Women of the Wall: In the Interim

April 17, 2013Susan Esther Barnes

Yesterday I listened to a conference call hosted by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) about access to the Kotel (Western Wall in Jerusalem). Or, more accurately, I listened to the first half of the call, since a meeting at work conflicted with the second half of it.

During the call, Anat Hoffman of the Israel Religious Action Center and leader of the Women of the Wall, said Natan Sharansky’s plan to create a pluralistic place for prayer at the Kotel is an ambitious one, with many obstacles to its success. Women of the Wall, she promised, would not be one of those obstacles.

She suggested that one of the largest obstacles to the plan may be the Waqf which controls the Temple Mount. This is because the plan would likely require changes to the bridge that leads to the Temple Mount, and in the past the Waqf has been opposed to any changes to the bridge.

Hoffman said the true test of the proposed solution will be how friendly it is to Modern Orthodox Jews who want to pray there. She said the Ultra-Orthodox section is a place fewer and fewer people want to go to, so the new section needs to be welcoming to everyone else.

She said Israelis have become interested in this issue recently because they care about the silencing and segregation of women in the public square. She said, the Israeli media is finally discussing this topic.

Given the ambitious nature of the proposed solution at the Kotel, and the many obstacles that solution will face, Hoffman emphasized an important issue on which to focus right now is what will happen in the interim, as the proposal begins a process of refinement, discussion, approval and implementation, which is likely to take at least a year and possibly much longer.

As those who have been following the Women of the Wall are well aware, in recent months women have been arrested at the Kotel for wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) and for praying out loud in a group. Those detained at the most recent monthly such prayer service may have been surprised when the police requested they be ordered to stay away from the Kotel for 90 days rather than the 30 days requested in the past. They were certainly surprised when the judge refused the request, saying the women should not have been detained at all, and that if anyone was disturbing the peace, it was those who tried to interrupt their prayers.

It was a great victory, but it may be a short-lived one. Apparently the police are appealing the decision to a higher court, insisting that the detainments were proper and that the women be kept away from the Kotel for 90 days.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, said it’s too soon to know the intentions of the new government, and what will happen as the Ultra-Orthodox and other groups try to remove parts of Sharansky’s proposal. Even if the plan is changed, he said, it has achieved the understanding that the status quo has to change.

He said the proposal included the following five conditions:

  1. If there will be an egalitarian section to the Kotel, it must be geographically equal to the current Kotel.
  2. It must be an open public site, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at no charge, just like the current Kotel.
  3. There must be joint access to the new and the current site, so it is clear that it is all one Wall.
  4. There must be a change in the governing structure so other streams of Judaism are represented.
  5. All national ceremonies, such as IDF ceremonies, must return to the Kotel.

He stressed that the interim solution can’t be separated from the long-term solution, and that they must include the same values. Therefore, the police must not be allowed to continue to detain women during their monthly Rosh Chodesh services.

If you want to know how you can help support the Women of the Wall during this interim period, look for action updates on the Israel Religious Action Center website.

Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra kadisha, and is fascinated by the many ways we can employ Jewish texts, traditions and rituals to enhance our modern lives. She writes the column "Religious and Reform" for the Jewish Journal, where this piece was originally published.

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