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Sharansky’s Kotel plan loses support from both sides

by Ben Sales, JTA

April 30, 2013 | 9:38 am

Natan Sharansky, shown at a 2011 conference in Jerusalem, has lost endorsements for his Western Wall proposal from the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Natan Sharansky, shown at a 2011 conference in Jerusalem, has lost endorsements for his Western Wall proposal from the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Natan Sharansky’s proposal to reduce tensions at the Western Wall has lost support from Orthodox and non-Orthodox leaders.

After Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, made the plan public a few weeks ago, it received at least tacit approval from a range of activists, including the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz.

The plan would expand the egalitarian section of the Western Wall Plaza -- called Robinson’s Arch -- and create a unified entrance to the wall’s traditional and egalitarian sections. It was meant as a compromise between haredi Orthodox leaders who wanted to maintain exclusive control of the site and religious pluralism activists who wanted it opened to egalitarian prayer.

But now, prominent figures on both sides of the issue have withdrawn their endorsements.

Following a court decision last week which ruled that women's prayer in the existing women's section of the Western Wall did not contravene the law, Anat Hoffman, the chairman of the women's prayer group Women of the Wall, withdrew her earlier support for the compromise, saying it is “not relevant to our needs.”

Meanwhile, Rabinowitz’s office released a statement last week saying that Orthodox leaders needed to consider whether to oppose the solution. Rabinowitz had said earlier he could live it.

“We must, along with the Chief Rabbinate and other great rabbis, examine if we should oppose the proposal referring to Robinson's Arch, which is not part of the Western Wall synagogue, if this would be a solution acceptable to everyone,” the statement said.

Sharansky had formulated the compromise in large part because of the controversy surrounding Women of the Wall, whose members have been arrested or detained nearly every month for wearing prayer shawls at the wall – a practice that violates Israeli law requiring respect for “local custom” at the site.

Protests over the arrests from Jewish communities outside Israel led Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ask Sharansky to formulate a compromise.

Hoffman told JTA that last week's ruling “allows Women of the Wall to pray how we always wished – with women of all denominations in the women’s section, with our prayer shawls and Torah and shofar.”

“We have three options: to reject Sharansky’s plan, to embrace Sharansky’s plan or to say that right now it is not relevant for Women of the Wall,” Hoffman told JTA. “It’s completely not relevant for us. Our victory in court means that our place is safe.”

Hoffman noted that the specifics of the plan have not yet been revealed and when the plan will be implemented remains unclear. She added that her group includes Orthodox women who would object to praying at an egalitarian prayer space.

“As a group that is multidenominational, we want to be sensitive to every member of our group,” she said.

Neither Rabinowitz nor Sharansky could be reached for immediate comment.

Women of the Wall will meet on Friday, May 10 for their monthly service. The group has announced that, following the court decision, a member would read from the Torah in the women’s section – which the group has not done for a decade.

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