Imagine a place that is the holiest spot on earth for the Jewish people.
Now imagine a place where peaceful worshippers are pushed and shoved, stones are thrown at them, and they are insulted, spit upon, and cursed
Sadly, the Western Wall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem — in Hebrew, the Kotel — fits both these descriptions. For literally decades, fruitless efforts have been made by women and the Reform and Conservative movements to remedy this situation, but to no avail. Even the decision of the Israeli government on January 31, 2016, which endorsed a compromise agreement that would have permitted women and Reform and Conservative Jews to pray at Robinson’s Arch, a somewhat removed section of the Western Wall, has been frustrated.
The Minister of Religious Affairs refuses to issue the needed regulation, and the Israeli government has done nothing to enforce its decision.
During a recent trip we took to Israel to see our daughter and her family, who live in Modi’in, my son-in-law described to my wife and me how he was pushed, shoved, and abused by ultra-Orthodox men when he tried to pray at the Wall with a group of other Reform and Conservative Jews. Fortunately, he was not hurt. Next time he may not be so fortunate.
His experience brought back memories of what happened to me in 1996, when I was harassed at the Wall as I quietly tried to do a drawing of it on a Shabbat afternoon. As an American Reform Jew, accustomed to freedom of religion, I was deeply offended when I was forced to obey someone else’s interpretation of Judaism, especially in a holy place that should be welcoming to all Jews, whatever their beliefs.
In December of last year, Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, of which I am a member, wrote to Prime Minister Netanyahu to express our concern about the situation at the Kotel. The letter very respectfully pointed out that the Kotel was built more than 1,000 years ago, is sacred to all Jews, and as our common heritage does not and cannot belong to any one sect or subgroup within the Jewish people; that it was recovered in the Six Day War in 1967 through the bravery and the blood and sacrifice of soldiers who represented all branches of and approaches to Judaism; that the Israeli government, as steward of the site, has an obligation to insure undisturbed access to all who wish to worship there in peace, and that the government’s failure to do so will damage Israel’s reputation for religious freedom and respect for the rule of law and will undermine the support of the diaspora community.
In January, Congregation Adas Emuno received a reply from the Prime Minister’s Bureau. It said that “The Western Wall is indeed the beating heart of the Jewish people…,” that Prime Minister Netanyahu “… is still committed to finding a solution to prayer arrangements at the site,” but that “…recent steps taken by all parties have made reaching a solution more difficult than it already was.” There was no explanation as to what those “recent steps” were. My Israeli relatives inform me that they know of no such recent steps, and people I have contacted within the leadership of the Reform movement also do not know of any.
A recent survey by the American Jewish Committee and the Jerusalem Post determined that 70 percent of American Jews are in favor of an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. It is high time that the Jewish people’s holiest spot on earth becomes a welcoming place for all Jews, irrespective of their gender or denominational affiliation, and that the Israeli government implements the Robinson Arch agreement and protects all peaceful worshippers from interference with their God-given right to worship as they see fit.
Only then will this holiest of sites cease to be a place of discord and division and again become a place of unity and peace for the entire House of Israel.
Norman Rosen is a retired lawyer and a trustee of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia. He and his wife, Joan, live in Englewood.