Raichel Harazi, her husband Avshalom and their toddler son wanted to pray together as a family at the Western Wall. So, unlike thousands of other Orthodox Jews like themselves who visited Judaism’s holiest site during the intermediate days of Sukkot, they steered clear of the main, gender-segregated prayer plaza and headed toward the recently-constructed egalitarian platform almost hidden away on the other side of the Mughrabi Bridge.
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What a pleasant surprise to discover that they had the entire place to themselves, on this busiest of days at the Kotel.
“We certainly didn’t expect to be the only ones here,” noted Raichel, an immigrant from Chicago who lives today in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan.
It was her first visit to the new prayer plaza, known as “Azarat Yisrael,” constructed several weeks ago at the behest of Religious Affairs Minister Nafatali Bennett, who heads the Habayit Hayehudi Party. “My husband was very active in Bennett’s election campaign and we’re big supporters of the concept of people praying together,” she explained, “so we said we’d have to visit next time we were in Jerusalem.”
Bennett’s intention in building the new prayer platform may have been to reach out to Conservative and Reform Jews, by providing them with a space at the Kotel to hold mixed services. But, rather ironically, according to security personnel at the site, the vast majority of worshippers at the new egalitarian prayer platform have been Orthodox Jews, like the Harazis, and even ultra-Orthodox. “It’s an opportunity for these families to pray together, because there aren’t many other people around,” said one security staffer. “Last week, we even had a Haredi family conduct a tefillin-laying ceremony for their son here.”
During the course of several hours one morning this week, barely a dozen people showed up at the new prayer platform, located right next to the archeological excavations at Robinson’s Arch. Most of them, unlike the Harazis, were drawn more by curiosity than a desire to pray.
And, while many Orthodox bar mitzvah ceremonies were taking place across the way, at the crowded, gender-segregated main prayer plaza, there were none being performed in the new egalitarian space.
Traffic at the site has been pretty thin, according to security personnel who screen visitors at the entrance, and most of those who have come in recent weeks have been either on their own or accompanied other family members. “The only Reform Jews I’ve seen coming here are a man and woman who come every day,” one guard reported.
How did he know they were Reform? “I don’t know for sure, but the man wears a Bukharian-style kippa, and the woman wears pants,” was his response.
According to officials in Bennett’s office, no official count has been taken of the worshippers at the new prayer site, “but, from what we know, there have been several dozen bar and bat mitzvahs there in the past three weeks.” The officials said it was difficult to assess whether worshippers visiting the site were Conservative, Reform or Orthodox, “because we don’t ask those sort of questions, and there are no restrictions on who can pray there.”
In recent weeks, the officials said, Bennett had reached out to leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel, hoping to interest them in making greater use of the new prayer platform. The Conservative movement, indeed, had broached the idea of holding a special, large-scale event there during the intermediate Chol Hamoed days of Sukkot, but quickly reneged. “We’re waiting for the full plan to be unveiled before we decide that there’s a reason to celebrate,” explained Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorati-Conservative movement.
He was referring to a report by a committee headed by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit, which has yet to be submitted to the government. The committee’s brief was to draw up concrete recommendations for resolving the controversy between the ultra-Orthodox and other streams of Judaism over prayer at the Western Wall. A plan submitted earlier this year by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky proposed the construction of a third prayer plaza for egalitarian services as a natural extension of the existing gender-segregated area, and equal in size.
Bennett constructed the new, 450-square-meter provisional plaza (equipped to accommodate almost 500 worshippers) before the Mendelblit committee had finalized or submitted its recommendations. The reason he gave for circumventing the government was that it was important to provide worshippers interested in holding mixed services at the Kotel with a place to do so before the High Holy Days.
But according to eyewitness reports, even on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, there were very few worshippers at the new prayer plaza.
Among the handful of visitors to the site on the morning of the second day of Chol Hamoed were Gustavo Podjarny and Matilda Ruiz, a middle-aged, soon-to-be-married couple from the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Motzkin. Both originally from Argentina, they were visiting Jerusalem on an organized tour with colleagues from the Haifa-based Oil Refineries, but had decided to break away from other members of the group who were standing in a long line waiting to go up to the Temple Mount.
“We feel no connection to that place,” said Podjarny.
Although the two are no longer active in their local Conservative congregation, they said they still felt very connected to the movement. “It holds a special place in our heart,” said Ruiz.
And that’s why they decided to check out the new prayer plaza. “We saw a story about this on television and thought this would be a good time to visit,” she said. “But we came just to see, not to pray.”
About 15 minutes after they left, two middle-aged couples from Holon strolled in. They explained that they were visiting Jerusalem, as they are in the habit of doing every year during Sukkot, and had just happened upon the site. “We came to pray at the main prayer area,” explained Layah Hoffman, who begged to point out she is no relation to Anat Hoffman of Women of the Wall fame. “We had no idea about this place, but kudos to Bennett. If he could build something like this, he really must be liberal.”
Not long after, a middle-aged man and woman made their way down the stairs to the site. Apparently much less taken by Bennett’s overtures to the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, they walked around quickly before heading out. “Really not for us,” the woman muttered to herself as they left.
Unlike Robinson’s Arch – the nearby area that previously had been designated for non-Orthodox services – the new prayer platform is open around the clock and worshippers are not asked to pay for its use.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t subjected to the third degree when they enter, however. All visitors are asked by security staff at the entrance to explain the nature of their visit and are told that they will only be admitted if their purpose is prayer. Often they are followed down to the platform by a guard to make sure they are not up to anything else.
A brief investigation reveals the motivation behind this intense surveillance. The Davidson Center, which operates tours of the Jerusalem Archeological Park, in which the prayer plaza is located, has expressed concern that visitors might take advantage of the free entrance policy to “sight-see” the adjacent archeological excavations, which are only open to paid visitors.
A young Israeli woman is standing by the entrance trying to figure out the purpose of the large, but empty, platform down below. “Oh right,” she says to herself. “That’s the thing they built for Women of the Wall.”
Not exactly, considering that the women’s prayer group has been the most vocal critic of the Bennett initiative, saying it has no interest in praying in the new area, since many of its members are Orthodox and oppose participation in mixed services. But nobody bothers correcting this woman.
Another woman dressed in skinny jeans (“I better go put on my skirt,” she reminds herself), who identifies herself as a tourist from Florida, poses for a shot overlooking the new prayer plaza and the nearby excavations. “I think I’m going to go pray at the main Kotel area, though,” she says. “It’s much more meaningful there.”