Can Natan Sharansky Settle Western Wall Feud?

Women's Prayer Dispute Roils Jewish Diaspora

By JTA

Published January 07, 2013.
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Shmuel Rabinowitz, the wall’s chief rabbi, would like to maintain the status quo, where men and women are separated by a partition and only men may wear tallit and tefillin and convene a minyan prayer quorum with Torah reading. Hoffman and her allies have proposed alternatives that involve the religious streams sharing time and space in the Kotel Plaza, with each praying according to its own precepts.

Hoffman says her minimum demand is for women to receive one hour at the beginning of every Jewish month – excluding Rosh Hashanah – when they can pray as a group with tallit and tefillin, and read the Torah. Ideally, Hoffman says she would want the Kotel’s partition between men and women to be removed for several hours each day so that women and egalitarian groups can pray there undisturbed, but she acknowledges that such a scenario has virtually no chance of being approved by Rabinowitz.

Other activists say the solution lies in adding a partition rather than removing one. Yizhar Hess, the CEO and executive director of the Israeli Conservative movement, Masorti, advocates dividing the Kotel Plaza into three sections: one for men, one for women and one for egalitarian groups. Hess also told JTA that he would like to see the rear section of the plaza opened to cultural activities such as concerts and dancing, which are prohibited now.

“There are many egalitarian groups who come to the wall and view it as the peak of their emotional and spiritual experience in Israel,” said Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who runs Hiddush, an Israeli religious pluralism nonprofit. “The fact that they can’t express that spiritual experience in a spiritual way is a missed opportunity.”

According to a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling, non-Orthodox and women’s prayer groups can pray at Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological park adjacent to the Kotel Plaza where an admission fee is required. Regev suggested that Sharansky may recommend improvements to Robinson’s Arch, including an expanded prayer area and free admission for prayer groups.

That may be the maximum compromise that Rabinowitz would make.


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