In the spring of 2014, while studying in Haifa, I traveled down to Jerusalem to meet up with my mother and other members of our congregation who were visiting Israel. After a number of trips to Israel with my family, my synagogue, and my youth group, I had become familiar with the Jerusalem tourist circuit: ancient sites, bustling markets, museums, memorials and, of course, the Western Wall.
At the Kotel itself, I had grown all too used to my family and friends splitting in two, as the men went to pray in the men’s section and the women went to pray in the women’s section. This trip was different, though.
With the establishment of an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall in late 2013, I could now pray at one of Judaism’s holiest sites alongside my mother. As we approached the plaza together, I remember feeling grateful and hopeful. I was grateful for advocates of religious pluralism such as Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center, whose tireless activism pushed the Israeli government to build the egalitarian plaza, securing the opportunity for families like mine to pray together at the Western Wall.
I also felt hopeful that the establishment of this plaza would not mark the end of the journey toward increased recognition of progressive Judaism in Israel. While it is good to have a dedicated egalitarian space at the Kotel, the space itself fails to meet many of the conditions spelled out by Women of the Wall. It is small, not easily accessible to those with physical disabilities, and set off from the main Western Wall plaza.
In this sense, the egalitarian plaza reflects the experience of many non-Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel. They, too, have secured important victories but remain far from their ultimate goals. In the absence of national action on pluralism issues, individual communities have turned to their local governments. Municipalities have been showing increasing generosity towards organizations that promote religious pluralism, providing religious groups with space for services, hosting joint programs and providing free land for synagogue construction. Over the summer, the Jerusalem City Council approved funding for organizations that support religious diversity, including the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion’s campus.
And yet, these achievements leave us far from the vision of “full equality for all streams of Judaism in Israeli religious life” (Religious Pluralism in Israel, 1999). Even the activities sanctioned by local governments are typically categorized as social and political gatherings, rather than religious observances. The Orthodox Chief Rabbinate retains control over conversion and marriage issues. The Israeli government pays the salaries of only four Reform rabbis, and even they receive payment from the Culture and Sport Ministry rather than the Religious Services Ministry. Though the bottom-up approach progressive communities are taking has yielded some important steps forward, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Learn more about this issue from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, and the Israel Religious Action Center.