"Today history was made. The Israeli government has agreed to give unprecedented recognition to Reform and Conservative Judaism at one of Judaism’s holiest places, the Western Wall. For decades, Israel has given full religious authority at the Kotel to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. That is about to change. The Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, Women of the Wall, and the Jewish Federations negotiated a deal that was just publicly announced and approved.…"
The Reform Movement sent out the following self-congratulatory notice that is short on some very key facts and exaggerates what the government actually agreed to give them (but not to pay for):
Historic Day at the Kotel
Today history was made. The Israeli government has agreed to give unprecedented recognition to Reform and Conservative Judaism at one of Judaism’s holiest places, the Western Wall. For decades, Israel has given full religious authority at the Kotel to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. That is about to change. The Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, Women of the Wall, and the Jewish Federations negotiated a deal that was just publicly announced and approved.
The decision will create a permanent and official, fully-egalitarian space at the Kotel, a space where men and women will be able to pray together without gender barriers; where women will be able to read from the Torah and wear prayer shawls; and where families will be able to celebrate bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremonies and other events together.
The new, egalitarian section of the Western Wall will be officially registered in Israel’s Law of Holy Sites. Access to the new section will be from the main public plaza. Visitors to the Kotel will now be able to decide whether they want to go to the gender-segregated Orthodox section, or to the section where men and women can pray together in the spirit of Reform and Conservative Judaism.
Today’s decision also designates the Kotel plaza as an official public space that is no longer under exclusive Orthodox control. This will put an end to the embarrassing spectacle of male and female soldiers and officials being segregated at government and military events, and to situations where the Kotel’s Orthodox rabbi refuses to let women light menorahs or female soldiers sing our national anthem, the Hatikvah, in public.
This landmark decision gives expression to a fundamental truth: There is more than one way to be Jewish. There is more than one way to pray. There is more than one way to connect to Jewish traditions and identity.
On this exciting day, as we take another step towards full equality for all Jewish movements in Israel, we recognize that our struggle for full equality in marriage, conversion, burial and other lifecycle events for Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel continues.
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.
Those who sow in tears will reap in joy. (Psalms 126:5)
Rabbi Noa Sattath, Director
Israel Religious Action Center
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director
Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism
Here are the facts:
- The non-Orthodox Jewish movements and Women of the Wall (WoW) wanted the new egalitarian prayer area to be contiguous extension of the Kotel proper and in unobstructed full sight of it.
- The New egalitarian prayer area is and will in perpetuity remain cut off from sight of the Kotel proper by the Mughrabi Bridge, and the location of the new egalitarian prayer area isn't any more more holy or prominent than the restroom area at the Kotel proper. (I explain this is some detail below.) As for being equal in size and prominence, the new egalitarian prayer area will be 31 feet long and will hold 1,200 people. The Kotel proper is about 200 feet long and covers about 21,500 square feet, according to the JTA.
- Haredim control the Knesset Finance Committee and the Religious Services Ministry and have vowed to block all government funding for the new egalitarian prayer space. At this point, that means the millions of dollars it will take to construct and maintain the new egalitarian prayer area will have to come, either directly or indirectly, from the non-Orthodox movements themselves. (Most of that money will likely come through grants from US Jewish Federations located in areas where Orthodoxy is not dominant or closely related private Jewish foundations.) Today, the head of the Knesset Finance Committee, Ashkenazi haredi Rabbi Moshe Gafni, reportedly called the WoW, the Reform and Conservative movements "a group of clowns who stick a knife in the holy Torah. There will never, ever be recognition of this group of clowns, not at the Kotel and not anywhere else.”
- The founding purpose of WoW was to have women's prayer groups openly meet and pray in the women's section of the Kotel proper. That was supposed to include wearing tallits and tefillin and reading from kosher Torah scrolls. This deal completely sells out that stated purpose, which is why a large number of the founding members of WoW left the group after Anat Hoffman, who both works in a leadership position for the Reform Movement and who is WoW's current leader, agreed more than a year ago to give the Kotel proper to haredim in exchange for this new egalitarian prayer area – but only if the new egalitarian area was both completely contiguous with the Kotel proper and of absolutely equal prominence to it. The new egalitarian prayer area is neither.
- The idea that allowing female soldiers to stand with male soldiers in the upper or back plaza of the Kotel proper is some type of victory is insane. Until a few years ago, female soldiers stood with males soldiers and fully participated in national ceremonies in the main Kotel area itself. I can remember times when the the entire outside area of the Kotel was given over to state ceremony like that while Orthodox and haredi males were either kept out of the entire main Kotel area or were allowed (in small numbers) inside in the prayer area under the arch. The issue has never been use of the upper plaza – the issue has been use of the Kotel proper, and the new deal the Reform and Conservative Movements and WoW just agreed to gives that main Kotel area and the inside area under the arch over to exclusive haredi control. That is in no way a victory.
- Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, whose arguably false from the get-go plan formed the basis for the the Reform Movement's "historic" victory, told the JTA construction of the new egalitarian prayer area could take two years. That would mean it likely won't be finished until a new election has taken place or will be finished (if it is ever finished) during the immediate runup to a national election. That means any party wanting haredi support will have to promise to withhold funds for the egalitarian prayer area and may have to promise to stop it from opening.
- The JTA saw the agreement the cabinet approved today. That agreement reportedly does not say whether there will be clear signage directing visitors to the non-Orthodox egalitarian prayer area. Even so, the non-Orthodox movements and WoW agreed to it and hid this and so many other deficiencies in the agreement from its members and supporters.
Why would the Reform Movement essentially lie to its members over the deal? Because it wants the power it thinks this government recognition of the new egalitarian prayer area will give the movement.
But what power and recognition will that be?
When the government funds a gym or latrine it doesn't make that gym or latrine a holy site, even if the government gives lip service to that idea, as long as the funding for that gym or latrine does not come from the state's official religious apparatus.
What the non-Orthodox Jewish movements and much-compromised WoW achieved is the right to pray at a site that was never a site of Jewish prayer and that has no special religious significance. What makes the Kotel proper religiously significant is that it was indeed used for hundreds of years as a site of Jew's prayer, a replacement of sorts to the Temple Mount which was off limits to them. Otherwise, without those hundreds of years of prayers, it would be nothing more than the Temple Mount's retaining wall.
To mislead its members and supporters this way is shameful, and is yet another in a long line of examples from all Jewish movements including Orthodoxy that demonstrates why so many Jews choose not to affiliate with the Jewish community.