Red Tape Briefly Closes Egalitarian Western Wall Prayer Space

Worshippers shocked to find ‘site is closed’ sign; leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements fear that gates may be locked again soon.

The temporary egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall was closed to the public for several hours on Sunday because of budget disputes that are yet to be resolved.

Worshippers arriving to pray at the egalitarian area Sunday afternoon were shocked to find the entrance gate locked with a sign posted on it that read, “The site is closed.” It was not immediately clear to them if and when the space would reopen.

About 100,000 worshippers, mainly from the Conservative and Reform movements, make use of the egalitarian prayer space each year, and 10 Conservative bar and bat mitzvahs are scheduled to take place be held there on Monday morning.

The reason for the brief closure is that the government has not yet transferred funding to the new administrator of the space, known as “Azarat Yisrael.” Up until last year, the southern section of the Western Wall, where the egalitarian prayer space is located, operated under the authority of East Jerusalem Development Ltd., a company that comes under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs. After assuming his position as Minister of Jerusalem Affairs two years ago, Ze’ev Elkin, an Orthodox member of Likud, asked to be relieved of this responsibility.

Two Reform Jews pray at the Robinson's Arch, the proposed site for an egalitarian prayer space near the main Western Wall plaza.
Olivier Fitoussi

It was subsequently decided that control over the southern section would be transferred to The Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem Ltd., which operates under the auspices of the Construction and Housing Ministry. This transfer of power was supposed to take effect on January 1, 2017. However, it was postponed because the ministry did not receive the extra budget required to fulfill its new assignment. Elkin agreed to maintain his responsibilities for another three months.

That three-month period ended on Sunday, and the egalitarian prayer plaza was transferred, as had been agreed, to the jurisdiction of the Construction and Housing Ministry. But the Construction and Housing Ministry did not receive any extra funding to administer the space. For that reason, a decision was taken to deny access to worshippers.

Since the extra budget has still not been approved and transferred, leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements fear that the gates may be locked again soon.

The Conservative and Reform movements had been holding egalitarian prayer services at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, right near an archeological excavation known as Robinson’s Arch, for more than 15 years. Three years ago, while serving as minister of Jerusalem affairs, Naftali Bennett, who heads the pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi party, decided to build a temporary prayer plaza at the site for their benefit.

Both non-Orthodox movements regularly make use of this relatively new prayer plaza but continue to demand that the government fulfill its promise to build them a bigger, permanent and more visible space. In September, they submitted a petition to the High Court demanding that the government either follow through with its commitment or redivide the gender-segregated prayer spaces at the northern expanse of the Western Wall to make room for them.