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the state, lobby Knesset members on the conversion and religious pluralism issues, and support local Reform institutions.
“In light of our failure to get a specific response, there’s a little bit of uncertainty,” he said.
The Reform movement also plans a “welcoming ceremony” at the Wall, which will include liturgical elements, when it arrives in Jerusalem this Sunday, he said.
The Reform events come as Rabbi Yoffie this week called for the division of the Western Wall, with a section designated for egalitarian prayer by non-Orthodox Jews. Current Israeli law calls for men and women worshiping at the Wall to be separated by a divider, as per Orthodox tradition.
“It is incomprehensible that the holiest place in Israel should belong to one segment of the Jewish nation, which prevents the majority of Jews from praying there according to their traditions,” he said.
Rabbi Yoffie argued that for 2,000 years there was no separation between men and women praying at the Wall. “Only shortly after Israel recaptured the Old City [31 years ago] was separation begun,” he said.
Israel Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron reportedly responded that the Wall is a place where Jews have been praying for generations, with men and women doing so separately.
“There is nothing to talk about regarding the divisions of the Wall’s plaza,” he said. “However, there is no doubt that we must find a solution for the problem of Conservative, Reform and the Women of the Wall,” referring to women who pray as a minyan and read the Torah together, a practice banned by the Orthodox.
Rabbi Yoffie said the fact that the Conservative worshipers had to be protected by police from a throng of ultra-Orthodox protesters in order to finish their service on the morning of Shavuot — even though they prayed in the back plaza about a football field away from the Wall itself — points to the need for a long-term solution.
He said the Reform position is that non-Orthodox Jews should have equal right to pray inside the immediate Wall area. But he said the two scheduled ceremonies will take place in the back plaza area, about 100 yards from the 2,000-year-old stones that served as the outermost reinforcing wall for the Second Temple, because “we want a peaceful visit. We’re not looking for confrontations.”
That has not been the case for the past two years when Conservative worshipers tried to pray on Shavuot at the back of the Wall plaza. Last year on Shavuot haredim threw rocks at the group, and non-Orthodox participants were dragged off roughly by police. On Tisha b’Av the chief rabbinate barred them from praying there.
On Sunday morning, ultra-Orthodox adversaries threw some pebbles and a few plastic bags of chocolate milk while shouting “Nazis” and “Goyim.” Police, however, did protect the group, and the attack was deemed mild by some compared to what happened on previous holidays at the Wall.
“The police really did a remarkable job,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, a Conservative leader in Israel.
Rabbi Sacks said an important precedent had been set — the police had protected their right to hold prayers their way at the wall, instead of giving in to the violence and threats by their detractors.
Rabbi Sacks also noted that police defended the group even though the Religious Affairs Ministry had urged the police to block the prayers.
“I don’t think we’re going to have an easy time praying at the Wall on holidays from now on, but I hope it will be somewhat easier than it has been for us in the past,” Rabbi Sacks said.
The haredi agitators were mainly teenage boys, according to published reports. Following the morning prayers in the Muslim Quarter, haredim and Arabs threw stones at each other, and members of each group fired stones at police. A number of Palestinian cars and shops had their windows smashed. Four Arabs, four haredim and two policemen were injured.
Arabs and haredim blame each other for starting the fracas, but police did not say which side began the episode.
Bar-Ilan University Professor Eliezer Don-Yehiya, an expert in religious politics, explained that with so many haredim living close to Arab East Jerusalem, “the proximity causes friction.”
He noted that Arabs and haredim have a long account with each other, with each side responsible for numerous attacks on the other.
“On Shavuot you also have the presence of large crowds of haredim, and the violent minority has already gotten themselves heated up by going after the Conservatives, so it carries over when they come in contact with the Arabs,” he said.
As for the haredi attack on Conservatives at the start of Shavuot, Don-Yehiya was among those who called it mild compared to previous aggression. Noting that the rabbis and other leaders of the haredi community are painfully aware that these violent incidents are terrible for their public image, Don-Yehiya added, “I wonder if some of the haredi leaders didn’t work behind the scenes this year to make sure that things didn’t get out of hand.”
The Conservatives also received some moral support from a few members of the Aish Hatorah yeshiva near the Wall, who passed out leaflets reminding the haredim that violence was a “desecration of God’s name.” Members of Jerusalem’s Modern Orthodox synagogue Yedidya prayed alongside the Conservatives in a show of solidarity.
The chairman of the Reform Movement’s Center for Jewish Pluralism, Rabbi Uri Regev, said the fact that the police allowed Conservative prayers with men and women together in the Western Wall plaza over Shavuot was reason for hope.
Rabbi Yoffie said he was pleased to see the police protecting the Conservative contingent but questioned whether that attitude could be counted on next week when he plans to “emphatically drive the message home that, when it comes to the Wall, we have the same right to pray according to our practice and custom as any other Jew.”
Rabbi Yoffie said he had invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pray with the Reform delegation at a Shabbat service, but it appears Netanyahu will not accept. It was also unclear whether Netanyahu will even meet with the Reform group.
“We don’t have a firm meeting,” Rabbi Yoffie said.