American Jews Pour in Money for Billboard Campaign Backing Western Wall Egalitarian Prayer Deal

Reform and Conservative movements: 'Free the Kotel – Enough with ultra-Orthodox domination'

 Signs on a highway calling to: “Free the Kotel – Enough with ultra-Orthodox domination.”
Federation-funded signs on a highway calling to: “Free the Western Wall – Enough with ultra-Orthodox domination.” Israel Religious Action Center

With the help of tens of thousands of dollars raised from American Jewish donors, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel launched a huge billboard campaign on Thursday. The campaign’s goal is to pressure the Israeli government into fulfilling its promises to build a new and permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.

About 1,000 billboards have been put up around the country with the call: “Free the Kotel – Enough with ultra-Orthodox domination.”

The campaign is a response to the cabinet decision two weeks ago to freeze plans to set aside a new space for mixed-gender prayer services at the Jewish holy site. The government had agreed in January 2016 to allocate a special space for egalitarian prayer but had never implemented the plan because of pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the government coalition.

Rabbi Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, which is coordinating the campaign, said it is funded by both Jewish federations in North America and by private donors. “I think we will eventually raise hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she told Haaretz, “because Jews in America are determined to make an impact and they see this as a rallying call and part of their struggle for the soul of the State of Israel.”

Signs on a highway calling to: “Free the Kotel – Enough with ultra-Orthodox domination.”
Israel Religious Action Center

Following the cabinet decision to suspend the Western Wall deal, the Reform and Conservative movements organized a rally, attended by a few thousand protestors, outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s home. Sattath said similar rallies would be organized within the next few weeks to ratchet up pressure on the government.

In addition, the Reform and Conservative movements were planning to bring out many supporters to join Women of the Wall, the multidenominational feminist prayer group, during its monthly service at the Kotel on July 24, said Sattath. The Reform and Conservative movements plan to take action at the event in order to draw public attention to their cause, though details had not yet been finalized.

The campaign billboards have been hung in strategic locations around Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Modi’in and will stay up for the next two weeks. On July 30, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a petition submitted by the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall demanding that the government fulfill its agreement to create a new egalitarian space for them at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, or alternatively, redivide the existing gender-segregated area at the northern end to make room for them.

Sattath said the campaign was timed to create public awareness of the issue ahead of the Supreme Court hearing.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said the government’s reversal of its agreement on the Western Wall plan was “symptomatic” of its overall capitulation to ultra-Orthodox interest groups.

“There is one common thread that links the Western Wall issue, the conversion bill [which would grant a monopoly on conversions in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate], religious radicalization in the school system, the granting of greater authority to rabbinical courts and huge budget increases for ultra-Orthodox yeshivas,” said Kariv.

“There is no doubt that a large majority of the Israeli public opposes these moves, and it’s time that the silent majority lets its voice be heard in the streets,” he added.

Izhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, said that public support for implementing the Western Wall deal was “unprecedented.”

“The crisis that has erupted with American Jewry [over the Western Wall issue] is difficult and acute, but even more troubling is that the state of Israel has stopped being the national home of the Jewish people,” said Hess.