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What's the Big Deal About the Western Wall Prayer Space Controversy?

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Non-Orthodox rabbis bring Torah scrolls into Western Wall plaza to protest Israel's inaction. Conservative Rabbi Steven Wernick (L), Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Women of the Wall's Anat Hoffman (C), Conservative Rabbi Mauricio Balter, (R) Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv. November 2, 2016.
Non-Orthodox rabbis bring Torah into Western Wall: Conservative Rabbi Steven Wernick (L), Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Women of the Wall's Anat Hoffman (C), Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv. Nov. 2, 2016Credit: Women of the Wall

What’s the big deal about Israeli and Diaspora Jews, including myself, deciding to join with Women of the Wall on Wednesday to exercise our right to pray and read Torah in a women's prayer service at the Western Wall and in a mixed prayer service in the Western Wall plaza?

The big deal is that, as part of the thousands-year journey of the Jewish people, we turn east when we pray, no matter our geography.  Jerusalem, the Kotel and the Temple Mount mean for us what they mean for all Jews – hope.  Hope that tomorrow will be better than today.  Hope that Jewish wandering and persecution will end.  Hope that we will again lihiyot am hofshi b'artzeinu - be a free people in our ancestral homeland.  Hope that redemption will be at hand and the Jewish People will be given an opportunity, through a Jewish state, to practice the ideals, values, belief and traditions that have not only ensured our survival, but have nurtured our thriving.

It's a big deal because, since the First Zionist Congress 120 years ago, Masorti/Conservative Jews have been part of the Zionist enterprise.  Since the creation of the modern State of Israel, we and our Reform co-religionists have been supportive of it politically, educationally and financially. We are the Jews who participate in both AIPAC and J Street.  We are the Jews whose children come on Birthright, MASA, summer programs, congregational pilgrimages and more.  And we are the Jews who invest billions of dollars in Israel.

And it's a big deal because when we come to Israel, we always go to the Kotel. The Kotel that has always been at the heart of our prayers, at the heart of our historical understanding and connection to Israel, at the heart of our inspiration to give of ourselves as participants in Israel's ongoing existence.

Yet, when we come to this most holy of sites, we who love Israel, who love Jerusalem, who love the Kotel, who work to assure Israel's legitimization around the world, are delegitimized.  

And that's a big deal!

This issue reached a climax almost four years ago when Anat Hoffman, the director of Women of the Wall, was arrested and detained for carrying a Sefer Torah into the women's section of the Kotel.  For many Israelis, as well as us in the Diaspora, this was an outrage.  How was it possible for a Jewish woman in 2012, living in the State of Israel to be arrested anywhere at any time for the crime of carrying a Sefer Torah?

Her arrest sparked an immediate outcry from North America's 1.35 million Masorti/Conservative Jews and 1.9 million Reform Jews.  It demonstrated that the status quo was no longer tenable and that we could no longer accept a rigid ultra-Orthodoxy coercive expression of Judaism at our most holy site.  

It wasn’t about the Haredim accepting us (we have no illusions that they will understand our Jewish expression or practice).  It was about religious pluralism in the institutions of State, which is a very big deal.  

Prime Minister Netanyahu courageously asked Natan Sharansky to see if he could bring about a negotiated solution to the problem of prayer at the Kotel.  And he did.  We, the worldwide Masorti/Conservative and Reform movements, Women of the Wall, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency negotiated with the government for three and a half years.  It was difficult.  It was complex.  We each had to concede a lot. But at the end of the day, we reached an understanding that resolved the problem.  On January 31, 2016 that agreement was accepted by the Government of Israel.

It has yet to be implemented.

The Prime Minister asked us to wait.  We've waited 2,000 years for a return to Jerusalem, to the Kotel.  We've waited through more than 30 years of tension and discussion to resolve this issue.  We waited three and half years of direct negotiation to resolve this issue.  And we waited 10 months for some signal from the government that progress would be forthcoming.

The Kotel belongs to all of the Jewish people - in all of our diversity.

Wednesday's demonstration of the simple desire to pray and read Torah at our people's most holy site, as is our legal right, is a sign of how big a deal this is. 

It's time to implement the deal.  Period.

Rabbi Steven Wernick is the CEO of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

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