Thoughts on the Kotel, the day after…
Yesterday we all learned of the historic vote that took place in Israel recognizing an interdenominational consensus on Judaism’s holiest site. The Government of Israel officially approved the expansion of the egalitarian section of the Western Wall known as the “Ezrat Yisrael”.
Why is this so dramatic and important?
As our partners in the Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism declared:
- FOR THE FIRST TIME – Complete and clear Israeli legal recognition of egalitarian prayer in the spirit of Reform and Conservative Judaism as part of the custom of Jewish holy sites.
- FOR THE FIRST TIME – A joint government office with legally binding authority, government funding and official representation from the Reform and Conservative Movements.
- FOR THE FIRST TIME – Any visitor to the Kotel and any family from Israel or from abroad celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah will be able to choose between a separated prayer service with a Mechitza (barrier) between women and men and an egalitarian and mixed prayer service.
- FOR THE FIRST TIME – Legally binding recognition of the official status of the upper plaza and its usage for ceremonies and national and public events with no separation between men and women and without the coercion of religious norms which are unaccepted by the majority of Israelis (such as the prevention of women from singing).
- FOR THE FIRST TIME – The Reform and Conservative Movements, Women of the Wall, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) have teamed up for a joint and coordinated agreement with the Israeli government regarding matters of religion and state in Israel.
What can we say about this the day after?
Let’s be clear, this is still a work in progress. Skeptics will be quick to point out that that the egalitarian space is not contiguous with the Orthodox section nor is it as large., and that the Western Wall Heritage Foundation will retain control over the Kotel Plaza.
Those are all indeed true, yet we can point out a few things:
- The Reform and Conservative movements, along with Women of the Wall are not aiming to control the entire Kotel Plaza. Rather, we aim for it to reflect a true pluralism, with an egalitarian option provided in addition to the already existing Orthodox option, not in its stead.
- This takes time. Serious negotiations over the issue only began in 2012. To have a negotiated and approved deal in such a short time – for an issue and site as divisive as the Kotel- is a monumental milestone.
- This victory does not mean that our campaign is over. It will take additional time and effort to obtain a truly equal Kotel prayer space.
- The projected capacity for the Egalitarian section is 1200 people. Let us prove this space insufficient. If we, Reform Zionists, help to bring the masses of Jews to pray and make use of the egalitarian section, we will send the message that this is of great importance to liberal Jews both in Israel and in the Diaspora, and we need to expand our space and access.
There are still some unknowns to the deal:
- The timeline for construction and access to the new site is
- While we know that the section will be administered by a committee composed of two Reform leaders, two Conservative leaders, two non-Orthodox women representatives, the Jewish Agency chairman and six government officials, we don’t yet know who those individuals are and when we’ll be able to start booking B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies there.
- It has yet to be determined what the signage directing people to the site will look like, and it is our hope that it will be clear and obvious how to access the egalitarian section.
As previously stated these things will take time to work out. We must keep in mind that this is a major victory in recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. Due to our growing movement in Israel and steadily increasing support for Israel from abroad we are able to achieve such victories. Let us continue to build and to change what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish state.
As stated in the release of the Israeli Reform Movement:
“Today’s victory would not have been possible without the vision and leadership of our own Anat Hoffman. For 27 years, Anat has been on the forefront of this issue. She has persevered through decades of protests and prayers, arrests and activism. We are inspired every day by Anat’s leadership and her tireless creativity. Anat, we are all grateful to you for your prophetic voice for equality, which has borne such sweet fruit today.” In addition to Anat’s work, we must recognize Rabbis Gilad Kariv and Rick Jacobs who negotiated tirelessly for the past 4 years on our behalf as well as Jerry Silverman of JFNA and our partners in the Conservative Movement.”
Finally, we must also thank you. All of our ARZA members, leaders, board members and officers and all those in our movement who supported this cause along the way, who worked over the years on behalf of equality and recognition at the Kotel. This is part of what it means to be a Reform Jew committed to Israel and to shaping the future of the State of Israel to be an inclusive and pluralistic Jewish environment that represents its diversity.
Rabbi Bennett Miller
Rabbi Josh Weinberg