Following Intense Debate

Women of the Wall Agree in Principle to Move to New Egalitarian Space

Pluralistic organization cedes demand to hold services in the women's section of the compound, despite prior rejection of Sharansky proposal to have them pray at Robinson's Arch.

Women of the Wall, the pluralistic group that has been at the forefront of the battle to wrest control of the Western Wall from the ultra-Orthodox, has agreed to back down from its longstanding demand that it be allowed to hold its monthly prayer service at the women’s section of the holy site.

The board of directors of the organization voted, following an intense and heated debate on Sunday night, to compromise with the government and move its Rosh Chodesh morning service to the new egalitarian prayer plaza slated for construction on the other side of the Mughrabi Bridge, subject to a list of conditions.

“It is with great pain and sadness that we began to consider this new strategy, but we must be agents of change,” said Women of the Wall Chairwoman Anat Hoffman following the vote. “We have decided today to stand on the tips of our toes and look into the future. We must rise about our internal conflict in order to build the future we want for our daughters.

Women of the Wall intends to hold its next monthly Rosh Chodesh service at the women’s section of the holy site though, she said.

“We have no intention of moving from there until all our conditions have been met,” Women of the Wall Executive Director Lesley Sachs told Haaretz.

Among these conditions is that women who wish to pray together on their own in the new space be allowed to do so. “We don’t exactly know how this is going to work,” said Sachs, “but one option is that there be a temporary mechitzah [divider separating men and women] be made available to us.” Quite a few participants in Women of the Wall services are Orthodox women, who do not want to prayer together with men, and this is one of the reasons the organization did not initially agree to move its prayer service to the egalitarian space.

Women of the Wall have been holding a monthly service at the Western Wall for the past 25 years. In recent months, a few hundred women have been present at this service. The women pray out loud, and some wear prayer shawls and tefillin – practices the ultra-Orthodox find objectionable.

The other demands of Women of the Wall are that there be one entrance and one contiguous national plaza for all three prayer sections – the already existing men’s and women’s spaces and the new mixed space– as well as full equality in funding. Women of the Wall have also insisted that Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Kotel rabbi, have nothing to do with the new egalitarian space and that equal representation be given to women on the board that runs it.

Most of these demands have already been accommodated for in the proposal outlined earlier this year by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky. One of the major hurdles in implementing such a plan that creates one contiguous prayer plaza, however, is obtaining approval from the Jordanian government, which objects to unilateral changes undertaken by the Israeli government in this contested part of the city.

Sources involved in the negotiations said that in the best-case scenario, it would probably be many months before Women of the Wall moved their services from the women’s section.

The women’s organization plans to submit on Thursday a detailed list of demands to the government committee headed by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit that is putting together recommendation for new prayer rules at the Western Wall.

Women of the Wall had come under mounting pressure in recent weeks, particularly from the Conservative movement, to show some more openness to the idea of a new egalitarian section.

The pressure to compromise followed the construction in late August of a new temporary prayer platform for mixed services by Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett. The platform, near the site of the archeological excavations by Robinson’s Arch, is equipped to accommodate about 450 worshippers and was designated for members of the Conservative and Reform movements.

Women of the Wall said the decision to vote for compromise was made by an overwhelming majority of its board members.

On Friday, hundreds of young seminary girls disrupted Women of the Wall, when they held their monthly Rosh Chodesh service in the women’s sections. Participants in the pluralistic service were spit on and jeered at while they recited their prayers.