Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, will present a plan today to expand the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem to include a new section for egalitarian prayer to American Jewish religious leaders, the Forward has learned.
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If implemented, the proposal, a product of months of deliberation, would mark a dramatic acknowledgement by the state of Israel that prayer at the Wall — regarded as Judaism’s holiest site and a modern-day symbol of national sovereignty — should include non-Orthodox practice in which men and women pray together. But it is uncertain whether the proposal will satisfy Women of the Wall, who for years have tried to hold full prayer services in the women’s only section and may see this compromise as a betrayal of their mission.
Even if Sharanky’s plan garners support at today’s critical meeting, it still must be approved and funded by the Netanyahu government, where it may face resistance from Orthodox groups unwilling to share authority over the holy site.
Still, several sources close to the negotiations described the process as a breakthrough attempt to take into account the concerns of American Jews, who have increasingly been alienated by the strict codes governing what is known as the Kotel.
Three months ago, after a series of arrests and detentions of women in prayer shawls at the Wall, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Sharansky to look into the controversy and find solutions to what was becoming a serious point of tension with Diaspora Jews. Scheduled to attend today’s meeting are representatives of all streams of American Judaism, under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of North America.
Sharansky could not be reached for comment before the meeting.
Under the proposal, sources said, the area now known as Robinson’s Arch on the southern end of the Wall will be greatly expanded to create a prayer space roughly equivalent to the existing men’s and women’s sections. Egalitarian prayer is currently permitted at the Arch, which is an archaeological site, but that prayer is only available at limited times and with an entrance fee. The expectation is that the enlarged space would be free and open around the clock, as the Kotel is now, but that could not be confirmed.
The plan also calls for the plaza surrounding the Wall to expand, so that visitors approaching the site in the Old City could clearly chose between praying at the egalitarian section, or the existing sections reserved only for men and for women. Still under discussion is governance of the new prayer area, but several sources said that they thought it would be run by something other than the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the ultra-Orthodox organization that currently controls the Kotel.
In December 2012, Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, told the New York Times, that a mere change in management would not do. “I don’t care about that,” Hoffman said then. “I don’t want to sit in the back of the bus. I want to dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.”
And more recently, Hoffman told the Forward’s Sisterhood blog: “Women of the Wall are not going to be banished to a separate space, because we don’t think separate is equal. We want to be with the rest of the Jews of the world at the Western Wall, and pray halachically [according to Jewish law] as we do,” she said.
Also still under discussion is what, if anything, can be done about the Mugrabi Bridge, adjacent to the women’s section, which effectively cuts the plaza in half. The bridge leads to the Temple Mount, which is controlled by Muslim authorities who are very sensitive to any changes.