This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.
About a dozen women sit underneath a large Israeli flag at Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall. They’ve been here close to 24 hours, and are getting tired. They are members of Women of the Wall (WOW), a 25-year-old group of women from all denominations that wants equality for women at the Western Wall.
Currently the Western Wall is run as an Orthodox synagogue, meaning men and women are separated by a barrier called a mechitza. Women are not allowed to read aloud from the Torah, the scroll of the Old Testament, on their side.
This week, Israel’s Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, Naftali Bennett, inaugurated a large wooden desk as a prayer plaza for men and women to pray together, as is the custom in Conservative and Reform synagogues. In Israel, Conservative and Reform Jews are a small minority of Jews, while in the US, they are the vast majority.
“I have huge news for the Jewish world,” Bennet said in a youtube clip published by his office. “Today, for the first time ever, we’re opening at the Western Wall, a new “azhara” (prayer section). Until now, we had a men’s plaza and a women’s plaza, and today we have “azharat yisrael” open for families and for all of the people of Israel.”
The new plaza is at the nearby Robinson’s arch, an archaeological park. It is the continuation of the Western Wall, and the site has been used for the past few years by Reform and Conservative Jews for mixed prayer. In his youtube clip, Bennet says the site is “the direct continuation of the known Western Wall which is about 100 feet north.”
He said the site is free and open 24 hours a day. There are wooden tables and Torah scrolls available.
While some Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders cautiously welcomed the new prayer section, WOW’s chairperson Anat Hoffman was angry, calling the new site “the wall of misfits.”
“The Wall belongs to all Jews,” Hoffman told The Media Line. “You can’t take the keys to the holiest site of the Jewish people and hand it over to one extremist minority faction,” she said, referring to the Western Wall Foundation, which runs the site.
The Foundation was not available to comment.
WOW has battled for decades for women to be able to pray at the Western Wall wearing a prayer shawl and phylacteries usually worn by men, and reading from a Torah scroll. They have been cursed, spit at, kicked and punched by ultra-Orthodox Jews who disagree with their method of prayer. For the past two months, they’ve been unable to even get close to the wall, as thousands of young ultra-Orthodox girls heeded the call of their rabbis and filled the women’s side of the plaza at 5 a.m. so there was no room for the women to pray.
The group, many of them US-born Jews, has been battling for the right to pray they want for 25 years. A few months ago, a judge ruled the women can wear prayer shawls and phylacteries, but not read the Torah aloud. To do that, they have to go to Robinson’s Arch.
Some of the women say the new plaza will not meet their needs.
“I am an Orthodox woman and I can’t pray without a mechitza (the barrier that separates men and women,” Ella Kedar told The Media Line. “It is not a good solution for me.”
Israeli officials insist this is only a temporary compromise and discussions will continue to find a more permanent solution. WOW members worry that the court ruling granting them permission to pray aloud wearing prayer shawls could be rescinded now that the $80,000 platform has been finished.
“It looks like a sunbathing deck,” Hoffman told The Media Line. “We refuse to accept this misfit wall for misfit people.”
Ella Kedar, her hair wrapped in a green scarf according to the laws of modesty says she wants to pray at the Western Wall.
“The real kotel is right here,” she said, using the Hebrew name for the site. “In this place are the prayers of our mothers and grandmothers. There’s energy here.”
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