Frustrated by Setbacks, Conservative and Reform Movements Plan Major Provocation at Western Wall

Non-Orthodox leaders take action after Israeli government fails to follow through with plan to build a new egalitarian prayer space space.

2013 | Western Wall, Jerusalem.
A member of Women of the Wall dons tefillin, a religious custom traditionally performed only by men. The group wants to secure the right of women to pray at the site.
Michal Fattal

Frustrated by a series of recent setbacks for Jewish pluralism in Israel, Conservative and Reform movement leaders have decided to fight back. On Thursday, in defiance of longstanding custom at the site, they will hold a mixed-prayer service for men and women at the Western Wall, in plain sight of the Orthodox-run segregated prayer area.

The mixed prayer afternoon “mincha” service, scheduled for 17:00 P.M., will be attended by prominent rabbis and lay leaders of the movement. It will be convened in the area known as the “upper plaza,” located just above the main segregated prayer area. 

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Conservative movement would often hold prayer services in the upper plaza, but it has refrained from doing so ever since the area known as Robinson’s Arch, at the southern reach of the wall, was opened. 

Robinson’s Arch, unlike the upper plaza, is not visible from the segregated prayer area. The upper plaza today mainly serves as an area where visitors to the Jewish holy site can congregate.

In a letter emailed on Wednesday morning headlined “It is time to act,” Conservative movement leaders in Israel wrote to their members and supporters: “We have no choice but to fight for our right to pray at the Western Wall in our own way.”

Both Conservative and Reform leaders have become increasingly frustrated with the government for not following through with its decision, approved in January, to build a new egalitarian space for their members in the southern expanse of the Western Wall, near Robinson’s Arch. After the plan was approved, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition to beg out.

The non-Orthodox movements have also been outraged by a new bill meant to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling that would have allowed Conservative and Reform converts to use state-sanctioned mikvehs (ritual baths), despite prohibitions imposed by the Orthodox authorities. 

But the immediate trigger for today’s call to arms was a first-of-its-kind Orthodox prayer service held on Tuesday at Robinson’s Arch, long considered the domain of the non-Orthodox movements. For Conservative movement leaders, the decision by Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar not only to preside over a prayer service there, but also to set up a temporary barrier at the site for separating men and women, was seen as a blatant infringement of their territory.

Having all but given up hope that the government’s plan for an egalitarian space at the Western Wall will ultimately materialize, Conservative leaders in Israel say they will demand that the upper plaza, where Thursday’s prayer service will be held, be allocated to them on a permanent basis.