The full details of the plan to set up a new space for egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall will be unveiled in two weeks, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky has told Haaretz.
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Certain elements of the plan, he said, could be implemented immediately, once they are approved, including wresting exclusive control of prayer at the Western Wall from the Orthodox establishment. In the plan he drafted earlier this year, Sharansky had proposed that a joint authority comprised of representatives of the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency and world Jewry set the rules for prayer in the new egalitarian space, allowing the Orthodox-run Western Wall Heritage Foundation to remain in charge only of the existing gender-segregated prayer areas. “This is something that the government can decide on in one day,” said Sharansky.
Another element of the plan that could be put into effect immediately, he said, was providing around-the-clock access to the nearby archeological excavation area known as Robinson’s Arch for worshippers interested in holding egalitarian prayer services. Today, this area is only open a few hours a day.
Sharansky’s plan calls for building a platform to cover the archeological excavations at Robinson’s Arch so that the existing gender-segregated areas and the new egalitarian areas are connected at the same level, with equal space on each side. He said that a provisional platform could be built almost immediately to create this sense of continuity between the two sections.
The full details of the plan, including a timetable for implementation, are being hammered out by a government committee headed by the newly appointed Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit.
Sharansky has held intense discussions with world Jewish leaders about the plan in recent months, and they have been largely supportive. He said the biggest obstacles it currently faces are opposition from the Israeli archeological community to any changes that might affect excavations in the area, and Jordanian objections to unilateral changes undertaken by the Israeli government in this contested part of the city.
Once details of the plan are published, Sharansky said, it would be easier to reach an agreement on the rules governing prayer in the interim period. “Based on unofficial conversations I’ve had with both sides, I have a feeling that if we have an agreement on a solution for the future, that can help bring us closer to a compromise in the interim,” he said. Rules governing prayer in the interim period until the Sharansky plan takes full effects were supposed to have been drafted by Minister of Religious Affairs Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, but the two have yet to resolve their differences on the matter.
In the past two months, citing safety precautions, police have barred Women of the Wall, the women’s prayer group that holds a monthly Rosh Chodesh service at the holy site, from entering the women’s prayer section. In each of the past two months, young seminary girls have heeded calls from their rabbinic leaders to show up in large numbers at the Western Wall and thereby crowd out the women’s prayer group.
The Haredim object to Women of the Wall because its members wear prayer shawls and tefillin when they pray – in defiance of ultra-Orthodox customs.
Netanyahu had instructed Sharansky to devise a plan for resolving the conflict over prayer at the wall, under pressure from world Jewish leaders outraged by the police crackdown late last year against women praying with prayer shawls and tefillin there. But after the Jerusalem District Court ruled several months ago that it is not a violation of “local custom” for women to engage in such practices, police stopped detaining members of Women of the Wall.
Leaders of the women’s prayer group have complained that the Sharansky plan does not accommodate their own particular needs, since many of their members are Orthodox and do not want to pray together with men.
“My plan does not deal with the specific prayer services of one group or another,” Sharansky responded, when asked to address this concern. “If the strategy will be to find specific solutions for every group, it will be practically impossible. What I want is to reach a situation where there will be enough space for all types of prayer. Theoretically, I can see a situation where on both sides – the side run by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the side run by the joint authority - there will be competition who can create better conditions for women to pray.”