Reform and Conservative Jews Hold Mixed Prayer Service at Western Wall in Protest of Stalled Talks

The non-Orthodox movements have held two such prayer sessions over the last month, with Avichai Mendelblit's approval.

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The mixed prayer service held at the Western Wall, July 7, 2016.
The mixed prayer service held at the Western Wall, July 7, 2016.Credit: The Conservative Movement

In defiance of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, Reform and Conservative Jews held a mixed prayer service at the Western Wall on Thursday.

The non-Orthodox movements have held two such prayer sessions over the last month, with Mendelblit's approval. The purpose of the services, held in the Western Wall plaza adjacent to the separate prayer areas for men and women, is to protest the stalled discussions over the creation of an egalitarian prayer section at the Wall.

Led by Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the U.S. Conservative Movement, the service proceeded without incident. Worshipers stood in a circle and recited daily morning prayers with the addition of "Hallel" in celebration of the start of the Jewish month of Tammuz. The session ended with a singing of the Israeli national anthem "Hatikvah."

The worshipers refrained from reading from the Torah, averting immediate controversy with ultra-Orthodox worshipers who often erupt in anger at seeing women holding or reading from the holy scrolls.

"We will not rest until the Western Wall is restored to the Jewish people. The absurdity is that it's the current Israeli government that opposes a most Zionist step," said Yizhar Hess, director-general of the Israeli Conservative Movement. "I call on the prime minister to show leadership and implement the Western Wall compromise immediately."

Women of the Wall held prayers beforehand at the site, but were occasionally interrupted by protesters blowing whistles and shouting. Police confiscated one of two Torah scrolls in the womens' possession at the scene.

The Reform and Conservative movements have grown increasingly frustrated in recent months by the government’s resistance to move ahead with plans to build a special prayer space for them in the southern expanse of the Western Wall, as approved in January. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under mounting pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners to pull out of the agreement.

The attorney general’s decision to ban the Reform and Conservative movements from holding a prayer service in the upper plaza appears to have brought the issue to a head, since until now, the movement leaders have threatened to take their case to the High Court, but had not provided a precise timeframe. 

The movements intend to demand from the court that the existing gender-segregated prayer spaces at the Western Wall be re-divided into three sections: one for men, one for women, and one for mixed-prayer services.