Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett hailed Sunday’s completion of a large platform for non-Orthodox prayer at the southernmost portion of the Western Wall as a history-making event. But the Women of the Wall, who have led the fight for non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel, derided the new platform as “a sunbathing deck that overlooks the Western Wall from a distance.”
The 450-square-meter project stands in the archeological park in the area known as the Robinson’s Arch compound. Built at Bennett’s behest, it will enable non-Orthodox prayer services to take place 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It will have its own ark with Torah scrolls and prayer books. The State of Israel, Bennett said, would be “making history” by opening, under its auspices, a compound for mixed and egalitarian prayer services at the southern wall. Since 1998 there has been a prayer area at Robinson’s Arch that was basically run by the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, but it was small and open for only limited hours.
But something else that had been expected Sunday did not happen: The committee headed by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit did not present its expected recommendations for a comprehensive solution for prayer at the Kotel, given the complex challenges posed by the demands of the Women of the Wall, a group that is demanding the right to pray in its fashion – singing out loud while wearing prayer shawls and tefillin -- at the Western Wall itself.
The Women of the Wall strongly denounced any attempt to mix up the two issues, reiterating that its struggle was to be allowed to pray in the main women’s section of the Kotel, not off to the side.
“Instead of generating change and marching the Jewish world in the direction of equality and pluralism, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah the government has adopted a policy of separation and exclusion and has built the women a sunbathing deck that overlooks the Western Wall from a distance,” the Women of the Wall said in a statement.
Indeed, it does not seem that the Women of the Wall were Bennett’s main concern. He was seeking to demonstrate that he had found a solution on the ground for the non-Orthodox movements, though the result is rather clumsy. Worshippers cannot see the main Kotel plaza from the new platform, since the managers of the archeological park forbade any construction near the sensitive antiquities.
Bennett also seriously confused matters by issuing two announcements about the prayer area, one in Hebrew and one in English, which were different. In the Hebrew release he said he was proud to have presented a compromise in the dispute involving the Women of the Wall that was meant to instill peace among the Jewish people. But the English version did not mention the group at all. That announcement said the new egalitarian prayer area had been built by government decision, stressing that it was a gesture to the Reform and Conservative movements (which were not mentioned in the Hebrew announcement).
PMO’s embarrassing clarification
As a result, the Prime Minister’s Office had to release an embarrassing clarification: “Reports that a government decision has been made regarding prayer arrangements in the Western Wall plaza are incorrect,” the statement read, to counter the impression that the new platform was the government’s response to the Women of the Wall.
While one cannot minimize the fact that from now on, under state auspices, mixed services can be conducted in the area at all times of the year, the principle remains that the area in front of the Kotel remains Orthodox, and whoever is not Orthodox is kept at a distance. This principle, however, is also preserved in the more extensive plan proposed by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky. The Sharansky plan includes a much larger plaza, one entrance plaza for all the prayer areas, and a structural change in the Western Wall Heritage Foundation to include Conservative and Reform representatives. Bennett presented the new prayer platform as an “interim solution” until the Sharansky plan can be implemented.
Bennett’s proud announcement regarding the new platform is indicative of his and the government’s attempt to circumvent and isolate the Women of the Wall by making a bold gesture to the Reform and Conservative movements abroad. This seems rather naïve, given that the group has very wide support among American Jewry.
On Sunday, the Reform Movement announced that it would not agree to anything less than the Sharansky plan, but it did not attack either Bennett or Mandelblit. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said that while she thought important steps had been taken, accepting these steps did not mean yielding on the demand for full equality.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that while Bennett's proposal may be "a gesture of good will," it falls short of achieving Jewish equality at the Western Wall. "Were it to be the first and last step regarding the Kotel, it would create a painful and unnecessary conflict with in the Jewish People," said Jacobs, who urged Netanyahu to implement Sharansky's proposal "which, in its entirety, promises full equality for all streams of Judaism."