The debate over who can pray where at the Kotel is especially salient for Americans who travel to Israel for simchas or synagogue tours.
Jill Rosen belongs to a Conservative synagogue and believes in a Judaism that reflects gender equality. But when it came time for her son Josh to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah in Israel last year, the family chose to hold the ceremony at the Western Wall.
It didn’t bother Rosen that she couldn’t receive an aliyah and had to stand on the other side of the mechitzah that divides Judaism’s holiest site into men’s and women’s sections as her son read from the Torah.
“When you are in the moment, experiencing this milestone, I didn’t experience the gender division around me,” said Rosen, who belongs to Temple Sinai in Dresher.
Beth Koren, on the other hand, didn’t consider a traditional service at the Kotel as an option for her family. On a 2005 trip organized by Congregation Beth Or, she watched her mother and son take part in a joint B’nai Mitzvah ceremony at Robinson’s Arch, the southernmost portion of the Western Wall that’s been legally open to egalitarian prayer since 1999.
Koren was so moved by what she termed that “amazingly powerful” experience that, three years later, she and her husband, Tedd, brought their daughter, Shayna, to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah in the same place.
Although the location felt somewhat “isolated” from the nearby Western Wall plaza, this realization didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for the experience.
With prayer at the Western Wall once again generating headlines — particularly in light of a recent proposal to enable egalitarian prayer there on a more equal footing — the focus tends to be on the Women of the Wall. The group, comprising women across the religious spectrum, has, since 1988, sought equal access to prayer at the Kotel, which currently bans women from wearing prayer shawls and reading from the Torah.
But the issue of who can pray where affects a broad swath of American Jewry, who may be less ideologically committed to the issue than members of Women of the Wall or their Orthodox opponents. The debate is especially salient when it comes to families holding simchas or congregations engaging in group prayer.
The Wall in many ways epitomizes the tension between Israel and the Diaspora over issues related to religious pluralism and what is perceived as the delegitimization of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel.
On the whole, American Jews have paid closer attention to the religious battles over the Kotel than most secular Israelis, who are more interested in fighting the Orthodox rabbinate’s control over marriage, divorce and burial in the state.
“The Kotel has millenia-old connections to the Jewish imagination,” said Rabbi Eric Yanoff, religious leader of Adath Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Merion Station.
The Kotel, which means simply “wall” in Hebrew, is the section of the Second Temple’s retaining wall that is closest to the place on the Temple Mount known as the Holy of Holies, where Jewish tradition holds that Abraham took his son Isaac to the sacrificial altar.
In the last two months, Yanoff has led two groups from his congregation to Israel. Engaging in group prayer in the vicinity of the Kotel is a must-do as far as he is concerned.
Though he considers Robinson’s Arch and other nearby spots meaningful places, he said he’s saddened that “we are not able to pray together on that same iconic plaza.”
The long-running debate on the status of the Kotel came to a head two weeks ago when Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, announced a compromise plan that has been endorsed as an imperfect but workable solution by both the Orthodox rabbi in charge of the wall and the Women of the Wall.
The plan involves expanding the Robinson’s Arch area, raising it to the level of the rest of the plaza and making it available for egalitarian worship 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given the project the OK.
If it does go through as envisioned, how will the implementation affect, if at all, the relationship that American Jews have with the Kotel?
Rabbi Andrew Sachs, a Philadelphia native who directs the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and was involved in the negotiations with Sharansky, thinks there is no question that more Conservative Jewish families and groups would have their simchas at the Kotel if the plan goes through.
He pointed out that the first year Robinson’s Arch was available, some 14 years ago, the Conservative movement arranged just a handful of services at the site. Last year, it handled more than 600 requests.
But for Sachs, the question about Americans having Bar Mitzvahs — or even women being allowed to read from the Torah there — is a secondary issue. More significant, he said, is whether the entire Kotel area is understood as a national site of the Jewish people or as an Orthodox synagogue.
The Sharansky plan, he said, “is putting the government and state on notice that the needs of the Jewish people now become the needs of the state.”
Larry Ritter, owner of the New Jersey-based Israel Tour Center, which runs Bar and Bat Mitzvah tours, said he doesn’t think the compromise “is going to have a huge impact on anybody.”
Most families booking their own Bar Mitzvah tours to Israel choose Masada as the ceremony site because of its importance to Jewish history, and he doesn’t expect this to change. Reform and Conservative synagogue groups, on the other hand, already overwhelmingly choose to go to Robinson’s Arch, he said.
Greg Jaron, a Lower Merion furniture store owner whose son Sam became a Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel in 2010, said that “as a parent, it is an emotional experience no matter where you have it.” Having it at the Kotel “certainly heightens spirituality and adds to the joyfulness of the day.”
In terms of pushing for gender equality at the Wall, Jaron, a member of Har Zion Temple who is also active in Chabad-Lubavitch of the Main Line, said, “Sometimes, I think we make an issue out of it because we feel it is not treating people fairly, as opposed to understanding what it comes from.”
Rosen, of Temple Sinai, said that she might have opted to have her son’s Israeli Bar Mitzvah in an egalitarian setting, but the family chose the Kotel in part to accommodate Orthodox Israeli family members.
While a proponent of gender equality, she believes that “when you go to Jerusalem, you take a step back into history.” She wonders if it might be best to leave historic practices in place.
But how historic is that tradition?
Separate sections were only instituted shortly after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, when Jerusalem’s Old City, where the Kotel is located, was reclaimed by the Jewish state.
Rabbi Barry Blum, religious leader of Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall, emphasized this point in a recent sermon. To spark discussion, he brought in a large print of a 1914 image showing men and women together at the Western Wall. He wanted to show that the area hasn’t always been segregated into men’s and women’s sections.
But Rabbi Yonah Gross, religious leader of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh, an Orthodox shul in Wynnewood, noted that prior to 1948, when the land was under Turkish and then British rule, Jews could congregate in the small enclosure but they weren’t free to treat the space like a synagogue.
Gross said he’s conflicted about the Sharansky compromise since he has two competing interests — the preservation of Jewish law and tradition and the unity of the Jewish people.
“It’s not complicated for me what should be in an ideal world,” Gross said, adding that Jewish law forbids mixed prayer and therefore having egalitarian services anywhere near Judaism’s holiest site is problematic.
Still, he applauded Sharansky for trying to come up with a realistic solution.
“Hopefully, the Kotel will no longer be a source of contention,” Gross said, wondering how having liberal and Orthodox sections of the Kotel will affect major holidays like Yom Kippur and Shavuot when thousands turn out. “I am somewhat saddened that the demonstration of unity that those occasions provided will be somewhat diminished.”
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism, has been one of Philadelphia’s most involved activists pushing for change on this issue.
Elwell visits Israel several times a year. She has often joined the Women of the Wall for their monthly services in the women’s section of the plaza and has been subject to harassment.
“To be heckled and not respected when one is at prayer is a horrible experience,” she said. “It is an indescribable kind of assault.”
While not “all I had hoped for,” Elwell called the deal “an important step toward a State of Israel that accepts and protects the rights of all Jews.”
Yanoff, of Adath Israel, said he, too, is heartened by the progress and plans to continue taking teens and adults to pray at Robinson’s Arch and other spots in the vicinity. But he’s not giving up on one day being able to lead a mixed service at the heart of the Western Wall plaza.
If Jews stop fighting for inclusion at the Wall, he said, “it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”