Jerusalem — Sitting in his office 20 feet above the Western Wall Plaza, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is unperturbed by the simmering tensions below.
For years, Israeli and American Jewish groups have agitated for greater religious freedom at the Wall, which currently allows for only Orthodox worship. Occasionally the outrage boils over.
In October, Israeli police arrested Anat Hoffman, the chairperson of Women of the Wall, a group that organizes monthly women’s services at the holy site, for wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl.
As the chief rabbi of the Kotel, as the Western Wall is known in Hebrew, and chair of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the government funded non-profit that governs the wall, Rabinowitz has sole authority to accommodate liberal Jewish practices.
But as a haredi Orthodox rabbi, Rabinowitz refuses to abide any deviation from traditional Jewish law, which prohibits women from singing aloud, reading the Torah and wearing a tallit at the Kotel. Violations are punishable by up to six months in prison or a fine of about $125.
“The decisions are mine,” Rabinowitz said. “If everyone does their own custom, the house will explode.”
Rabinowitz is a political appointee, named to his post in 2000 by then-Minister of Religious Affairs Yossi Beilin. His authority stems from a 1981 law that gives the Kotel’s chief rabbi power to “give instructions and ensure the enforcement of restrictions.” The law also establishes that any prayer at the Kotel must be according to “local custom.”
Who determines local custom? Rabinowitz.
Rabinowitz further exercises authority through the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Founded in 1988 to promote tourism and support the Kotel’s physical upkeep, the foundation is now a government subsidiary, given full authority over the Kotel’s administration in 2004. Last year it received nearly $8.5 million in government funds, the bulk of its budget. The foundation’s 15-member board includes no non-Orthodox representatives and steadfastly has resisted attempts to legalize non-Orthodox worship.