Women of the Wall on Verge of Deal With Israeli Government

Deal would move prayer group from women's section at Western Wall to new egalitarian space.

Women of the Wall is on the verge of finalizing an agreement with the government to move its monthly prayer service from the women’s section at the Western Wall to a new egalitarian space under construction nearby.

The agreement follows months of negotiations between representatives of the multi-denominational women’s prayer group and a special government committee headed by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit.

In a letter sent Monday to key supporters of Women of the Wall obtained by Haaretz, the group’s chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, indicates that the Mendelblit committee has agreed to accept most of her conditions for moving its prayer service out of the women’s section.

“We believe that the negotiations are nearing their end,” wrote Hoffman in the letter. “The principle issues have been agreed upon and while some issues remain controversial, we have a few meetings left to iron out the final plan.”

Hoffman estimated in the letter that the final recommendations of the Mendelblit committee would be submitted for cabinet approval “in a few weeks” and that the new egalitarian space would be open for use in “a year or more.”

According to the letter, the Mendelblit committee has agreed to allow Women of the Wall use of a mobile, temporary partition for women’s only prayers whenever the group holds services in the new egalitarian space. This was a key condition for Women of the Wall as quite of a few of its supporters are Orthodox and do not want to participate in mixed services.

The committee also accepted its demands that representatives of Women of the Wall be partners in overseeing administration of the new area and that a special budget be allocated to develop educational programs, tours for schoolchildren and soldiers, and ceremonies at the new site.

The decision taken by the Women of the Wall board several months ago to enter into negotiations with the government about moving to the new egalitarian section prompted a split within the group. A group of several dozen longstanding members of the organization, most of them residing in the United States, maintained that such a move would spell victory for their ultra-Orthodox opponents, who have been trying to drive Women of the Wall out of the women’s section.

The dissenters have formed their own splinter organization, known as Original Women of the Wall, or O-WOW. Two weeks ago, this splinter group held its first ever service of its own at the Western Wall.

Addressing this internal controversy, Hoffman wrote in the letter: “These are the seeds we sow with tears because there is no negotiating without a ‘give’ and ‘take.’”

Women of the Wall has been holding a monthly prayer service at the Western Wall for the past 25 years. Some of the participants in this service wear prayer shawls and phylacteries – practices the ultra-Orthodox consider forbidden for women. The ultra-Orthodox also object to their practice of praying and singing out loud.

Following months of confrontations over the past year between ultra-Orthodox worshippers and Women of the Wall, the government decided to establish a committee that would draft proposals for solving the problem. The Mendelblit committee used as its blueprint a plan formulated by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky that called for establishing a third section of prayer on the other side of the Mughrabi Bridge, near the archaeological excavations known as Robinson’s Arch, where men and women could pray together.

In her letter, Hoffman noted that the women’s prayer group will continue to pray in the women’s section “until the full implementation of the report’s agreed-upon recommendations.”

Women of the Wall have been fighting for the right to bring their own Torah scroll into the women’s section. Under current regulations, worshippers are not allowed to bring their own Torah scrolls to the prayer sections and are asked to use those available in the men’s section for their Torah reading services. Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Western Wall rabbi, has repeatedly refused to make one of these scrolls available to Women of the Wall.

In her letter, Hoffman wrote that during negotiations with the Mendelblit committee, the group was asked to refrain from bringing a Torah scroll into the Western Wall plaza (although last month, it did try to sneak one in unsuccessfully).

“It should be noted that when the negotiations end, we will return to our steadfast pursuit of Torah reading during our Rosh Hodesh prayer, as is customary and permissible in Jewish law,” she wrote.

Emil Salman