U.S. Orthodox Jews Join Mixed-gender Prayer Protest at Western Wall

Conservative and Reform leaders call impromptu service the start of a weekly prayer session to be held until government opens an official egalitarian space.

American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall, February 25, 2016.
Sebastian Scheiner, AP

About 150 worshippers participated in a mixed-prayer service for women and men at the Western Wall on Monday, with no reported disturbances.

The service, attended by prominent Orthodox Jews as well, was held in protest of the government’s apparent capitulation to ultra-Orthodox demands to withdraw from its agreement to build a special egalitarian prayer space for the Conservative and Reform movements at the southern expanse of the Wall.

This is the second mixed-prayer service held in recent weeks in the upper plaza of the Wall, in clear sight of gender-segregated areas. The previous service, advertised widely in advance, was disrupted by ultra-Orthodox demonstrators who spat and cursed at the worshippers.

“It just goes to prove that when the ultra-Orthodox parties don’t have an opportunity to organize, it’s possible to hold a peaceful egalitarian prayer service at the Western Wall, and that the Israeli public at large has no problem with men and women praying together,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel.

Reform and Conservative worshipers were joined by a large delegation of Jewish community leaders from North America and Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Hartman Institute of North America. The two Orthodox leaders joined the service as a sign of support for the non-Orthodox movements’ struggle for Israeli government recognition.

Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America joined in an Orthodox show of solidarity at Western Wall mixed-gender prayers on July 4, 2016. Photo courtesy of Shalom Hartman Institute.
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Psalms were recited as well as a special prayer for the state of Israel.

Conservative and Reform leaders are planning another mixed-prayer service on Thursday morning to mark the beginning of the new Jewish month of Tammuz.

“So long as the government refuses to uphold its commitment to set up a new egalitarian space, we will continue holding weekly gatherings at this spot,” said Kariv.

The government approved an agreement for an egalitarian prayer space almost six months ago, but under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, it has yet to follow through. These parties opposed giving any formal recognition to the Conservative and Reform movements.

Kariv said that the non-Orthodox movements planned to give the government a little more time to fulfill its commitment before appealing to the Supreme Court. “I don’t know if it will be two weeks or three weeks,” he said, “but it will not be a year. And when we go to the Supreme Court, we will not be demanding that the government implement the agreement it approved. Rather, we will demand that the existing gender-segregated areas be redivided to create a special section for egalitarian prayer at the traditional Kotel.”

Earlier, state attorneys requested yet another extension in submitting their response to a suit filed by the Center for Women’s Justice on behalf of several of the founding member of Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group. The plaintiffs have demanded that they be allowed to read from a Torah scroll in the women’s section of the Wall. This is the third time that the state has requested an extension.

The state attorney also said that although a final agreement has not yet been reached, basic infrastructure work in the designated area is scheduled to begin immediately. Conservative and Reform leaders expressed deep disappointment with the state’s response.

“We object to this,” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti Movement in Israel. “The agreement we had with the government pertained to an entire package. We will not agree to any partial implementation.”