Western Wall rabbi ‘can live with’ plan for egalitarian prayer site

(JTA) – The rabbi of the Western Wall said he "can live with" a plan presented by Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky for a permanent egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.

Sharansky briefed Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz on the plan before he left Israel to present it to Jewish leaders in New York on Tuesday.

The proposal, first reported by the Forward on Tuesday and later shared by Sharansky with The New York Jewish Week, would turn an archaeological site adjacent to the main Western Wall plaza into a permanent place of egalitarian worship.

"This re-division of the plaza does not match my worldview, as I believe that there should be one site of prayer according to the place’s customs, but we can live with this solution," Rabinowitz told Ynet, the website of the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, on Wednesday.

The newspaper reported that the haredi Orthodox Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites, had been involved in recent months in planning the suggested solution, citing unnamed sources at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Egalitarian prayer is now allowed at the plaza site, near Robinson’s Arch, but only at specific times.

Under the proposal, the plaza would be expanded to encompass the additional prayer space, which is at the southern part of the Western Wall. In a short statement released after Tuesday’s meeting, Sharansky did not divulge any details of his plan.

"One Western Wall for one Jewish people," Sharansky said. “In this way, the Kotel will once again be a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife.”

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, who attended the meeting, refused to go into detail about Sharansky’s proposal, saying it had yet to be presented to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for approval.

Women’s prayer at the Western Wall has been a contentious issue for years. Anat Hoffman, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and head of Women of the Wall, has led a campaign aimed at permitting women to recite prayers in a women’s minyan at the Kotel. Orthodox groups have vigorously opposed such an accommodation, saying it constitutes a violation of Jewish law, and Sharansky’s plan likely would face stiff opposition from Orthodox groups.

Initial responses from non-Orthodox Jewish leaders mostly supported Sharansky’s idea. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told The Jewish Week that the initiative represented a signifcant step toward “respecting and protecting the rights of non-Orthodox Jews."

Hoffman was quoted by the Forward as saying the plan was not “everything we were hoping for” but still “a dramatic change, and it will make history.”

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