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Come as You Are: Why the New Egalitarian Section of the Western Wall Matters to Israel’s Future

Come as You Are: Why the New Egalitarian Section of the Western Wall Matters to Israel’s Future

Hand reaching up to place paper in Western Wall crevice

For many Jews who visit Israel, the quintessential Israel experience is a trip to the Western Wall, the surviving fragment of the ancient Second Temple. At the Wall, the transcendent connection to thousands of years of Jewish history is palpable.

Millions of people visit the Wall every year for a deep and meaningful spiritual experience, spending time carefully writing and rewriting notes placed carefully in cracks of the ancient bricks, their private messages to the Holy One.

But for many Jews, too, visiting the Western Wall marks the first and maybe only time in their lives that they’re forced to pray in gender-segregated areas, with women shepherded off to one side behind a partition. At this holy place, female worshipers are prohibited from holding or reading from Torah, sometimes even standing on chairs to look over the separation wall to the men’s side to watch a son’s bar mitzvah or other lifecycle event from afar.

Those women who have tried to pray with a Torah at the Western Wall – and indeed many have – are painted as criminals and even arrested for their efforts to worship. Anat Hoffman, the indefatigable leader of Women of the Wall and the head of the Israel Religious Action Center (the organization that handled the myriad lawsuits aimed at these women, which went all the way to Israel’s Supreme Court), spent a stint in jail, during which time she was strip-searched and thrown into a cell solely because she attempted to pray in a manner that millions of Jews the world over consider a regular occurrence.

Think about it: Why should Jewish women travel all the way to Israel just to leave their Jewish values back home? Many Diaspora Jews are accustomed to praying in inspiring egalitarian communities, where women serve as clergy and men and women join in prayer together,. Why should they be forced to accept a lesser experience – especially in the Jewish state?

It may be “traditional,” but it isn’t acceptable. Orthodox Jews should be able to pray at the Western Wall, but the fact remains that the majority of Jews in Israel and throughout the world are not Orthodox – and they deserve to pray at the Wall, too.

Soon, though, we’ll all be able to have the same meaningful experience at the Wall and pray in a manner that is familiar and precious to us. Finally, non-Orthodox Jews will have a choice.

On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet voted on an historic change to this sacred space. The newly expanded prayer section at the southern Western Wall will become a space primarily for mixed-gender prayer, as in non-Orthodox synagogues. The new section will be erected and designed as a fully functional prayer space, accessible and visible to all visitors and unquestionably respectful of pluralistic prayer.

The new plan attempts to balance the rights of all of 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 Jews. This new section of the Wall makes a loud statement that there is room for all of our people at our holy spaces.

But this important change did not come about overnight. It’s an issue that has been gaining ground since 1988, when 100 women gathered together to pray and sing, forming the group Women of the Wall. On Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new Jewish month, these women and their allies have prayed aloud at the Wall, sometimes with a Torah.

Tens of thousands of supporters have joined these monthly prayer services, including Jews, female and male alike, from around the world. Women of the Wall and their allies have endured attacks – physical, verbal, and otherwise – by those who sought to maintain the status quo.

Finally, after three years of negotiations, we can all claim an extraordinary victory today and for the future. What a joyous milestone it is that this ancient and holy space will now affirm the diversity of authentic Jewish spirituality! But the new plan, while an extraordinary first step, is just that – a first step in an ongoing conversation among the Jewish people.

We are blessed with a Jewish state that imbibes the life and breath of our existence, but the state itself is a work in progress, just as our religion is today. The creation of a new egalitarian, pluralistic prayer space gives us hope that if we can live our Jewish spiritual diversity at the holiest of places, we can and will, one day soon, make the entire State of Israel a place of religious freedom, tolerance, and respect.

Photo: Dale Lazar

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest Jewish movement in North America, with almost 900 congregations and nearly 1.5 million members. An innovative thought leader, dynamic visionary, and representative of progressive Judaism, he spent 20 years as the spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY. Deeply dedicated to global social justice issues, he has led disaster response efforts in Haiti and Darfur. Learn more about Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs
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