Most Israelis are not concerned with the Western Wall issue — a sad truth that a group of WIF alumni, of varied Jewish denominations, decided to tackle. Deeply worried about the Israeli public’s lack of engagement with the collapse of the Western Wall Compromise and the Conversion Law, a spontaneous interest group — initiated by WIF Alum Einat Hurvitz (Class 26) — formed during our recent 2017 Summer Institute, hoping to influence the ongoing events.
We decided that prior to any action we need to understand the issues more deeply and experience firsthand the layout of the Western Wall, the points of view of the stakeholders and their actual positions.
On a sweltering Friday morning in July, some 25 Wexner Israel Fellowship alumni gathered at the entrance to the Western Wall Tunnels. Prof. Ronen Beeri (transparent disclosure: my spouse, who, as a lay leader, heads the steering committee of the Israeli Religious Action Center (IRAC), the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel) organized a fact-finding trip to help us understand the layout of the controversy.
We began our day deep in the heart of the tunnels, ensconced in the hall closest to the holiest site in the Temple Mount. For some of us, this was the first time visiting the site, a fact that goes a long way to show how Israelis, even engaged ones, are detached from the tangible geography of the place. Einat Hurwitz, formerly head of the legal department at IRAC, began with a detailed historical overview of the 30-plus year struggle to allow pluralistic prayer at the wall.
We then met Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites, for a frank and open discussion of his view on the matter. To Rabbi Rabinowitz, an eloquent and warm-spoken advocate of the status quo, the outcry around women’s prayer, not to mention egalitarian prayer, is a negligible issue driven by a loud-mouthed minority. Though quite careful to avoid referring to the Women of the Wall question as a Halacha issue, Rabbi Rabinowitz emphasized that the custom (minhag) of the place must not be changed, and hinted that changing the status quo would create a precedent that could also open the door to the proponents of changes to the long accepted prohibition for Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. As recent events show, tensions are so high that even the slightest imbalance of control could light up the powder keg which is Jerusalem.
We left the cool depths of the awe-inspiring tunnels and emerged to the shocking heat of the over-ground plaza in front of the Western Wall to meet Anat Hoffman, who for more than 28 years has led the Women of the Wall movement in their monthly prayer in the Women’s section. She showed us the way to Ezrat Yisrael, the designated egalitarian section south of the well-recognized sectioned plaza, and we could see how hidden and obscure is the entrance, and how inaccessible for people with mobility issues. Rabbi Rabinowitz refuses to allow proper signage, which would have been included in the proposed agreement.
Anat Hoffman led us to the wooden platform eerily perched above huge boulders, as if the destruction, and the senseless hate which allegedly brought it, just happened yesterday. She explained the present and proposed future planned area would carefully avoid disrupting the archaeological findings while also creating a welcoming, accessible space for all comers. According to Ms. Hoffman, what perturbed Rabbi Rabinowitz, who was never opposed to the creation of the egalitarian space, is the fact that the platform is some 25 meters below the existing public plaza, a fact that could create a hazardous situation in which people could look up and see under women’s skirts. She also disagreed with the numbers Rabbi Rabinowitz quoted regarding the numbers of visitors to the space, the money allotted for construction and other figures. We were astounded to learn that in the quarter-century of their existence, the Western Wall Rabbi has continuously refused to meet the Women of the Wall, going as far as to quote a phrase which could be interpreted as calling them prostitutes.
As we were talking we could see heavily armed SWAT teams gathering nearby in preparedness for disruptions following Friday Prayers at Al Aqsa — as if to remind us that the internal Jewish strife is but one of the rifts quaking this volatile area. We concluded our day at the Jerusalem Intercultural Center. Surrounded by a beautiful garden, the center serves as a space for dialogue between the many different groups in Jerusalem and promotes cultural tolerance. There we had the chance to delve deep into the discussion and understand how profoundly difficult it was to reach the Western Wall Agreement and how frustrating it is for the stakeholders to understand that just as an accord and a solution no one would applaud but all could live with was about to happen, it is coming apart. According to Ms. Hoffman, there were three major changes which the agreement would have confirmed: one joint, respectable entrance to the Western Wall perimeter which would have had three clearly signed areas, a kind of trichitza, with entrances for men only, women only and everyone; the establishment of an administration committee to run the new area; and the transfer of the oversight of the “traditional ” wall to Orthodox administration.
As we went home to welcome Shabbat, the hourly news broadcast which punctuates Israelis’ lives blurted heated headlines of impending government officials’ corruption accusations, reports on Hamas, Hizbollah, Isis and Al Qaeda and a debate over the allowances for people with disabilities. A question rose up for our alumni group, trying to be more sensitive to the concerns of our North American brothers: How can we make room with everything else going on here, room in people’s hearts and minds for the fight over the Western Wall and the potential damage of our connection to our brothers and sisters overseas?
In my own shul, as the setting sun lights the Jerusalem stone in pinkish hues, we sing Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from?” And I realize it is to ourselves that we need to look to find the strength and resolve to make our fellow Israelis rally and pay attention to an issue which threatens to drive a wedge between Israel and the rest of the Jewish world.
Maurit Beeri, MD is a Wexner Israel Fellowship Alum (Class 20) and serves as Director General of the Alyn Pediatric and Adolescent Rehabilitation Center in Jerusalem. On the clinical side, she heads the Multidisciplinary Clinic for Infants and Children with Feeding Disorders. Dr. Beeri graduated from medical school and trained as a pediatrician at Hebrew University Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. Maurit is involved in promoting the concept of Cultural Competency in Health, an approach which made Alyn Jerusalem the first culturally competent hospital in Israel and has been adapted on a national level. She is also involved in various health and social initiatives to promote the care and rights of children with special needs, including the Early Intervention Coalition, which represents over 60 organizations and associations for children with special needs. Maurit can be reached at email@example.com.