TEL AVIV, January 13, 2016 (JTA) – Israel’s government on Sunday approved a compromise to expand the non-Orthodox Jewish prayer section of the Western Wall, putting to rest the decades-long fight between Women of the Wall and Israel’s haredi Orthodox religious establishment.
The deal achieves what had been an elusive goal: an interdenominational consensus on Judaism’s holiest site with official recognition. The non-Orthodox prayer section at the wall will become much larger and more accessible. But haredi control of the Orthodox section will also be solidified, though non-Orthodox leaders have long protested that monopoly.
The deal, a copy of which JTA obtained ahead of the Cabinet vote, still contains a few unknowns. It is unclear how long construction will take. It does not say whether clear signage will direct visitors to the non-Orthodox section. Nor does it say exactly when Women of the Wall, an embattled women’s prayer group, will move its monthly services from the Orthodox Jewish main prayer section to the non-Orthodox one.
Still, the Conservative and Reform movements can declare victory. The size of the non-Orthodox section of the Western Wall will double to nearly 10,000 square feet – half the size of the Orthodox main section just to its north. A committee of non-Orthodox leaders and government officials will manage the non-Orthodox section. And a single entrance will lead to both sections.
“Jewish Federations, along with the Conservative and Reform movements and many others, including Women of the Wall, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman of the Executive Natan Sharansky and Israeli Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit, have been deeply involved in this effort for years, as we have long called for one Wall for one people,” said Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO Jerry Silverman.
“There is still more to do,” he continued, “but with today’s vote, the Israeli government sent a powerful message to Israel and to Jews around the world acknowledging the value of Jewish pluralism.”
The Western Wall’s haredi Orthodox management, called the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, also safeguarded its interests. Non-Orthodox leaders had campaigned for a share of control of the Orthodox section of the wall, but the Heritage Foundation will retain full authority over it and the larger plaza behind the prayer sections. And when the plan is implemented, Women of the Wall will move to the non-Orthodox section, one of the Heritage Foundation’s long-standing demands.
“They all came to the conclusion that they must make serious compromises because they want it to remain one Kotel for one people,” Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky told JTA, using the Hebrew term for the site. “lt’s the place that must unite us more than anything else, and it turned into the most ugly war.”
Plans for the non-Orthodox section’s expansion, spearheaded by Sharansky, began in December 2012. In October of that year, police had arrested the Women of the Wall’s chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, for wearing a tallit during the group’s monthly service – an act that at the time was illegal at the site.
Talks on a plan to expand the non-Orthodox section of the wall, located in an archaeological park known as Robinson’s Arch, began in April 2013. Sharansky and outgoing Israeli Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit led the negotiations, which included representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Heritage Foundation and Women of the Wall.
Nearly three years later, the deal enacted Sunday calls for the creation of an “official and respected,” 9,700-square foot prayer space in the non-Orthodox section of the Western Wall, running along a 31-foot segment of the wall, that Sharansky said will fit approximately 1,200 people. It will have a government-funded staff, Torah scrolls and other ritual objects, and be open to all forms of Jewish prayer. Sharansky estimated its construction could take up to two years.
Even after it is completed, the non-Orthodox section will remain smaller than its Orthodox counterpart. The Orthodox section measures some 21,500 square feet, adjacent to a nearly 200-foot segment of the wall, and has some 27,000 visitors on an average day.