Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in North America and Israel were refused entry to the Western Wall Friday as they accompanied Women of the Wall to the site for the group's monthly worship service.
The leaders, carrying eight Torah scrolls, led a march of hundreds of worshippers from Dung Gate to the Western Wall entrance, where they were stopped by a row of security guards. After leaving the scrolls behind, they were permitted entry only to the periphery of the Western Wall Plaza, separated from the main area by guards and forbidden to approach the worship areas next to the Wall.
Ahead of the planned service, thousands of ultra-Orthodox young women who were bused in from their seminaries crowded the women’s section to prevent Women of the Wall – a feminist prayer group that holds monthly prayers at the site – from worshipping in the space. In the main plaza, ultra-Orthodox men and women shouted and cursed at the group.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he was saddened to encounter the “demeaning and delegitimizing display” and the “vile” messages the protest signs carried.
“We came to the Wall with love, but a lot of people came there with hate,” Jacobs said. “We arrived here from North America where, right now, antisemitism is on the rise. What we encountered today wasn’t antisemitism, but it definitely was hate.”
Leaders of Women of the Wall said it was “scandalous and infuriating” that they were not allowed to bring in Torah scrolls and were prevented from approaching the Wall.
“Look into the eyes of the presidents of the Reform and Conservative movements, who represent millions of Jews around the world, and tell them that they cannot enter the Western Wall and pray according to their custom,” said Yochi Rappeport, the CEO of Women of the Wall.
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Only MK Gilad Kariv of the Labor Party, because of his parliamentary immunity, was able to carry a Torah scroll into the plaza, which he gave to Women of the Wall to use for the prayer service.
"It's time for the prime minister's cronies to stop pandering to the ultra-Orthodox parties and implement the spirit of change, reconciliation and tolerance under which this government was formed," said Kariv, a Reform rabbi who headed the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism before entering the Knesset.
"I call on the prime minister to live up to his commitments and promote the construction of an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall immediately."
Ultra-Orthodox protesters shouted threats at Kariv as he entered with the Torah scroll, chanting, “Beware, Gilad Kariv, Rabin is looking for a friend” – referring to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. They made gestures indicating the slashing of a throat.
Kariv’s office announced that he would report the threats on his life to the police and provide footage of the young men who threatened him.
Once they were permitted to enter the fringes of the plaza, the members of Women of the Wall held their service, including a Torah reading, accompanied by members of the Reform and Conservative movements. The activists were surrounded on all sides by security barriers and guards separating them from the ultra-Orthodox protesters trying to disrupt their worship.
After the service, the Reform and Conservative leaders left the plaza to hold a second mixed-gender service at Ezrat Yisrael, the small platform with a separate entrance designated for egalitarian prayer.
According to Jacobs, when the group arrived, they found a few Orthodox men in the area who had put up a mehitza, which separates men and women during Orthodox worship. These men were “not willing to move,” he said. Efforts by Orthodox groups to occupy the egalitarian space have been going on for four years.
Since the egalitarian space is unsupervised by the authorities, Jacobs said, members of the Reform and Conservative group took it upon themselves to remove the mehitza and escort the Orthodox men away so that Friday's service could be held. The worshippers prayed “for peace and solidarity and unity” – both in Israel and in Ukraine.
Both Jacobs and Yizhar Hess, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, said the events Friday morning underscored the importance of implementing the Western Wall deal approved by Benjamin Netanyahu's government in January 2016 and suspended 18 months later under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the governing coalition. It was designed to provide the non-Orthodox movements with a proper prayer plaza at the Wall's southern expanse, as well as formal recognition at the Jewish holy site.
On Monday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reassured the Reform and Conservative movements that the Western Wall deal is still on the table, promising to advance plans to create a larger and more impressive plaza for egalitarian prayer at the southern expanse.
Hess called the prayer service Friday “a massive cry of frustration but also of hope that this government of change will do the necessary Jewish and Zionist thing and implement the Western Wall deal."
"The government is not correctly reading the level of frustration of Diaspora Jewry,” Hess said, noting that when the government was formed, “nearly all the leaders of the parties in the current governing coalition said they would implement the agreement that Netanyahu signed. … And now, after eight months, nothing has moved.”
While joining in the calls for faster implementation of the deal, Jacobs also praised Israeli leaders for responding to one of the key concerns Reform and Conservative leaders have raised in recent meetings – physically protecting them and the members of Women of the Wall.
“I think today we saw the fruits of that request,” Jacobs said, noting that, unlike previous experiences at the Wall, “everyone was kept safe – this time, no one was physically beaten, pushed or shoved.
“That's to the credit of the prime minister and the president,” he said. “In particular, President Isaac Herzog worked very hard to tamp down the attendance and vehemence [of the ultra-Orthodox protests], and he was very, very determined and effective in bringing a whole new level of security to the situation.”
Jacobs added: “Why we need armies of security to keep Jews praying safely in Israel is a head-scratcher – and we can also ask why it took so many years for the government to stop people from pushing us and spitting at us.”