Reform, Conservative Leaders Get Reassurances From Israel's Bennett on Western Wall Deal

U.S. non-Orthodox leaders meet with an Israeli prime minister for the first time in five years, after Netanyahu angered them by backing out of the Kotel deal for an egalitarian prayer space

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) with leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements, Monday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) with leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements, Monday.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reassured leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements on Monday that the Western Wall deal is still on the table, according to sources who participated in the meeting held between them.

He also promised to move ahead with plans to create a larger and more impressive plaza for egalitarian prayer at the southern expanse of the Western Wall – a key element of this deal.

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In addition, the prime minister said he would not tolerate any further acts of violence and prayer disruption against worshipers at the existing egalitarian prayer space. He was referring to recent attempts by young ultra-Orthodox men to take over the egalitarian prayer space and set up a barrier (mechitzah) to separate men from women at the site.

The leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements sounded very upbeat after their meeting with the prime minister, which was focused primarily on the Western Wall deal. 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.

Attending Monday morning’s meeting, which lasted for an hour and a half, were Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

It was the first time the U.S. leaders of the non-Orthodox denominations met 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 was a warm, thoughtful and positive meeting,” Jacobs told Haaretz. “We received a commitment that there will be progress on the Kotel deal. That’s my takeaway from it, and that’s what we wanted to hear."

Jacobs and Blumenthal were joined at the meeting by leaders of the two movements in Israel, as well as two members of the Knesset: Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi from Labor who serves as chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee; and Alon Tal, a lawmaker from centrist Kahol Lavan and active member of the Conservative movement in Israel.

“It was a very warm meeting, and we clearly saw that the prime minister shares our values,” said Blumenthal. “Our impression is that he intends to take steps to move the Kotel deal forward.”

The U.S. leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements, which represent the majority of American Jewry, are in Israel for the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting, which takes place this week. They had been very concerned by recent reports that Bennett was no longer committed to the Western Wall deal and feared that its implementation might play into the hands of the opposition by providing them with a cause to rally around.

On Friday, Jacobs and Blumenthal 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.

At the conclusion of Monday morning’s meeting, Kariv said the fact that it was even held, after so many years of disconnect between the Prime Minister’s Office and the non-Orthodox movement, was significant in and of itself. “We are waiting to see a clear timetable for the construction of a dignified egalitarian prayer space within the next few months,” he said in a statement.

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