NEW YORK – The board of the Jewish Federations of North America has backed a proposal by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky intended to resolve a dispute over egalitarian prayer services at Jerusalem's Western Wall.
Representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization for 154 local Jewish Federations around the continent, voted unanimously on Monday to endorse a resolution backing the Sharansky proposal, which would create a renovated egalitarian prayer space in the area known as Robinson's Arch, adjacent to the Kotel.
The plan is meant to resolve a long-running dispute over prayer services held at the Kotel by the group Women of the Wall. Members of the group have routinely been arrested in the past for praying in a manner that is not considered by some, including ultra-Orthodox worshipers, to be in keeping with the customs of the Wall.
Citing "the ideal of Israel as a Jewish democratic state" as expressed in its Declaration of Independence, the resolution states that the organization will work with Sharansky, "appointed by the Prime Minister of Israel to address this issue ... as he develops a pathway whereby the Kotel is a spiritual center for all Jews and a symbol of unity for the entire Jewish community world-wide."
The resolution was approved by all 133 members of the JFNA's board and delegate assembly at the organization's quarterly meeting.
Monday's vote followed a meeting on May 28 between Sharansky and American Jewish leaders at JFNA's offices in Manhattan. It was the second such meeting with Sharansky. The first, at which Sharansky shared his Kotel compromise, was held on April 9.
"Having the entire system be supportive of [the proposal] is important," said Jerry Silverman, the president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America. "We try to represent our communities as a whole. It makes a strong statement. There should be opportunities for 24/7 access for everyone in appropriate ways to enjoy the beauty and importance of the Kotel, and believe that it has a direct effect on Diaspora and North American Jewry."
"It's something we wanted to come out and be on record supporting," Silverman added.
However, he noted, "There's a lot of questions that have to be answered about an interim and governing process. We have confidence that it can be done in a nimble fashion."
Indeed, despite the opposition to the plan by parties including the Israel Antiquities Authority, Silverman appears optimistic and says the Jewish Federations hope to see progress shortly.
"Especially in the next year we're hopeful that we will see some momentum and movement forward on this," he said. "For us organizationally it would send really strong messages for this concept of unity throughout the Jewish world and to the Jewish people that we can overcome challenges and issues for the betterment of the unity and being respectful of all parties."
Silverman acknowledges that his motivation is personal as well as institutional, noting that his daughter studied at a modern Orthodox seminary in Israel this year.
"Last Rosh Chodesh [during Women of the Wall's monthly prayer service] she had to go to the Kotel for a bar mitzvah, and she told me she was frightened. She loves the Kotel, but she was frightened by the crowds, some of the yelling that was going on, some water that was being thrown around. She said this isn't the place that she really dreams of and that's not what the Beit Hamikdash [Temple] was about and what the Wall should be about. She came to celebrate a bar mitzvah, not for all this ruckus of Jew against Jew."
The JFNA resolution was drafted by the organization's rabbinic cabinet, which according to a press release "represents a cross section of rabbis from all religious streams." Silverman said there are about 1,000 rabbis in the cabinet.
The cabinet includes about a dozen Chabad rabbis, according to rabbinic cabinet director Rabbi Gerald Weider, though he could not provide their names.
Agudath Israel of America spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran said that to his knowledge the JFNA rabbinic cabinet does not include any representatives of his organization.
"And as an organization, we have not taken any position on the Sharansky proposal," he added. "To the best of my knowledge, the proposal has not been endorsed by the major Orthodox religious leaders in Israel, to whom we traditionally look for guidance on issues in the Holy Land."
Some of the denominational leaders who met with Sharansky at the JFNA offices last week expressed frustration that nothing has yet been put in writing.
But Silverman appeared unconcerned. Sharansky "understands the importance of how to move forward, when to move forward, and how to collect input," he said, adding, "It will all come together hopefully in the next 90 days. We know it's coming. We hope the Prime Minister continues to move forward and that it moves into the momentum phase. But we are not frustrated. It's been 60 days. ... It hasn't been that long."
The Jewish Federation first started seriously discussing the issue after Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman was arrested in October while leading Judaism's central credo, the Shema. Silverman said there was no discussion of the Women of the Wall when the resolution was drafted, however.
Yet, Silverman added, "Having spoken with Anat, who I have the utmost respect for, they are hopeful and want to see this new plan and want to understand how this area will be governed and if there could be space made available to them. How it will work, that's unknown at this point."
Silverman said there have been no discussions to date about whether the JFNA would pledge funds to help renovate the Robinson's Arch area.
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