A blueprint for a new and improved egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall will be unveiled on Monday to leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, as well as the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall.
The blueprint will be presented by Cabinet Secretary Tzahi Braverman and Ronen Peretz, special adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jewish world affairs. Also attending the meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office will be the architects responsible for the project and representatives of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
As part of the original Western Wall deal, approved by the cabinet in January 2016, the government had committed to expand and renovate the temporary prayer plaza located at the southern expanse of the holy site, near the archeological site known as Robinson’s Arch.
The deal stipulated that the refurbished prayer plaza would be fully visible to worshippers visiting the Western Wall and share the same entrance with the gender-segregated prayer spaces. It also envisioned the creation of a new public authority that would administer the egalitarian prayer space and that would include representatives from non-Orthodox movements and from group Women of the Wall.
But under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Netanyahu pushed a vote through the cabinet in June 2017 to suspend the agreement. The government has since said it intends to go ahead with plans to expand and renovate the existing egalitarian prayer space but has made no such commitment regarding the other elements of the deal.
Early last month, construction work began on the new and improved egalitarian prayer space. Neither the non-Orthodox movements or Women of the Wall were notified in advance that work on the project was scheduled to begin, nor was their input requested.
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In September 2013, Naftali Bennett, in his position as Diaspora Affairs Minister, opened a temporary prayer plaza at the southern expanse of the Western Wall to serve the Conservative and Reform movements. To date, it has been used mainly by worshippers affiliated with the Conservative Movement. The new permanent prayer plaza that is now under construction is expected to be much larger.
Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall, was skeptical that the blueprint would meet the demands of her organization. “We went into negotiations with the government in good faith and were willing to give up a lot, but if what they’re going to offer us now is just crumbs, then our response will be ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ and we will continue to hold our monthly prayer service in the women’s section of the wall, as we always have.”
She said that Women of the Wall would not accept any offer from the government that did not include full visibility for the new egalitarian space and representation on the board that would be in charge of it.