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The Western Wall prayer decision and the shifting Israel-Diaspora paradigm

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org

The Israeli government’s passage of legislation that authorizes egalitarian prayer in a soon-to-be-created 9,700-square-foot, $8.85-million section adjacent to the southern part of the Western Wall has been called groundbreaking, empowering, dramatic, and unprecedented. The section could be ready in as soon as a few months or up to two years from now.

“This is a fair and creative solution,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the 15-5 vote on the measure by his cabinet.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), said the decision would “connect world Jewry to the State of Israel.” Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), called it a “major step forward.” Member of Knesset Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) said the Kotel was “liberated” again, this time not by soldiers, but by women in Jewish prayer shawls.

Indeed, for 27 years, the Women of the Wall group pushed for women’s equality at the Kotel. Formal negotiations have been going on for almost three years. In a statement, the group said more than just an agreement has been achieved: “The vision of the new section of the Kotel is a physical and conceptual space open to all forms of Jewish prayer. Instead of splitting up the existing pie into ever more divided, smaller pieces, we are making the pie much larger.”

Beyond the blueprints, the ratified plan is a powerful statement about the overt impact Diaspora Jewry and global Jewish leaders could have on Israeli decision-making.

U.S. Jews have traditionally served as a political lifeline for Israel, lobbying American governments on behalf of the Jewish state. Recent occurrences have shifted the relationship between the American and Israeli Jewish communities into one of semi-equality, which includes American Jewish leaders objectively discussing Israel’s policies rather than blindly supporting them.

Silverman called this shift evolutionary. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, said the negotiations “prove the role that North American Jewry…can and should play in helping Israel make our country more inclusive.”

Last November, speaking at JFNA’s General Assembly, Netanyahu called on American Jewish leaders to “work together to unite the Jewish people.” At that time, he underscored his new commitment to guarantee equal rights to members of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel. The prime minister noted his work with the committee for a compromise on the Kotel as an example of his efforts.

Now, pluralistic Jewish leaders are touting the work they did as a model for future initiatives. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly, said the negotiating process was almost as significant as its outcome in that it showed that even Jewish leaders with varying opinions could “hang in there” and handle “complex negotiations” when they have a shared interest.

“There were a lot of compromises to get here,” Schonfeld told JNS.org. “It was a real test.”

Some Orthodox leaders are not going to let these changes happen easily. In an interview with JNS.org, Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch called the government’s Kotel plan a desecration of God’s name. He said he did not consider himself a partner in the Kotel negotiations.

“I don’t know if there is anything we can do to stop it now, I am deeply saddened….I hope that we can get the whole thing cancelled,” he said.

Rabinovitch did say, however, that the ratified Kotel plan was a better option than bad alternatives that were discussed.

On Feb. 10, a haredi Orthodox man, Itamar Gadassi, burned a siddur (prayer book) at the Kotel, proclaiming women’s prayer to be ‘heretical.’ The prayer book that was burned was one used by Women of the Wall for its Rosh Hodesh worship.

In response, Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, executive director of Women of Reform Judaism, which was the underwriter of the prayer books, said, “Over the years the Israeli government has turned a blind eye as women have been harassed at the Kotel and in other public places in Israel. This negligence has led to a climate of intolerance that makes such horrific acts not only possible but passively encouraged. I pray that this disgraceful act will spur Israeli officials to prohibit the burning of any siddur and also to work with Women of the Wall, the Reform Movement, and others of good will to promote tolerance and harmony.”

CAP: Anat Hoffman, leader of the Women of the Wall group, speaks with members of the media near the Western Wall on Jan. 31. Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90.

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