Jewish World Leaders to Confront Israeli Minister for First Time Since Western Wall Deal Scrapped

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Non-Orthodox rabbis bring Torah scrolls into Western Wall plaza to protest Israel's inaction. Conservative Rabbi Steven Wernick (L), Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Women of the Wall's Anat Hoffman (C), Conservative Rabbi Mauricio Balter, (R) Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv. November 2, 2016.
Non-Orthodox rabbis bring Torah into Western Wall: Conservative Rabbi Steven Wernick (L), Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Women of the Wall's Anat Hoffman (C), Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv. Nov. 2, 2016Credit: Women of the Wall

For the first time since Israel suspended its plan to build a new prayer space for Reform and Conservative Jews at the Western Wall, leaders of the movements will directly confront a representative of the government with their grievances.

Members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, which included the leaders of the non-Orthodox movements, are scheduled to tour the Western Wall on Monday morning accompanied by Tzachi Hanegbi, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for national security and foreign affairs. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assigned Hanegbi with the task of resolving the crisis over the broken Western Wall deal.

The Israeli government had approved a plan to expand and renovate the existing temporary space designated for mixed-gender prayer back in January 2016. As part of that agreement, the new prayer plaza would have enjoyed equal accessibility and visibility to the existing gender-segregated prayer area. It would also have been placed under the jurisdiction of a brand new pubic authority that was meant to include representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements.

But under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed through a cabinet vote in late June to suspend the plan.  The decision sparked a major crisis, virtually unprecedented in scope, between the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewry.

The latest sign of this crisis was Netanyahu’s decision to absent himself from the upcoming annual conference of the Jewish Federations of North America. President Reuven Rivlin is scheduled to stand in for him there. The JFNA General Assembly, which takes place annually in November, is the biggest event of the year for the organized Jewish world.

After Hanegbi spells out the government’s position to the Jewish Agency delegation during the Western Wall tour, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, are scheduled to respond. It will be the first direct exchange between the two sides in four months.

The government has tried to make light of the decision taken in June, noting that the Reform and Conservative movements have long had access to an egalitarian prayer space on the southern side of the Western Wall. The movement leaders have maintained in response that the space in question is neither adequate in size nor respectable, hidden as it is from full view of visitors to the holy site.

The government has in recent weeks promised to expand the existing egalitarian space. 

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