Local leaders welcomed the compromise approved by the Israeli government to expand the non-Orthodox Jewish prayer section of the Western Wall.
Supporters say the deal puts to rest the decades-long fight between Women of the Wall and Israel’s haredi Orthodox religious establishment over women’s and egalitarian prayer at the gender-segregated Kotel, and creates an interdenominational consensus on Judaism’s holiest site with official recognition.
Under the deal, the non-Orthodox prayer section at the Wall — located in an archaeological park known as Robinson’s Arch — will become much larger and more accessible. But haredi control of the Orthodox section — the one most familiar to visitors — will also be solidified, though non-Orthodox leaders have long protested that monopoly.
“This means one wall for one people,” said Lori Klinghoffer, past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Unity Committee, and deputy chair of its Committee for the Jewish People, which was involved in negotiating the deal. “I think it has great potential to open this area of prayer and have it grow so people who want to embrace egalitarian prayer have a place to go.”
“This is a joyous day! Hallelujah!” wrote Rabbi Amy Joy Small, formerly of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, who recently moved to take a pulpit in Vermont. Small was involved with Women of the Wall for many years, occasionally ending up in the midst of confrontations when they sought to pray in the Kotel’s women’s section with prayer shawls and a Torah scroll. “Enduring violence, arrests, and harassment, the Women of the Wall have been struggling for over 25 years for free and equal access to prayer at the Kotel. This compromise is a great victory.”
Rabbi Mary Zamore of Westfield, director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network of the Reform movement, called the deal “a really important first step toward religious pluralism throughout Israel.” She also called it “guardedly tremendous.”
Zamore has participated in prayer with the Women of the Wall since 1991, her first year of rabbinical studies at the Reform Hebrew Union College in Israel. She applauded “the dogged persistence” of the Women of the Wall in accomplishing the deal, in partnership with the Reform and Conservative movements and the federations of JFNA.
The deal also earned praise from an Israeli Reform rabbi, Ayala Samuels, who was in New Jersey this week to teach at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield. “It’s the first time there is an official decision that there will be a place for liberal services; that’s the most important,” said Samuels, who is one of Israel’s new “regional rabbis” — non-Orthodox rabbis whose salary is paid by the Israeli government. She serves as the representative between Reform Israeli women rabbis and the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network. “They finally will not have to fight and struggle; they will just go and pray,” Samuels said. “It will be a simple, religious, spiritual experience; it won’t be a political struggle.”
The deal contains a few unknowns, including how long construction of the new section will take. Nor does it say exactly when Women of the Wall will move its embattled women’s prayer services from the Orthodox-run women’s section to the non-Orthodox one.
That’s why some local leaders are cautious in their embrace of the decision.
David Lentz of Livingston, a former chair of the religious pluralism committee of the Greater MetroWest federation and chair of JFNA’s global planning table, called the compromise “significant and potentially historic.”
“But,” he added, “I am concerned that this is just the opening chapter in a very long and intense struggle to implement the decision. It is subject to attack by coalition parties who are part of the current (very fragile) coalition government. It was not decided by the Knesset and might be changed by subsequent government cabinet decisions.”
Zamore added, “It’s not as if suddenly tomorrow there will be three sections at the Wall” — Orthodox men, Orthodox women, and non-Orthodox. “We will have to see how long the government drags its feet,” she said, “and whether the plan will be stymied” by government ministers.
A breakaway group, calling itself the Original Women of the Wall, says that the agreement does not go far enough. Hannah Hashkes, a member of a progressive Orthodox group, told Haaretz that the agreement “provides no solution for Orthodox women who want to continue praying in the gender-segregated area — but not according to the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox.”
Zamore said she hopes the needs of Orthodox women could be met at the new location. “We want to ensure that the women who started this so many years ago, many of whom are Orthodox, have a safe and comfortable space to pray together,” she said.
‘Listening and understanding’
Still, the Conservative and Reform movements can declare victory. The size of the non-Orthodox section will double to nearly 10,000 square feet — half the size of the Orthodox main section just to its left if one is facing the Wall. A committee of non-Orthodox leaders and government officials will manage the non-Orthodox section. And a single entrance will lead to both sections.
The Western Wall’s haredi Orthodox management, called the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, also safeguarded its interests. The foundation will retain full authority over the familiar Orthodox section and the larger plaza behind the prayer sections — what people have historically meant when they refer to the Western Wall. And when the plan is implemented, Women of the Wall services will move to the non-Orthodox section, one of the foundation’s long-standing demands.
In a compromise that Samuels believes will have a more direct impact on Israelis’ day-to-day lives, the upper area in back of the Orthodox section — used for national events — will not be under haredi control. “That means the rabbis cannot rule there. Women can sing and be on stage, and not sit separately from men,” she said.
Cecille Asekoff of West Orange was with Women of the Wall at the Kotel in 2014 when their access was blocked by a “swarm” of yeshiva girls, and she and her colleagues had to be escorted out by police. “I’m very hopeful that the agreement reached signals a degree of listening — that’s an important word for me — understanding, and compromise,” said Asekoff.
With reporting by Ben Sales, JTA