February 3, 2016
The Western Wall, the remainder of the wall that surrounded the Second Temple, is largely regarded today as the central site for worship for the Jewish people. It is a holy site with historic, national and religious significance. According to statistics of the past few years over 10 million visitors have been noted at the Western Wall. The majority of those who pray at the Kotel do so in accordance to the local authority, which is Orthodox. There are, however, many who wish to pray in ways differing from the Orthodox tradition, according to their own identity, traditions and customs.
Over the past years, the public dispute over freedom of choice in worship at the Kotel has intensified. Women of the Wall has struggled to pray according to their traditions in the women’s section and the ultra-Orthodox have waged aggressive protest against the women’s prayers. This dispute has made it necessary to rethink the current prayer spaces at the Western Wall. To this end the Prime Minister appointed a team to consult on the issue including Government Secretary Avichai Mendelblit, Assistant Attorney General Dina Zilber, and Tzvi Hauser.
After examining all of the perspectives of this issue, and listening to the different parties involved, the team has formulated a proposed plan which, at its core, aims to expand the options of prayer at the Western Wall in a way that enables each person who wishes to worship there to do so according to her/his belief and custom. The plan attempts to balance the rights of all of the parties- to respect, equality, freedom of religion and freedom of expression- while preserving the special historic, national and religious status of the Western Wall for ALL of the Jewish people. The plan is based on the Supreme Court decision on the issue of the struggle of Women of the Wall. The plan integrates the old with the new: retaining the existing custom of those who currently worship at the Western Wall, and creating a new space, physically and conceptually, for diversity of Jewish prayers and customs. The plan intends to provide for adequate expression of Jewish pluralism, allowing for prayer and worship of the pluralist denominations on the southern end of the Western Wall, while still preserving the existing prayer option at the northern part of the Western Wall and all of this, in the name of religious freedom and equality. The plan adopts the motto of Rav Kook: “Hayashan Yithadesh vHahadash Yitkadesh, What is old will be renewed and what is new will be sanctified.”
The main points of the proposed plan:
The plan distinguishes three different parts of the Western Wall: The upper plaza, the northern part of the Western Wall and the southern part of the Western Wall. The Western Wall is to be a site that welcomes all Jews to worship and visit and to this end, a new prayer section will be erected next to the women’s and men’s section in the northern part of the Wall, on the southern end. The two sections will be run parallel and simultaneously, under separate management.
The northern section, where the men’s section and women’s section are located, will remain under the management of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. It will be governed in accordance with the Head Rabbinate by strictly Orthodox norms, including gender segregation. Alongside this, the Mendelblit plan decriminalizes women’s prayer at the Kotel, including the women’s section even after the finalization of the third section. Previously, the sentence for non-compliance with Kotel “local custom” as defined by ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authority was 6 months in prison or a fine of 500 NIS. Until the complete implementation of the plan, Women of the Wall will continue to pray according to their traditions in the women’s section, in accordance with the 2013 Jerusalem District Court decision by Judge Sobell.
The new prayer section at the southern Western Wall will be fully committed to pluralism and governed by a committee to be chaired by the Chair of the Jewish Agency and including representatives from Women of the Wall, the Reform Movement, the Conservative/Masorti Movement, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Israeli government. The administrator of the space will be a government employee appointed by the Prime Minister and overseen by the pluralist committee of representatives. The prayer in this section will be largely mixed-gender but will include space for women’s only prayer for Women of the Wall and similar groups. The new section will be erected and designed as a fully functional prayer space, accessible and visible to all Kotel visitors and unquestionably respectful of pluralistic tradition. The establishment of the council governing the new section will include a budget for the creation of the site and an annual financial allocation for the operation of the site.
The upper plaza, located west of the northern Wall section will not be used as a prayer space, but as a space for national and military ceremonies. With the exception of several times a year when the size of the prayers in the men’s and women’s sections exceeds their space and may filter into the upper plaza, the upper plaza will be free from the ultra-Orthodox coercion it has previously faced under the management Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Previously, the upper plaza has been the site of discrimination against women- in national ceremonies on Independence day or in IDF swearing-in ceremonies for example, where women have been prohibited from speaking or singing. Though the Upper Plaza remains under the jurisdiction of Rabbi Rabinowitz, its designation as a plaza strictly for national/commemorative ceremonies has been clearly established.
In light of the fact that the southern and northern plaza will be managed separately, the report mandates a commitment to convening a roundtable between the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the Southern Wall Plaza Council at least five times a year. In this way, issues that arise can be addressed and resolved.
Both the north and south sections will be open and accessible for all who wish to enter, visit, pray and gather. The difference will be in the customs expected and accepted in the different prayer sections.
Women of the Wall’s conditions for moving to the new section:
- The transformation of the entrance to the Kotel plaza, including moving the “Shoken” security gate to create a majestic, ceremonious and visible path to the third section.
- The fully functional and operational third section including construction completed, infrastructure built and staff hired, prayer books, tallitot, Torah scrolls, etc. available in the prayer space.
- Removal of all obstacles of visibility of the new section.
- Certification for the legality and safety of all of the platforms of the plaza.
The proposed changes will be protected by amendments to the Preservation of Jewish Holy Spaces Law of 1981.
Until the implementation of this plan is completed and a proper prayer space has been erected at the southern end of the Wall, Women of the Wall will continue to pray in the women’s section at the northern end of the Wall according to their tradition and custom at the time of the publication of the agreement.
This plan is proposed with great respect to all parties of this issue. In this plan we find tradition and renewal, balance and the acknowledgement of the complexities of these issues. In this plan lies the hope that the Western Wall will cease to be a source of conflict and resume its rightful place as a national and religious site for prayer and reflection, a special source of cohesion and decorum for the Jewish people. This plan expresses the aspiration that the Kotel may also be a place to bring us closer to peace amongst ourselves.