Last-ditch Effort Fails to Secure Egalitarian Prayer Space at Western Wall Before New Year

U.S. Reform, Conservative leaders return home with no breakthrough in plan for mixed prayer space at holy site.

Michal Fattal

Last-minute efforts to strike a deal on creating a new egalitarian space at the Western Wall before the Jewish New Year have failed, Haaretz has learned.

After a deadlock that has lasted almost one and a half years, leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements in the United States were summoned to Jerusalem to participate in talks last week aimed at resolving a controversial proposal to designate a new area of the holy site for mixed prayer services.

Israeli government officials had hoped the leaders would reach a breakthrough in the longstanding stalemate on the controversial proposal.

Israeli leaders had been optimistic that they would be able to announce a deal on the eve of the Jewish High Holy Days, just before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to make his trip to the United States.

But, despite two days of marathon talks, the American Jewish leaders returned home without any significant breakthroughs.

The U.S. delegation included Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. Participating in the negotiations on the Israeli side were Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, Women of the Wall Chairwoman Anat Hoffman, Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit, Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, and the heads of the local branches of the non-Orthodox movements. Also present at the meetings was Rebecca Caspi, head of the Israel office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Sharansky announced his proposal to establish an egalitarian space at the Western Wall in April 2013, but it has made little headway since. The Sharansky plan envisioned a new plaza that would be a natural extension of the existing gender-segregated prayer areas, to be located near the archaeological site known as Robinson’s Arch. Mendelblit, the cabinet secretary, was assigned the job of fleshing out the details.

The Sharansky plan was motivated by the need to address the ongoing monthly battles at the Western Wall between the ultra-Orthodox and Women of the Wall, a feminist prayer group, which holds a morning service at the holy site on the first day of each Jewish month.

The Sharansky plan had been warmly embraced by leaders of the non-Orthodox movements overseas, who were extremely disturbed by the plight of Women of the Wall.

According to sources who participated in last week’s negotiations, the main bone of contention between the opposing sides pertains to how the new egalitarian space will look. The non-Orthodox movements insist that the new area be accessed through the same entrance as the existing gender-segregated area, that it be in full view of all visitors, and that it be considered an intrinsic part of the holy site. Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, has rejected these demands.

On the other hand, the sources said that progress had been made on issues concerning the governance of the new egalitarian space. In principle, all parties to the negotiations have agreed that an authority comprised of representatives of the government, the Jewish Agency, and the non-Orthodox movements will wield control over the area. In exchange, the Orthodox establishment will obtain exclusive authority over the existing gender-segregating prayer area.

Israeli government officials, the sources said, seemed to feel that a window of opportunity was closing on them because of the growing likelihood that the ultra-Orthodox parties will join the ruling coalition. For this reason, they felt pressure to reach a compromise agreement on the new egalitarian space as quickly as possible.

Schonfeld said she felt “very optimistic” after the meeting. “It was very exciting to see how engaged the prime minister was,” she said.

But another source said it would likely take “some good months of negotiations” before all the differences could be ironed out.