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Can American Jews Rescue Western Wall Prayer Deal?

The deadline for resolving the crisis over the new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem has been extended indefinitely, after an aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to draft a solution acceptable to the opposing sides within the 60 days he was allotted.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States are hoping to use their clout, in a meeting scheduled with the prime minister for Wednesday, to prevent any changes in the original plan, approved by the government in January. The delegation, led by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform movement in North America; Rabbi Steven Wernick, the chief executive officer of the Conservative Movement, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, is due to arrive in Israel later on Monday.

The government-approved plan calls for erecting a new plaza at the southern expanse of the Western Wall where Reform and Conservative Jews could hold mixed prayer service for men and women and where Women of the Wall — the multi-denominational feminist prayer group — could hold its less traditional monthly service.

Responding to opposition from the ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition after the deal was approved, Netanyahu had instructed his bureau chief David Sharan to present recommendations for changes that would be acceptable to both sides.

The deadline for presenting these recommendations was last week.

On Sunday, Sharan met with representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel, as well as with leaders of Women of the Wall, to gauge their openness to possible changes in the original plan.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have expressed objections to several key elements of the deal. As approved in the cabinet in late January, it would provide access to the new egalitarian space through a common entrance with the existing gender-segregated prayer spaces. For the Conservative movement especially, this shared entryway was seen as a key element of the deal, symbolizing the equal status of all Jewish worshippers at the holy site. But the ultra-Orthodox are now demanding separate entrances.

Another clause in the agreement widely opposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties would grant the Reform and Conservative movements representation on the board of governors that will administer the mixed prayer area. They also object to funding the new egalitarian space through the official state budget, preferring that the money come from non-governmental or quasi-governmental organizations like the Jewish Agency.

The Reform and Conservative movements have warned that they are prepared to appeal the Supreme Court if the government reneges on key elements of the plan, in which case they would demand that part of the existing prayer space at the Western Wall be allocated to them.

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