U.S. Jewish Leaders Prepare for Crucial Meeting With Bennett Over Kotel Deal

The heads of the Reform and Conservative movements voice optimism that a proper prayer space can still be implemented: ‘This is the government and this is the prime minister that can make it happen’

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Women of the wall
Women activists praying at the Kotel. The meeting with the new prime minister could decide the future of the holy site Credit: Michal Fattal
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The U.S. leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements hope to secure a commitment from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday that the Western Wall deal is still on the table, even if its implementation is delayed.

The deal, which had been approved by the government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu in January 2016, was suspended 18 months later under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the governing coalition.

It was meant to provide the non-Orthodox movements with a proper prayer plaza at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, as well as formal recognition at the Jewish holy site.

Monday morning will be the first time the U.S. leaders of the non-Orthodox denominations are meeting with an Israeli prime minister in nearly five years. Outraged by Netanyahu’s decision to back out of the Western Wall deal, they avoided any contact with him afterward.

“It took many years to negotiate the Western Wall compromise, and it was a huge betrayal when it was shelved,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “We actually believe that this is the government and this is the prime minister that can make it happen.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs with Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid last year.Credit: The Union for Reform Judaism

When asked how he would respond if Bennett says he cannot move ahead with the deal right now, Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told Haaretz: “Jewish history is filled with moments like that where we find a way. I would say, ‘Remain committed to it, don’t discard it, don’t do anything that undermines it – and if it takes a little bit longer, then that’s different than saying ‘I’m no longer committed to doing it.’”

Jacobs added: “It’s one of those concrete ways to say that Jews outside of Orthodoxy, Jews outside of Israel – they matter.”

In meetings held with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel in recent months, Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo has said the government is prepared to move ahead with certain physical changes at the existing egalitarian plaza aimed at improving the prayer experience. But it was not willing, he said, to advance other elements of the deal deemed critical by the non-Orthodox denominations. These include the construction of a single entry to the Western Wall, to symbolize the equal status of all Jewish denominations at the site.

Neither was the government prepared, at this point, to establish a new statutory authority, with representatives of the non-Orthodox movements on its board, to oversee the egalitarian prayer section, as agreed in the original deal.

Jacobs said the Reform and Conservative movements would not be satisfied “with a few little simple upgrades to the physical space.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem earlier today.Credit: Abir Sultan/AP

Blumenthal, however, sounded willing to make do with whatever the government could offer at this point to keep the deal alive. “Any progress is progress,” he said.

He added, though, that he intended to ask Bennett for a timetable indicating when the planned changes at the site would be made.

Blumenthal and Jacobs are both in Israel attending the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting that opens on Sunday night and will last three days.

On Friday, they will join the Women of the Wall for their monthly Rosh Hodesh prayer service at the Jewish holy site. The event will include a Torah scroll-carrying procession to protest ongoing attempts to prevent the feminist prayer group from reading from their own Torah scroll at the site.

A similar procession, held more than five years ago, erupted into violent clashes when security officials tried to block the participants from entering the site.

Blumenthal said he intends to ask Bennett to provide extra security at the site on Friday morning. “We hold the government responsible for making sure that a peaceful prayer service can occur in a space that belongs to the entire Jewish community,” he said.

The Conservative movement leader said he also intends at the meeting to express his ongoing frustration with the treatment of non-Orthodox converts in Israel.

“Every time one of our converts is told that he or she may not come to Israel or make aliyah, it is an insult and hurtful not only to that person, but also to our movements,” he said.

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