1. What are we asking of the Government of Israel?
We are demanding that the government of Israel fulfill what it has promised.
After three and a half years of negotiations, we reached an agreement. It is an historic compromise, which includes one entrance to the Kotel site, and two prayer areas – one (the well-known area) where services will be held in the Orthodox manner, and the other (by Robinson’s arch) in an egalitarian, pluralistic style.
The egalitarian area was supposed to have been built in a way that is both respectful and respected, and both areas were supposed to have been legally recognized, and to have enjoyed state financing for operation and maintenance. The heads of the haredi parties were full partners to the negotiations. On January 31st 2016, the government of Israel approved the agreement. Fifteen ministers voted in favor, five voted against. As part of the agreement, a clear schedule was set for its implementation. However, since then, it has been frozen stone cold. Nothing of what was agreed has been implemented.
2. How long have we been trying to get egalitarian services at the Kotel?
The struggle for egalitarian services at the Kotel has been going on for dozens of years. To learn more, and to see a complete history and timeline of this struggle, click this: milestones-in-the-relationship-of-the-kotel-and-the-masorti-movement-ma-pdf
3. What is the nature of the services that we are asking to hold?
All groups will be able to pray in the manner to which they are accustomed; as families, as a community or congregation with men and women together, men and women standing separately, or even a service for women only.
We are asking that, at the Western Wall, Jews should be allowed to pray as Jews pray. The majority of world Jewry, and hundreds of thousands of Jews in Israel, pray without a partition. It is intolerable that, at the holiest place to the Jewish people, that sort of prayer is not allowed. That is not Jewish, that is not democratic, and it violates our rights under the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.
4. What authority does the Rabbi of the Kotel have?
The rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Places operates within the Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and is responsible for the provision of religious services to Jews at the Kotel, and at other holy places in Israel, which are specified in the “Regulations for the preservation of Jewish Holy places”.
The Rabbi of the Kotel provides these services to Orthodox Jews, only. The present rabbi is Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who was appointed to the position in the year 2000, for an unlimited term.
The Kotel rabbi also serves as chair of the “Western Wall Heritage Foundation”, a non-profit through which he operates the kotel area with a wealth of Orthodox educational programs.
5. What is the size of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation's budget?
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation (WWHF) is a non-profit that was founded in 1988, and currently enjoys the status of a monopoly in operating religious services, visits, education, conservation and development of the Kotel and the surrounding area. The foundation has a basic budget of twenty million NIS, from the Prime Minister’s office, but the budget is doubled (and even more) with the help of transfers and support from other government ministries.
The head of the WWHF is the rabbi of the Kotel. There is a lack of proper representation for women and the other streams of Judaism on the board of the WWHF. Out of the fifteen board members, five places are reserved for Orthodox men (the rabbi of the Kotel, two representatives of the Chief rabbinate, the manager of the rabbinical courts, and the director general of the Chief Rabbinate). Additional representatives of the public are elected by the AGM (Annual General Meeting), which is also made up of Orthodox rabbis.
6. Is Diaspora Jewry interested in this issue?
The Diaspora community is very interested in the issues surrounding access to the Kotel. The Kotel, in a prolonged process that began with its release in the Six Day War, has gradually become an Orthodox, haredi synagogue. Therefore it attracts a very limited Israeli public–the Orthodox–and Diaspora visitors, who come to pray and then experience something very foreign to their practice.
In a recent survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Jersualem Post, 70% of American Jews are in favor of of an egalitarian prayer spacea the Kotel. Moreover, from our experience, based on the operation of ”Ezrat Yisrael” (sometimes called “Azarat Yisrael’) for sixteen years, tens of thousands of Diaspora Jews as well as Israelis prefer to celebrate life-cycle events in an egalitarian fashion. Every Monday and Thursday, hundreds of Jews use the egalitarian section ”Ezrat Yisrael”. We think that as this site is developed, more people will come and regain the sense that there is one wall for one people: the Jewish People.
7. What is Ezrat Yisrael?
”Ezrat Yisrael” (sometimes referred to as “Azarat Yisrael,” is an egalitarian prayer area, situated today in the region of Robison’s Arch, in which the Masorti/Conservative movement has, since the year 2000, been providing egalitarian religious services – bar and bat mitzvah, services without a partition, and more.
8. Why are we not satisfied with Ezrat Yisrael?
”Ezrat Yisrael”, today, is a site that can only offer minimal, restricted services. Access to it is limited, its platform size can only hold a limited number of worshippers, and its legal status is without the benefit of the implemented agreement , give it the feeling of a place that is inferior and ancillary to the area traditionally referred to as the Western Wall or Kotel.
What is more, today it operates with volunteers with private funds. The State, and our members’ taxes, do not finance the Torah scrolls, or the religious services provided there, such funds are only provided on the side operated by the WWHF. When we agreed to the historical compromise arrangement at the Kotel, we took a huge risk. We took that risk for the sake of the whole Jewish people, for the sake of bringing peace to the city of Jerusalem, and to increase the holiness of the Kotel by again making it attractive to the whole of the Jewish people. Without the budget, the legal status, the joint entrance, the governing body, and the architectural design, none of this can be accomplished. We must demand that the historic agreement be honored and implemented, for the good of all.
9. The Kotel is holy, and so maybe it is not suitable to hold egalitarian services there?
The Kotel is a holy place, and that is exactly why we need the right to hold egalitarian services there. If Jerusalem is the beating heart of the Jewish people, and if we want – as Jews and Zionists – for millions of Jews to “raise their eyes to Jerusalem,” we must have the Kotel accessible to all the world’s Jews.
We are one people, but with different world views, and different customs in our prayers. The customs of World Jewry, Israeli and Diaspora Jewish prayer, must be allowed at the Kotel, the most holy place to the Jewish people. Egalitarian services do not harm the holiness of the Kotel, they enhance it by allowing all Jews to turn their hearts to Jerusalem.
10. Why are we using prayer as tool in struggle?
The Jewish people never shied away from a dispute for the sake of their beliefs. At the same time, we would be delighted to call off the struggle immediately. We believe in the compromise that we reached, not because it is good for us, and not because it is bad for the other side. It is a compromise with painful give and take for both sides that will allow for peace when it is implemented.
Until it is implemented, we refuse to acquiesce to second class status and assert our right to pray wherever we want. With implementation of the compromise, we will be able to pray only on our end of the kotel as equals.
We want to pray in peace and quiet; unfortunately, that is not possible because of the incitement and the violence, both verbal and physical, which causes us great sorrow.
We pray for the fulfillment of the vision of the Kotel as a place of worship and peace for the whole House of Israel.