JERUSALEM — Israel on Sunday approved a plan that would dramatically change the layout of Jerusalem’s Western Wall plaza, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, creating a space for egalitarian prayer and mixed-gender ceremonies for non-Orthodox Jews.
The new area, which will enable men and women to pray side by side, is to be adjacent to the existing plaza run by stringent ultra-Orthodox rabbis. That area is split into prayer sections for men and women, although women are not allowed to read aloud from the Torah, wear prayer shawls or sing there.
Along with creating a change to the delicate status quo, this marks an unprecedented move by the Israeli government to officially recognize the rights of Conservative, Reform and other Jewish denominations to hold organized prayer at the site.
Jewish groups in Israel and the United States hailed the decision as a historic step toward religious pluralism in Israel. American Jewish organizations, many of which feel that their religiosity is sidelined in Israel, have been integral in pushing the plan forward and ensuring that it remains on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda.
“The Jewish state has always held a promise that it is for all Jewish people, and the Wall is such an amazingly spiritual and inspirational place,” said Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, an organization representing hundreds of Jewish groups.
“Now, to have a space that will recognize the way the majority of Jews practice their religion — at least Jews from the United States — is a monumental step forward,” he said.
After long-running negotiations with several Jewish groups, the plan was drafted by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and outgoing Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit. The evolving plan has gone through numerous incarnations and faced high hurdles.
The ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, which enjoys a monopoly on religious Jewish life in Israel from births and marriages to places of worship, was unwilling to allow any changes at the site. Archaeologists expressed dismay that more development at the Western Wall could destroy precious artifacts and change a visitor’s view into the past.
The area around the ancient wall, part of the first and second Jewish temples, is also a sensitive spot for Muslims, who consider the adjacent al-Aqsa mosque compound the third-holiest site in Islam. Administered by the Islamic Waqf trust, it is overseen by Jordan and has been a flash point of violence in recent months.
Netanyahu, who brought up the proposal for a vote during the weekly cabinet meeting, commended the plan, saying that the area was a “place that is supposed to unite the Jewish people.”
“While I know that this is a delicate issue, I think that this is a fair and creative solution,” Netanyahu said.
But five ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu’s cabinet, including Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay, did not vote for the plan. They also did not fight it or threaten to bring down the government.
“I am gratified that the cabinet voted this plan into existence,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, head of the Rabbinical Assembly, an international association of Conservative rabbis. “At the same time, there are opponents to this plan and to religious pluralism within the government, and we have to continue working to make sure this plaza is built.”
Anat Hoffman, director of Women of the Wall — a feminist group that has been pushing for a solution to allow egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall — said government approval of the plan was a “wonderful gesture.”
“We will offer an option to all Israelis and Jews from around the world to express their Judaism,” she said.
“We had a vision 27 years ago that the holiest site of Jewish people needed to be run different, and today the government has taken a step towards it,” Hoffman said. “Of course, there are still a thousand hurdles and many ways for this to be sabotaged, but we will not stop moving until the new plaza is ready and fit for us.”
Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites, said that he received the decision regarding the new prayer arrangements “with a heavy heart and a sigh of relief.”
“Ever since the fringe and vociferous group of Women of the Wall started its mass-media activity, the Western Wall went from being a unifying site to one of incessant quarrels,” he said. Using a Hebrew phrase referring to the defamation of God’s name, he added, “The chilul hashem that this group and its supporters have caused is terrible, and it will take years to repair it.”