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Ahead of High Holidays, Bennett unveils new platform for egalitarian prayer

Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman gestures toward a new platform built for egalitarian prayer at Robinson's Arch. (JTA/Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman gestures toward a new platform built for egalitarian prayer at Robinson’s Arch. (JTA/Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Israel’s religious services minister, Naftali Bennett, has unveiled a temporary platform for non-Orthodox prayer at Robinson’s Arch, the archaeological site adjacent to the Western Wall plaza used by egalitarian groups.

The platform, which will include Torah scrolls, prayer books and prayer shawls and be open at all hours, does not reach the Western Wall itself. A ramp leads from the 4,800-square-foot platform to a smaller area adjacent to the wall.

Bennett’s office described the new platform “as an interim but primary place of worship for Jewish egalitarian and pluralistic prayer services.”

“The Kotel belongs to all Jews no matter who they are and what stream of Judaism they come from,” Bennett said. “This new platform, built ahead of Rosh Hashanah, will help unify the Jewish people and enable all Jews to pray freely at the Kotel.”

The new platform was unveiled as face-offs continued at Judaism’s holiest site between haredi protesters and the feminist group Women of the Wall, which conducts a monthly service at the women’s section of the Western Wall Plaza.

The women’s group has fought for the right to wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah at the wall, which the haredi Orthodox consider a provocation and an infringement on their religious rights. Egalitarian prayer, in which men and women participate equally, is permitted only at Robinson’s Arch.

Following several arrests of Women of the Wall members, a compromise solution developed by Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky was promised by the government last December. A detailed version of the plan is due out this week.

In the meantime, the fight has been a distraction for the government, sparking a conflict between Bennett, who favors reserving the main Western Wall Plaza for Orthodox prayer, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who supports Women of the Wall. Bennett hopes to institute a legal statute restricting the plaza to Orthodox prayer, but such a statute would require Livni’s approval.

Under the terms of Sharansky’s plan, first reported in April, the Robinson’s Arch area would be expanded and a unified entrance built offering access to both traditional and egalitarian places for worship.

Sharansky welcomed the temporary platform as “a gesture of goodwill.”

The months since the plan’s broad outline was revealed have seen increased haredi Orthodox protests at Women of the Wall’s monthly gatherings. In addition, a judge determined in April that the women’s group’s activities did not contravene a law prohibiting deviation from the wall’s “local custom.”

Since the ruling, no women have been arrested and the group has prayed with police protection in the Western Wall Plaza.

Given its legal victory, Women of the Wall considers the platform a step backward. The group released a statement Sunday calling it “the very definition of separate, and not nearly close to equal.”

“The plan will effectively exile women and all Jews who pray in a way that is not ultra-Orthodox tradition to Robinson’s Arch and away from the area of the Western Wall where Jews have prayed for generations,” the statement read.

American liberal Jewish groups were more reserved in their judgments. The Union for Reform Judaism called the platform “at best, a very small step forward in the implementation of the full plan for full Jewish equality at the Kotel.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, told JTA that the plan leaves several key questions unanswered.

“A temporary platform does not in any way sway us from our struggle for full religious equality,” Schonfeld told JTA. “If the temporary platform makes prayer easier and better for more worshipers at Robinson’s Arch, that is positive.”