More Than 150 Reform Rabbis Hold Mixed-gender Service at New Western Wall Prayer Space

The service marks official recognition of legitimacy for the Reform movement, despite the intensive protests and a crisis atmosphere on the part of the ultra-Orthodox leadership.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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A woman prays at the Western Wall, Feb. 25, 2016.
A woman prays at the Western Wall, Feb. 25, 2016.Credit: Olivier FItoussi
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Wrapped in prayer shawls and filled with excitement, some 150 Reform rabbis from North America, men and women, held a prayer service Thursday morning at the new compound at the southern Western Wall, which is planned to become a new egalitarian prayer space. The new “Ezrat Yisrael” section was approved last month by the government, and the Chief Rabbinate and rabbi of the Kotel will not have authority over the new prayer space.

The service was a highlight of the annual conference of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the main body of Reform rabbis, being held this week in Israel. The service marks official recognition of legitimacy for the movement, despite the intensive protests and a crisis atmosphere on the part of the ultra-Orthodox leadership.

The ultra-Orthodox press was covered Thursday morning with protest against the latest achievements of the Reform and Conservative movements: A meeting by a Reform delegation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the beginning of the week, an official visit to the Knesset, the High Court of Justice ruling that non-Orthodox converts can use state-run ritual baths, and the planned expansion of the southern Kotel plaza granting official status there to the non-Orthodox denominations.

The rabbinical councils of both the Agudat Israel and Shas parties published open letters against the Reform movement and official government recognition of them, but avoided an explicit threat to leave the government. But a separate letter sent by the leadership of Agudat Israel to its Knesset members had a more aggressive tone.

“Because a recent trend on the part of the government to recognize the Reform [movement] as a denomination in Judaism exists, something that could cause damage in every aspect of religion in our Holy Land, I was asked by our rabbis the members of the Council of Torah Sages to inform you their opinion that is it is forbidden to cooperate with such a government,” wrote the council’s secretary to the MKs. He instructed them to make cooperation with the government conditional on the legislating of a law to preserve the religious status quo, in which religion and Judaism have been run by the Orthodox and not the Reform, and this must be preserved as it has been for decades, he added.

The Chief Rabbinate council was also to meet Thursday afternoon in order to respond to the cabinet decision from January on the new Western Wall prayer space.

Thursday morning’s Reform prayer service was held on the platform known as the “Women of the Wall’s platform,” which was built in 2004 next to the Western Wall stones at its southern end. The platform was built at the time as part of the compromise ordered by the court concerning women’s prayer in the original Kotel plaza, though in general the Women of the Wall have ignored the site and it has instead been used by the non-Orthodox movements for their mixed prayer services and ceremonies. Now that the plan to expand it has been approved, those attending the service recited the Shehecheyanu blessing, a thanking to God on special and joyous occasions.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism in Israel, said: “The prayers of hundreds of men and women Reform rabbis at the Kotel is the unequivocal answer to the incitement of the Haredi leadership. They will continue to incite and we will continue to create a pluralistic and tolerant reality in Israel.”

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