Reform, Conservative Leaders Outraged at Orthodox Crashing of Tisha B'Av Ceremony

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Men praying at the Kotel, on Sunday.
Men praying at the Kotel, on Sunday.Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Leaders of the main non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in North America expressed outrage on Sunday over the takeover of the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall by Orthodox groups on the eve of Tisha B’Av. The targeting of non-Orthodox Jews at the holy site on Saturday night, they said, demonstrated how critical it was to implement, with no further delay,  the Western Wall deal, which was meant to provide the non-Orthodox movements with a new and revamped prayer plaza at the southern expanse of the Jewish holy site.

Hundreds of Orthodox teenage boys and girls – students at yeshivas and ulpanas around the country – crowded into the space traditionally reserved for egalitarian services at the southern expanse of the Western Wall on Saturday night. The evening marked the opening of the annual fast of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the ancient Jewish temples.

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The Orthodox youths came early, set up barricades at the space to separate men from women. The sight of the barricades shocked members of the Conservative movement, who had come  to participate in the annual reading of the Book of Lamentations. When a woman from the Conservative movement began reciting from the megillah, the Orthodox youths made noise to drown her out.

The Conservative movement in Israel holds its Tisha B’Av eve megillah-reading service at this spot, with men and women sitting together, every year.

Liba activists preparing to takeover the prayer space

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, called the disruption “the latest example of the despicable behavior of some fanatics against other Jews.” He noted that the fast of Tisha B’Av is meant to warn against “sinat chinam” – or baseless hatred, often cited as the cause of the destruction of the temples. “Yet this is how some act against their Jewish siblings,” he said in a statement to Haaretz.

He urged Jewish world leaders and the new Israeli government to denounce the behavior of the Orthodox teens and “affirm the right of all to practice Judaism according to their traditions and conscience throughout Israel including at the Kotel.” He also called on the new government to “fulfill its promise” to implement the Kotel agreement.

“The Masorti-Conservative movement affirms Ahavat Yisrael, a love for all Jews, and expects others to do so as well, particularly as we mourn and commemorate our shared history of destruction and suffering,” said Blumenthal, who headed a delegation of Conservative movement leaders to Israel last week. The delegation members met with the country’s new president, Isaac Herzog, as well as with representatives of the new government and the Knesset. The revival of the Western Wall deal was one of the key issues raised in their discussions.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism – the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America – described the Orthodox teens who took over the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall as “zealots” and termed their actions “baseless hatred in its purest form.”

“If anyone doubted the need for an egalitarian pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall, last night’s brazen hate-filled attack was stunning proof,” he told Haareetz.  “We are counting on the new Israeli government to make good on their promises by moving expeditiously to implement the Kotel agreement. The time is long overdue for the State of Israel to say loudly and clearly that there is a place for all Jews at the Kotel and throughout the Jewish State.”

He noted that one of the critical and often overlooked components of the agreement was the establishment of a special governing council that would be responsible for running the prayer plaza and which would include representatives of the non-Orthodox movements. “That provision is essential given what we experienced last night,” he said.

According to the latest Pew survey of American Jewry, more than half the Jews in the United States identify as either Reform (37 percent) or Conservative (17 percent).

The takeover of the egalitarian space was organized by an extremist right-wing group, known as Liba, which has been trying to prevent a revival of the Western Wall deal. Since the beginning of last week, groups sent by Liba have been occupying the egalitarian space almost every day, holding gender-segregated study sessions and prayer services at the site.

Liba has been fighting the Western Wall deal since its inception. The deal, which was approved by the previous government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu in January 2016, was suspended a year and a half later under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, before any construction had begun at the site. Netanyahu’s decision to walk back on the deal, which had been hailed as “historic,” drew outrage from the non-Orthodox denominations and put great strain on Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry.

When asked for his response to Saturday night’s events, Yaakov Hagoel, the chairman of the executive of the World Zionist Organization, who also currently serves as acting chairman of the Jewish Agency, refrained from taking sides.

In a statement issued to Haaretz, Hagoel, an Orthodox Jew himself, said: “The baseless hatred that brought about the destruction of the temple should not be guiding us today. We know there is no substitute for a united nation that transcend its divisions, despite the differences within. Especially today, it is important to remember and remind others of the price of baseless hatred. Only unity in the nation of Israel.”

Hagoel is filling in as chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency until a permanent replacement is chosen for Herzog.

Before the new government was formed last month, the centrist Yesh Atid party, which is one of the key partners in the coalition, had reached a deal with its partners that the Western Wall deal would be revived if they assumed power. The Yamina party, which is headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and which joined the coalition much later, was not party to this agreement. But in his previous role as diaspora affairs minister, Bennett had been an enthusiastic supporter of the deal and isn't expected to stand in its way.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also came out strongly against the provocateurs. “On the day we commemorate the destruction of the Temple, a group of extremists decided to desecrate the holiness of the day and the holiness of the place and start a violent struggle at the Kotel,” he wrote on Twitter. “That’s the baseless hatred that led to the destruction of the Temple and our exile.”

He said the Israeli government would not tolerate such action that aimed to drive a wedge between Israel and the Jewish world. “We won’t let them destroy the Kotel, destroy Israeli society or destroy our relations with the Jewish world,” he wrote. "The Kotel belongs to every stream of Judaism, and it will be a place where every Jew feels at home.”

Lapid was the most senior government minister to respond to Saturday night’s events.

This is not the first time religious, right-wing activists have moved into the space designated for egalitarian prayer and set up barriers there to separate men from women. However, it is the first time that they have taken such action since the new government was formed.

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