URJ President Jacobs Throws Support Behind Sharansky's Western Wall Proposal

Rabbi Rick Jacobs vows at a conference in Jerusalem that Reform Jews around the world would continue to fight for women’s rights in Israel.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, delivered a strong endorsement on Friday of the plan to create a new area for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, calling it “a unique opportunity for us.”

The plan, devised by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, would involve upgrading the archeological excavation area known as Robinson’s Arch and turning it into a natural extension of the existing prayer area that is divided into a men’s and women’s section.

“Our path is to support the bold, audacious proposals by Natan Sharansky,”said Jacobs, addressing the 36th annual conference of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Jerusalem. Jacobs noted that several weeks ago, when Sharansky presented his plan to Jewish leaders in New York, not all were satisfied.

“We all were hoping for more,” he said. “We all were hoping for the whole win that we had been literally working for with all of our strength. But because we all left unhappy, Natan Sharansky had done a very good job. What he did was he stretched every single one of us to a place where sometimes Jewish leaders, especially rabbinic leaders, don’t like to go. It’s a little place called compromise. And somehow he understood that whatever solution he would bring not only to the Diaspora leadership but also to the leadership here, it had to make everybody a little bit uncomfortable, to move everybody off their place of comfort and righteous demand to a place where we could all be together.”

Jacobs praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for supporting the Sharansky plan and “working to resolve this crisis for the Jewish people.”

Jacobs vowed that Reform Jews around the world would continue to fight for women’s rights in Israel.

“Let’s not forget that it’s not just the Kotel that needs to be liberated, friends,” he said. "When women are subjected to discrimination at the Kotel it feeds other forms of discrimination by the ultra-Orthodox against women, in buses and in other public facilities, and so too the discrimination against non-Orthodox streams. Our challenge is to take the outrage that is felt worldwide by non-Orthodox Jewry about the struggle for the Kotel, and here’s the pivot to harness that outrage into social change and activism here for the burning issues of religion and state.”

Sharansky has been working in recent days on developing a timeline for the implementation of his plan. Aside from meeting with senior staff at the Prime Minister’s Office for consultations, he also held discussions this week with archeologists and other relevant experts, as well as with both Jacobs and URJ Board Chair Stephen M.  Sacks.

Women of the Wall, the organization behind the struggle for changing the rules of prayer at the Western Wall, this week expressed reservations of the plan. Organization leaders said the plan did not address their specific demand to allow women’s prayer groups like their own to conduct services in the existing women’s section as they see fit.

Michal Fattal