Reform and Conservative Jews arriving at the Western Wall on Thursday morning to pray were surprised to discover that the special space assigned to them had been taken over by Orthodox worshippers, and that a large barrier had been set up to separate men from women.
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Several hundred yeshiva students – both men and women – had filled the egalitarian prayer space located at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, leaving little room for non-Orthodox Jews to pray there. The initiative was organized by Ateret Cohanim, a yeshiva affiliated with the settler movement behind a recent campaign to prevent mixed-prayer services at the Western Wall. Ateret Cohanim is known for raising money from Jews abroad to purchase land in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City and Arab East Jerusalem in order to create a Jewish presence there.
According to leaders of the non-Orthodox movements, this is not the first time Orthodox worshippers have prayed in the egalitarian space, known as Azarat Yisrael. But never before have they come out in such force or attempted such a move on Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the Jewish month – a time when large numbers of Reform and Conservative Jews tend to pray at the Western Wall.
Azarat Yisrael is a makeshift platform set up almost four years ago by Naftali Bennett, then-minister of Jerusalem affairs and head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party. In January 2016, the government approved a plan to replace the temporary ramp with a full-fledged prayer plaza – equal in size, visibility and access to the existing gender-segregated areas at the northern expanse of the Western Wall. However, under pressure from his Orthodox coalition partners, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refrained from implementing the decision.
In September, non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall, the multi-denominational feminist prayer group, petitioned the High Court of Justice to force the government’s hand.
Women of the Wall usually holds their prayer service in the women’s section of the Western Wall on Rosh Chodesh, and Reform and Conservative Jews often accompany them to show their support.
“This attempt by Ateret Cohanim to take over the egalitarian space by setting up a barrier to separate men and women proves just how important it is to finally implement the Western Wall plan,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, in reference to the government’s decision to create a permanent and much larger egalitarian space at the Jewish holy site.
About 300 worshippers took part in the Women of the Wall service on Thursday morning, many of them participants in pre-military gap year programs from around the country. In defiance of regulations at the Western Wall, Women of the Wall succeeded in smuggling in a Torah scroll and holding a reading from it during the service.