Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky proposed Tuesday to a group of world Jewish leaders in New York that the Western Wall prayer area be expanded to include a new section that would be designated for non-Orthodox groups and where members of these groups would be able to hold their services throughout the day.
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The plan will require renovating the archeological site known as Robinsons Arch, which is adjacent to the Western Wall, so that it becomes a natural extension of the current prayer area. This extension designated for egalitarian prayers would be open throughout the day for prayer services – not just three hours a day as is currently the case.
Women of the Wall, a vocal group of progressive-minded women whose members hold a monthly prayer service at the Western Wall, have until now resisted proposals that they move their services to Robinsons Arch, saying they will not be banished to exile.
The new extended section of the Western Wall that Sharansky proposes setting up would be regulated by an authority comprising representatives of the government and the Jewish Agency, he said.
The main idea of the plan is to guarantee accessibility and visibility for all, Sharansky told Haaretz. There will be no such a thing anymore as putting women on the back of the bus. According to the plan, he added, there would no longer be a separate entrance for those participating in egalitarian prayer services, but rather, all those coming to pray at the Western Wall would pass through the same entrance.
Haaretz has learned that Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz was involved in drawing up Sharansky's proposal, and sources at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation said he has secured approval for the plan from Haredi authorities on halakha, or Jewish law.
Rabinowitz said that while he would prefer that everyone would pray according to Jewish law, "under the current circumstances, when the desire is that the Kotel not be a place for demonstrations and disputes, I will not object to the proposal."
Sharansky said that although he had heard some reservations to the plan from representatives of various Jewish organizations he had met with in recent weeks, he was convinced that there is an opportunity here to build a very broad consensus.
Sharansky estimated that construction of the new area would take up to two years. Until then, he said, an interim agreement would have to be hammered out governing prayer at the wall. It is clear to me that it is much easier to come to an interim solution once we agree on the principles, he said.
Under pressure from the non-Orthodox Jewish world, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed Sharansky several months ago to draft recommendations aimed at resolving the increasingly heated dispute over prayer at the wall.
In recent months, members of Women of the Wall have clashed with police over newly enforced regulations that prohibit them from wearing prayer shawls at the wall and praying out loud. Virtually every month, police have arrested women during and after the monthly prayer service for violating these restrictions, sparking an outcry among Jewish organizations abroad that advocate for pluralism.
Jerusalem police chief warns women not to 'defy orders'
Meanwhile, Jerusalem Police Commander Yossi Parienti warned Tuesday that women joining a prayer session at the central plaza of the Western Wall later this week will be stopped from wrapping themselves in prayer shawls, though he did not specify whether officers planned to arrest those violating these orders.
When women start praying there, wrapped in shawls, they are defying court orders," Parienti told a press conference convened two days ahead of the Women of the Wall's service to mark the beginning of the Hebrew month of Iyar.
Last week, Parienti warned that the recitation of the Kaddish (mourner's) prayer by the women was also prohibited and that the police would begin enforcing the law more strictly.
The Women of the Wall have rejected the ban. After 24 years, we are part of the scene there, and we totally reject the Attorney Generals directives according to which the custom there is dictated by Orthodox synagogue norms. We, and most people in Israel, reject any extreme interpretation which conforms to the rulings of the Kotel Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation," said the group, referring to those with authority over the site. The Women of the Wall added that they would continue in their mission, until women are able to read from the Torah and pray out loud there, until girls can have their bat mitzvah ceremonies at the Wall and until women soldiers can sing the national anthem there."