Trump Accepted Orthodox Rules at Western Wall, but Advocates for Pluralism Remain Determined

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President Donald Trump, accompanied by Shmuel Rabinovitch, Rabbi of the Western Wall, center, and Mordechai "Suli" Elias, director general of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, at the Western Wall. May 22, 2017.
President Donald Trump, accompanied by Shmuel Rabinovitch, Rabbi of the Western Wall, center, and Mordechai "Suli" Elias, director general of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, at the Western Wall.Credit: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump’s decision to follow strictly Orthodox rules when visiting the Western Wall on Tuesday could be seen as a setback for advocates of Jewish pluralism at the holy site, but those leading the struggle for freedom of prayer at the Western Wall say they have not lost heart.

“We sincerely hope that we get continued U.S. encouragement regarding the enfranchisement of the majority of world Jewry in Israel, whether it is at the Kotel or elsewhere,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in an email to Haaretz.

Jacobs said the Reform movement had already been in touch with the new American ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, about the need to allow non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall and “religious pluralism in Israel more generally.”

On his trip to the Western Wall, the first ever by a sitting American president, Trump, together with his son-in-law Jared Kushner, visited the men’s prayer plaza, while his wife Melania and daughter Ivanka visited the women’s section. The president, who wore a skullcap during the visit, inserted a note with a prayer into the Western Wall.

Almost a year-and-a-half ago, the Israeli government approved a plan to create a permanent prayer plaza on the southern side of the Western Wall where Reform and Conservative Jews could hold mixed prayer services. Under pressure from his Orthodox coalition partners, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refrained from implementing that plan. The Reform and Conservative movement, along with Women of the Wall, a multi-denominational feminist prayer group, have petitioned the Supreme Court against the government demanding that it fulfill its commitment or, alternatively, re-divide the existing gender-segregated spaces to make room for them.

The fact that the non-Orthodox movements are not recognized at this important Jewish site has caused considerable angst among Diaspora Jews.

Still, Jacobs said it was “stirring” to see the American President at the Western Wall.  “I have no doubt that the image of President Trump pausing to reflect at Judaism’s holiest site will become iconic, as it should,” he said.

On his visit to the Western Wall, Trump was accompanied by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief custodian of the holy site who is a major opponent of the government plan to create an egalitarian prayer space there.

Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, said she was not disappointed by Trump’s decision to adhere to Orthodox protocol during the visit because she had not anticipating him acting differently. “None of us expected that a major change in the status quo would come out of this visit, “ she said. “The change is up to us. The visit allowed us to look at the status quo through the eyes of the world, and see what we all know – that the holiest of Jewish sites is controlled by an Ultra-Orthodox modern-day sheriff who represents only a small portion of world Jewry and who has allowed so many of us to be silenced and disrespected at the Wall.” She said her organization remained “unwavering” in its fight against the status quo.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he did not believe the president’s visit had any effect on his movement’s struggle. “For the president of the United States, this visit it noteworthy in that it happened,” he said. “I don't read more into it than that.”