As Work Begins, Reform and Conservative Jews Split Over Future of Western Wall Prayer Space

Conservative Movement takes a more conciliatory tone on renewed work on egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel

The renewed construction on the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Reform and Conservative movements have long spoken with one voice about the struggle for equal prayer rights at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. But following a report on Monday that the government has finally begun construction of a new and improved egalitarian prayer space at the southern expanse of the Jewish holy site, as it has long promised, the first cracks have begun to appear in this united front.

The Reform Movement responded to the news, first reported on Israeli public radio, with outrage, attacking the government for initiating construction work at the site without consulting with any of the relevant parties. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the movement in Israel, said he had no intention of “settling for crumbs” and expressed confidence that the Supreme Court would force the government to fulfill all its previous commitments to the non-Orthodox movement regarding prayer at the Kotel.

By contrast, the Conservative Movement adopted a far more conciliatory tone, going so far as to welcome the long-delayed move. “It is still difficult at this point to assess the scope of the construction work, and we are not willing to accept the suspension of key aspects of the Western Wall deal,” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti Movement in Israel, the Israeli branch of the Conservative Movement: “But there is also importance to the physical parts of the plan that were agreed upon.”

In contrast to the Reform Movement, Hess said he did not intend to “automatically jump up against every act by the government of Israel.” If the physical changes to the area were completed in a satisfactory manner, he said, “that is not something to write off lightly.”

Their different responses highlight the growing controversy between the Reform and Conservative movements over strategy now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear he will not implement several of the key clauses in the original agreement.

The Reform Movement has resolved to dig in its heels, taking an all-or-nothing approach. The Conservative Movement, by contrast, has concluded that showing some flexibility could be beneficial to the cause of pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall.

As part of the original 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 of the non-Orthodox movements and the feminist prayer 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. 

The Supreme Court is now hearing a petition submitted by both the Reform and Conservative movements – as well as the Women of the Wall – against the government for backing out of the full agreement. At a hearing last month, attorneys representing the state said the government was determined to expand and upgrade the existing egalitarian plaza at the southern end of the Western Wall, and that a detailed plan for the project would be submitted in April by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The justices pressed the government's attorneys for details about the construction schedule for the upgraded egalitarian prayer space, suggesting that they considered this element of the plan crucial.  

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.