For more than a decade, Jews have been permitted to hold egalitarian prayer services at a southern section of the Western Wall that lies out of sight of Orthodox worshippers. But the area, known as Robinson’s Arch in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, never became a government-supported prayer facility. Worshippers have always been guests of the archaeological site, often having to pay entrance fees. Hours were limited, and the state did not provide amenities such as prayer books.
All that changed on August 25, when, after just two weeks of construction, the government completed a 4,840-square-foot concourse in the archaeological park and promised that it would stay open 24/7 for non-Orthodox mixed-gender prayer, accessible without charge. The state will provide prayer books and other religious objects.
“For the first time since the liberation of the Kotel in 1967, all Jews are now able to pray in a respectable place at one of Judaism’s holiest sites,” Naftali Bennett, minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs, told the Forward. “This is aimed at unifying the Jewish people and enabling all Jews from all walks of life to pray freely at the Kotel.”
Bennett’s unexpected announcement received decidedly mixed responses in the United States and Israel. Natan Sharansky, who as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel has promoted his own bold plan for equal, egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, welcomed the development. Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements offered tepid, tentative approval. And far from rejoicing, the Women of the Wall, the group that has led the fight for women’s prayer at the Kotel, reacted furiously to the development and staged a 24-hour sit-in at the Wall in protest.
Women of the Wall’s anger stems in part from the government’s declared intention to use the opening of the new facility to cement Orthodox control of the main part of the Wall, with Bennett’s office saying that it will receive “official recognition” as exclusively Orthodox.
If and when this happens, Women of the Wall will probably fall through the cracks of the new arrangement. Although the group promotes women-only prayer (whereas prayer on the new platform will be mixed), it diverges from conventional Orthodox practice in demanding that women be able to wear prayer garments and read from the Torah at the Kotel — actions that recently have landed some of its members in jail.
The group cites further concerns about the interim plan, likening it to a “sun deck” and complaining that it isn’t equal in size or status to the main Orthodox-controlled prayer section. The new platform is accessed not from the main Kotel plaza but through the archaeological park entrance. The flooring is more basic than the stone flooring at the plaza; it is lower down than the plaza; it isn’t close enough to the Wall to allow worshippers to touch it, and it faces a section of the Wall excavated in the 19th century, not the stones that have been visited for centuries.
“The plaza is made of ancient rock and makes you feel you are in the footsteps of your ancestors, but the sundeck feels like a sundeck,” Anat Hoffman, Women of the Wall’s chairwoman, said shortly after completing her sit-in.
As far as Bennett’s office is concerned, Women of the Wall’s reaction is misplaced, as the new concourse is only part of what non-Orthodox Jewry will receive in a permanent Kotel plan. Bennett calls it an “interim” step for a period of time expected to be quantified in a government report in September, in which Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, working with Sharansky, devises and implements a final arrangement.