Religious Services Ministry Won’t Fund Mixed-prayer Space at Western Wall

Cabinet vote expected Sunday on proposal, which will create separate prayer areas for Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Women pray at Western Wall Plaza, July 8, 2015.
Women pray at Western Wall Plaza, July 8, 2015.Credit: Lesley Sachs
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The Religious Services Ministry will not provide any funding for the plan to create a mixed-prayer space at the Western Wall, in order to avoid being seen as recognizing non-Orthodox movements. The cabinet is expected to vote on the proposal Sunday.

Haaretz has learned that the 35-million-shekel ($8.8 million) cost is set to be jointly financed by the Prime Minister’s Office, Diaspora Affairs Ministry, and the tourism and finance ministries.

JTA reported Thursday, however, that Moshe Gafni, from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, intends to use his position as head of the Knesset Finance Committee to block funding for the plan. David Azoulay, an MK from another ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, heads the religious services ministry.

This is not the first time a Shas-controlled ministry has declined to fund non-Orthodox religious services. In 2012, the High Court of Justice approved an arrangement whereby the state would fund the salaries of community rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements in regional council areas. After the Religious Services Ministry refused to fund their salaries, as it does for Orthodox community rabbis nationwide, the money was provided by the Culture and Sports Ministry.

Sources at the Religious Services Ministry told Haaretz that the ministry deals with Jewish religious services and that in both these cases – the funding of non-Orthodox community rabbis, and the arrangements for non-Orthodox groups at the Western Wall – the activities could not be deemed religious. As a result, it said, it was more logical for other ministries to fund them.

Sunday’s cabinet vote comes after nearly three years of negotiations. The expansion plan is based on a report issued by a committee led by outgoing Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit. It is designed to put an end to the disagreement over the holy site that has waged since 1988, resolving the dispute by separating the different streams of Judaism. It would provide a separate site for non-Orthodox prayer and the Women of the Wall organization: this space is at the southern end of the Western Wall plaza, in an area known as Robinson’s Arch.

The concept was endorsed by the cabinet as far back as the 1990s. The Reform and Conservative movements, along with Women of the Wall – a women’s prayer group that holds monthly meetings at the women’s section – have now consented to the plan, saying the plan’s details have been improved.

Women of the Wall members observe practices at variance with traditional Orthodox custom, notably in allowing women to read from the Torah and wear prayer shawls. The group notes that its participants include Orthodox as well as non-Orthodox women.

The men's prayer section at the Western Wall, July 2015.Credit: AP

The current plan calls for the main Western Wall plaza to remain under the supervision of Shmuel Rabinowitz, the ultra-Orthodox Rabbi of the Wall. The proposal being presented to the cabinet will reserve the main plaza for prayer “according to Orthodox Jewish custom, according to the law of the Torah, which the Chief Rabbinate conducts itself by, including separation between the women’s section and the men’s section, and conducting women’s prayer in accordance with this custom.”

In other words, women will not be allowed to serve as prayer leaders in the Wall’s main prayer section. There is also the implication, although the Mendelblit panel’s report does not say so explicitly, that female worshippers will not be allowed to recite the mourners’ prayer (Kaddish Yatom) for loved ones, or to wear prayer shawls – practices the Chief Rabbinate does not approve of for women.

The adjacent southern expanse, which is a continuation of the current main Western Wall prayer site, is in the area of the archaeological park where Robinson’s Arch is located, abutting the wall around the Temple Mount. It will be designated for use by people following all other religious custom. Prayer there will be conducted based on a pluralistic approach involving equality, the proposal states, “in a manner that will address [the needs of] worshippers from the various streams that are not Orthodox – chief among them the Reform and Conservative streams.”

The cabinet resolution provides that, as a general rule, there will be no separation of men and women at the non-Orthodox prayer site, but that Women of the Wall, “whose devoted battle to pray in their own way at the Western Wall plaza has continued for more than 25 years, [will be given] the opportunity to hold separate prayer at the site, according to their custom, on the first day of every Hebrew month [Rosh Hodesh], on the Fast of Esther [Ta’anit Ester], and at additional times at which the party responsible for the southern prayer area will provide specific permission, based on the opinion of the southern prayer area council.”

That council is set to include male and female representatives from the Jewish Agency, the Conservative and Reform movements, and the Women of the Wall group.

Preparation of the southern prayer area will include the replacement of a temporary platform installed in 2013 with a permanent facility, along with “wide and appropriate” access paths “that will give worshippers convenient and safe access to the site.”

The expanse is to be open seven days a week throughout the year, and will be entered through the existing security posts adjacent to the Western Wall.

The Mendelblit report also addressed the status of the larger plaza to the west of the current prayer area, which is referred to as the “upper plaza” and is now used in part for official ceremonies. Other than in individual cases of major prayer gatherings, the upper plaza will remain “neutral,” the report stated, as “a gathering place to the west of the prayer areas, and sometimes for the holding of ceremonies of a national, official and military character.”

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