A dramatic offer to set up a new egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem was met with a no less dramatic willingness to compromise on behalf of all the major religious leaders in the American Jewish community.
In a rare show of consensus, activists on the liberal side of the Reform movement agreed to drop their demand for egalitarian prayer in all parts of the Wall, considered the last relic of the ancient Jewish Temple and the holiest place for Jews worldwide. On the other end of the religious spectrum, Orthodox groups agreed not to try to derail the plan, which would allow, for the first time in the history of the modern state of Israel, for men and women to pray together in one section at the Wall and to perform worship rituals not based on the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish tradition.
Even the leader of Women of the Wall — the activists who insist on the right of women to wear prayer shawls and read Torah in the women’s only section and have often been arrested for trying to do so — supports the compromise plan.
Credited for bringing about the plan that could unite American Jews and potentially mend fences with the government of Israel is Natan Sharansky, the former hero of the Soviet Jewry movement and current leader of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Sharansky wrote the proposal after months of shuttle diplomacy among communal leaders.
“This is the first step in our journey, and we hope it will lead to a resolution that will create a stronger unity,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, a communal umbrella organization that played a major role in brokering the deal. Silverman called the consensus emerging around Sharansky’s plan “significant,” adding that it required a show of flexibility on behalf of all sides to the debate. “I don’t know that everyone will ever be satisfied with every issue,” he said.
The road to resolving the issue of women’s prayer at the Western Wall, is, however, still bumpy, and many potential pitfalls await Sharansky as he moves ahead with redefining the physical contours of what is considered to be the heart of Jewish history. After getting the green light from American Jews, Sharansky will now have to overcome political resistance in Israel, alongside myriad technical, archaeological, budgetary, legal and even geopolitical problems threatening to derail the plan.