Showdown Expected at Western Wall as Hundreds of Reform Jews Plan to Defy Prayer Restrictions

Ultra-Orthodox worshippers and security guards acting on behalf of the organization that administers the holy site will likely confront the group

Ultra-Orthodox men argue with Reform worshipers during a mixed prayer service at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, June 2016.
Emil Salman

Hundreds of Reform Jews from around the world plan to defy regulations at the Western Wall on Thursday morning by holding an egalitarian Torah reading service in an area of the Jewish holy site deemed off limits to worshippers.

Their actions are likely to be viewed as a provocation, forcing a showdown with ultra-Orthodox worshippers and with with security guards acting on behalf of the organization that administers the Western Wall.

The World Union for Progressive Judaism, the international umbrella organization of the Reform movement, is holding its biennial conference in Jerusalem this week. A highlight of the event will be a joint bat-mitzvah at the Western Wall, scheduled for Thursday morning, for about a dozen Jewish women from Latin America who never participated in the Jewish initiation ritual.  Around 450 Reform Jews from 30 different countries are expected to attend the event.

The bat-mitzvah ceremony will be held at the area designated for mixed prayer services, known as Azarat Yisrael, which is located at the southern expanse of the Western Wall. But following the ceremony, the worshippers plan to move to the area known as the upper plaza, right near and in full view of the traditional gender-segregated plazas, where they will hold a Torah reading service, in which both men and women will participate.

Worshippers at the Western Wall are not allowed to bring their own Torah scrolls to the site but are asked instead to use the Torah scrolls available in the men’s section. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox-run organization that administers the holy site, does not make Torah scrolls available to women, however. For this reason, members of the Reform delegation attending Thursday’s service plan to disregard the ban and bring their own Torah scrolls to the Western Wall.

Even if they manage to smuggle them in, they could be prevented from holding a mixed service in the upper plaza, since the Western Wall Heritage Foundation has declared this particular space off limits for prayer.

By defying prayer restrictions at the Western Wall, the conference participants hope to draw attention to their ongoing struggle for recognition of the non-Orthodox movements at the Jewish holy site. In January 2016, the Israeli government approved a plan to replace the temporary ramp at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, which is used for egalitarian prayer services, with a permanent and much larger plaza.

But under pressure from his Orthodox coalition partners, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refrained from implementing the plan. His Orthodox coalition partners are fiercely opposed to recognizing the Reform and Conservative movements as legitimate forms of Judaism.

The plan would have also seen representatives of the non-Orthodox movements appointed to a new authority that would administer the new egalitarian area.

Almost a year ago, Reform and Conservative Jews from around the world, convening in Jerusalem at the time, had planned on holding a mixed prayer service in the upper plaza to protest the government’s inaction in implementing the egalitarian prayer space agreement. At the last minute, fearing violent protests, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit issued a special order preventing the gathering.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the chief custodian of the holy site, later announced that prayer in the upper plaza would from hereon be absolutely forbidden.

In recent months, Ateret Cohanim, an Orthodox yeshiva affiliated with the settler movement, has been trying to push Reform and Conservative worshippers out of the Azarat Yisrael space. It frequently holds prayer services there, rather than in the tradition gender-segregated spaces, seting up a barrier, or mechitza, on the temporary platform to separate men and women.

Several weeks ago, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel sent a letter to Netanyahu and to Mendelblit complaining that their members were being pushed out of the only space they had available for prayer, noting that they were frequently harassed by young Orthodox bystanders while holding services and ceremonies there.