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Sharansky considered the idea of redesigning the Kotel plaza and dividing it into equally sized Orthodox and egalitarian areas shortly after he was tasked three months ago by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with finding a solution to the escalating dispute with Diaspora Jewry over women’s rights to pray at the Wall. The monthly arrests and detentions of members of Women of the Wall have drawn increasing attention in the United States and were frequently reference by Jewish leaders when meeting with Israeli officials.
This past February, Sharansky met in Jerusalem with a group of rabbis from JFNA’s rabbinical Cabinet and presented them with his thoughts about expanding the prayer area along the Wall. He followed up with a series of meetings and phone conversations with leaders of the Reform and Conservative denominations in the United States, and discussed the idea with Israeli lawmakers and religious leaders.
These talks resulted in a plan, formally presented by Sharansky to the rabbinical Cabinet in a meeting in New York on April 9 and first reported by the Forward earlier that day. It calls for building a new entryway to the Kotel area, which will present visitors with the choice of either going to the left, to the designated Orthodox area, or turning right, to the egalitarian section. The entire plaza will be expanded and will reach the area known as Robinson’s Arch.
The Orthodox part of the Wall will remain as it is now. It will have a divider separating men and women worshippers and will continue to be governed by the Orthodox rabbinate through the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The egalitarian area will allow members of all denominations to pray freely and will allow family events, such as bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. The governance structure is still in discussion, but Sharansky suggested that the Jewish Agency and the non-Orthodox denominations would oversee its operation.
In a short statement issued following his presentation of the plan, Sharansky said, “The Kotel will once again be a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife,” and declared, “One Western Wall for one Jewish people.”
In the April 9 meeting, Sharansky did not present Jewish leaders with a map or a model of the new design. He described the outline in broad terms, making clear that many details were still uncertain. The participants, members of the JFNA rabbinical Cabinet in which all Jewish denominations are represented, did not vote on the plan, but it was clear, said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, who chaired the meeting, that support for Sharansky’s plan was broad. “The ideas were very well received,” he said, adding that the plan was still a “work in progress.”