Reform, Conservative Jews angry at Western Wall plan freeze

Jewish Federations of North America CEO says 'we love Israel but Israel doesn't love us.'

Hezki Baruch , | updated: 2:19 PM

Western Wall and Mughrabi Gate
Western Wall and Mughrabi Gate
Kobi Gideon/Flash 90

The Committee for Immigration Absorption, and Diaspora on Wednesday morning discussed the Western Wall (Kotel) plan.

The controversial plan was shelved in June. The plan entailed included enlarging the mixed gener prayer area, moving the entrance to the mixed gender prayer section to the other sections' entrances and allowing representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements to be on the Kotel Committee.

Proponents of the plan claim there is a need for an egalitarian section at the Western Wall; however, there is already a section at the Western Wall where men and women can pray together in accordance with the practice of the Reform and Conservative movements, and against the practice of Orthodox Judaism.

This section, though it has more amenities and privacy than the other sections, stands empty for most of the year - even on days when the Jewish nation mourns the destruction of the Holy Temples. The Reform and Conservative movements fight to pray in their own way at the site of the destroyed Temples, but do not share the observant Jews' hope for their rebuilding as in days of yore, as that entails separate prayer sections and bringing offerings to the site.

Committee Chairman MK Avraham Neguise (Likud) emphasized that the Western Wall plan had been frozen, not canceled, due to requests the haredi and religious parties' request to examine it.

According to Israeli Cabinet Secretary Adviser Ronen Peretz, the Western Wall's egalitarian section will be renovated in the coming weeks, at a cost of 20 million NIS ($5,696,429).

Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai said, "This is not a political issue, it's a Jewish issue. This issue is critical for Diaspora Jewry. Regarding the boycott, Jews from all over the world help Israel, but when it comes to a subject that is important to them, we shake off all responsibility."

MK Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union) emphasized that the discussion revolves not around the Western Wall itself, but about recognition of the Conservative and Reform movements. The Western Wall plan, she said, is only a symptom of the issue, and Israel wants a united nation, not to create a rift between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

"We need to take the politics out of this discussion," Peretz said. "We created a team to deal with organization prayers at the Western Wall, and now external forces are trying to bring in the issues of marriage and conversion as well. This is impossible."

"The government is finding it difficult to implement the Western Wall plan, but we want to reach a more extensive agreement. In the coming weeks, the Western Wall's egalitarian section - which has served the Conservative movement for fifteen years - will undergo an expensive renovation.

President and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Jerry Silverman agreed with Peretz but said that "from the moment we make an agreement, we need to abide by it. Backtracking makes US Jews angry, annoyed, and upset. We love Israel, but Israel doesn't love us."

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism CEO Steven Wernick said, "It's exciting to see how many Knesset members from various parties understand the Western Wall's meaning, not just for Diaspora Jews but for Judaism itself. They recognize that there are 'seventy facets to the Torah' (a halakhic expression which has no bearing on the issue, ed.) But despite the fact that the Cabinet approved this deal, you have betrayed us."

MK Yoav Ben Tzur (Shas) said, "There are red lines which we cannot cross, and therefore there will be no change to the main Western Wall plaza. However, we agree that the egalitarian section should have better conditions, and that each person should be able to pray as they wish."

"The Western Wall belongs to everyone," Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie said. "Previously, there was no separation between men and women. My grandmother (before the establishment of the state - ed.) would bring her entire family to pray at the Western Wall. Today, the existing divider between men and women has been made taller."

Actually, there was no separation during periods when the ruling powers outlawed it, but whenever it was allowed, a separation barrier was set up, as can be seen in photographs of those periods.

Jewish Home MK Moti Yogev told Lavie that "you cannot compare what we have today to the situation before the Six Day War, before the Western Wall was under Israeli sovereignty. The inner plaza serves as a place of prayer, and there is a synagogue there. The outer plaza is open for everyone and can be used for anything - eating, dancing, swearing-in ceremonies - and those who want to can also pray there."

MK Michael Malchieli (Shas) explained that there are rules of decorum in every place a person goes: In clubs and official ceremonies there is a dress code and limitations on who can enter.

According to Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, said, "Many people in the coalition, including MK Neguise, feel embarrassed by the fact that the Western Wall deal was frozen. They cannot sit as if they were prisoners of the extremists, as if they, too, were extremists."

Noa Sattath of the Reform movement's "Israel Religious Action Center" claimed that "the government is trying to fool the Israeli public by putting up a false show and trying to buy time instead of solving the problem."

Neemanei Torah Va'avoda's Orit Lasser suggested the entire Western Wall plaza be controlled by a committee made up of representatives of the government, Jewish Agency, Israeli public, Israel Antiquities Authority, and Chief Rabbinate. This way, she explained, "every Jew will feel the Western Wall belongs to him."

Jewish Agency for Israel Director of Public Affairs and Communications Yigal Palmor went farther and said that because the Western Wall plan was frozen, "we are losing the younger generation of Diaspora Jewry, since they are losing interest in Israel."

In fact, The number of Conservative and Reform Jews in the US, while still much higher than the Orthodox, is in steep decline according to Pew Surveys, while the number of Orthodox Jews is increasing rapidly. In addition, 71% of non-Orthodox marriages are intermarriages.