The first phase of construction of a new egalitarian worship section for non-Orthodox Jews wishing to pray at the Western Wall could be completed within 10 months, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said on Tuesday morning.
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Sharansky proposed the new prayer section last month in a bid to quell the bubbling tensions surrounding non-Orthodox prayer at the wall. Tensions threatened to reach a breaking point following a series of high-profile arrests of members of the Women of the Wall organization, who meet monthly at the Jerusalem holy site for communal prayer. The group often incorporates some rituals that Orthodox Jews believe should be reserved only for men.
Sharansky said on Tuesday that officials from the Prime Minister’s Office are planning to submit a request for a permit to construct a new space, dubbed the “Israeli plaza,” at the Western Wall’s southern section. Work can be started within a month, and the entire project can be completed within two years, he added.
The first stage will include a new space of 400 square meters for worship in the area known as Robinson’s Arch. But during a Knesset hearing, a representative of the Antiquities Authority — which has jurisdiction over the site — expressed his strong opposition to the project.
"I don’t know any intelligent archaeologist who would allow a construction project of that size on the Herodian street. It’s inconceivable, just like building such a structure on the Acropolis,” the representative said.
Sharansky made his time-frame announcement Tuesday morning as part of a larger presentation regarding his compromise plan at the Western Wall. Members of Women of the Wall were also present at the meeting, as were the rabbi in charge of the Western Wall, representatives of the Justice Ministry and the police, and representatives of the Reform and Conservative Movements, among others.
Also on Tuesday, Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett hosted the group’s leaders in his office for a first meeting before he drafts new regulations intended to restrict WOW’s actions in the main plaza.
Both discussions dealt with the anticipated arrangements for prayer in the Western Wall plaza in the distant future — according to Sharansky’s compromise plan, for example — and in light of the Jerusalem District Court ruling from two weeks ago permitting WOW to worship according to their custom, which includes wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries and reading from a Torah scroll in the women’s section.
Both meetings also dealt with the upcoming service marking the start of the Hebrew month of Sivan this coming Friday and fears of clashes between worshippers at the holy site.
Speaking to Haaretz about the meeting with Bennett, WOW Chairwoman Anat Hoffman said that Bennett was the first government minister to meet with WOW since December 1988, when the organization was established. She said that WOW members stated their demand to pray in the main plaza wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries and reading from a Torah scroll. When Bennett asked whether these were opening demands or a final goal, Hoffman said that they were opening demands and that their final goal was to hold a bat mitzvah ceremony in the Western Wall plaza, light candles and blow the shofar.
“I saw a person who understood that dialogue is the way,” Hoffman said. “It didn’t look to me like this was a person who would dictate rules that would prevent his daughters and my granddaughters from celebrating their bat mitzvah at the Western Wall.”
Hoffman also said Bennett asked WOW for a demonstration of good will. In response, the WOW members said they would refrain from reading from a Torah scroll on Friday even though the District Court ruling allowed it.
In the meeting at the Knesset, the legal adviser for the Jerusalem District Police, Superintendent Michael Frankenberg, said, “We will not act against the District Court ruling this coming Friday. We will not prevent Women of the Wall from praying according to their custom, at least as far as prayer shawls and phylacteries.” This is the first time in WOW’s 24-year struggle that the police have stated they would allow them to worship in the women’s section according to their custom.
But the parties are looking toward the coming months, and Bennett, in consultation with the attorney general, is drafting new regulations that will give a sharper definition to concepts such as “local custom.” In a meeting in his office, the attorney general said he did not accept the broad interpretation of Judge Moshe Sobel, who ruled that the wearing of prayer shawls and phylacteries by women did not violate local custom.
Justice Ministry representative Harel Goldberg said during the meeting at the Knesset that the District Court’s interpretation contradicted the interpretation given by attorneys general since 2003, when the High Court of Justice ruled on the Women of the Wall’s petition. According to Goldenberg, the ruling requires “a clarification of the legal situation,” and Minister Bennett is drafting the new regulations on that basis. Goldberg said that the regulations would be set in consultation with all the parties involved, including Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and would be submitted to the Justice Ministry for approval. When he was asked about the legal situation at the Western Wall until the new regulations are drafted, he answered, “As in any country with the rule of law, the State of Israel, with all its various agencies, is subject to the District Court.”
In the meeting, Sharansky presented the main points of his plan for constructing a third plaza for the Reform and Conservative movements. The plaza, he said, would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and have no rabbinic supervision. He provided no new details about the plan, which includes a new entrance area. “The goal is that every Jew on earth can come to the Western Wall and express his identification with the Jewish people in the way he is accustomed to doing so,” he said.
Yuval Baruch, a representative of the Antiquities Authority, was firmly opposed to the construction project. “We’re sentencing the most important archaeological site in the State of Israel to destruction,” he said, prompting Sharansky answered respond that if people wanted to things that differed from the norm, “you have to do unorthodox things.”
"The Zionist enterprise is also unique in the world,” Sharansky added.