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Ruckus at Kotel As Conservatives Protest Plan to Expand Prayer Area

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When Conservative religious leaders gathered here this week for a rabbinical conference, a resolution on Israel’s West Bank security fence was expected to generate the most controversy.

But a dispute over prayer at the Western Wall has put religion front and center.

A Conservative rabbi from Texas was arrested and briefly detained by Israeli police Tuesday after trying, along with fellow rabbis, to unfurl a banner near the Western Wall reading “The wall belongs to us all.”

Rabbi Baruch Zeilicovich, who leads a congregation in Fort Worth, was among some 200 Conservative rabbis from around the world protesting construction that will nearly double the gender-segregated prayer area adjacent to Judaism’s holiest site, the Kotel.

Officials said Zeilicovich did not have a permit for the sign.

The Conservative rabbis, in Jerusalem for the annual convention of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, say the move to extend the gender-segregated prayer area is part of an attempt to monopolize Jewish life in Israel by the Orthodox, who mandate gender separation during prayer.

“It sends a message that Reform, Conservative, and egalitarian groups in general, including Orthodox egalitarian groups, are not welcome anymore,” said Paul Arberman, a rabbi in Netanya originally from Brooklyn.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi in charge of the Kotel and the administrator of Jewish holy sites, defended his decision to extend the gender-segregated area, saying it was done to accommodate an increase in worshipers — not as a slight to non-Orthodox religious denominations.

Even though tourism has decreased in recent years, the number of worshipers at the Kotel has increased, Rabinowitz said. As many as 5,000 Orthodox Jews come to the Western Wall on Friday nights, he told JTA.

The area adjacent to the wall has been a de facto Orthodox synagogue since Israel took control of Jerusalem’s Old City in 1967. The sprawling plaza that lies beyond it has been used as an open space for other groups to pray, including mixed groups of men and women.

Though the plaza area will be reduced by the new construction, it still will be larger than the expanded gender- segregated prayer area.

“The Western Wall belongs to the entire Jewish people,” said Rabbi Shlomo Tucker, who works at the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school in Jerusalem. “There is no justification to the changes.”

Many of the Conservative rabbis lead missions from their home congregations to Israel, and a highlight of the missions generally is a prayer service in the plaza area. Extending the gender-segregated prayer area will aggravate the divide between Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment and the more liberal streams of Judaism, some say.

“They are gradually trying to make it more difficult for people to lead normal lives, where men and women live side by side,” said Rabbi Richard Hammerman of Toms River, N.J. “We don’t want a Khomeni state. We did not fight and die for a medieval shtetl.”

Meanwhile, the construction, which began in the last two months, continues. Mounds of earth have been dug up as workers place new tiles in the ground to demarcate the extended prayer area.

Lawyers for the Conservative movement in Israel complain that there was no consultation process before deciding to go ahead with construction. To date, their queries to government officials on the matter have gone unanswered, they said. Dan Evron, legal counsel for the Conservative movement in Israel, said the movement might soon resort to court action.

Government officials had no immediate reaction.

The current effort to expand the gender-segregated prayer area follows previous attempts in 2000 and 2003. Both attempts were halted after the Conservative movement in Israel petitioned government legal advisers.

The legal advisers in turn told the Ministry of Religious Affairs — which at the time was in charge of issues related to the Western Wall area — that they lacked the authority to make the changes.

For Israelis, the Kotel “is a very important and central symbol of Jewish life in this country, and the attempt to turn this symbol into something that belongs to and is controlled by one specific segment of the Jewish population — by the Orthodox — is causing quite an uproar,” Evron said.

“It’s part of a broader battle being waged in the country regarding the question of is there more than one way to be Jewish in Israel,” he said.

Rabinowitz, however, took issue with the Conservative rabbis for turning the expansion project into a controversy.

“This is to take a situation that does not intend to offend anyone and turn it into a war,” he said.

Conservative leaders accepted an invitation to meet with him next week to discuss the situation, Rabinowitz said.

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