Prayer wall solution eludes Israelis

New plaza allowing men, women to mix ignites divisions

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JERUSALEM -- Trying to calm months of intense wrangling over the Western Wall, Israeli officials on Sunday unveiled a new plaza where men and women can pray together. But the move was immediately denounced as discriminatory by the main group that has protested the rules at the holy site.

Naftali Bennett, Israel's minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs, said the new plaza, in an archaeological park known as Robinson's Arch, was an interim solution until a more comprehensive -- and contentious -- plan for a mixed prayer section could overcome bureaucratic hurdles and opposition from archaeologists, ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Muslim authorities. Built for about $80,000, the 4,800-square-foot platform is a "compromise," Mr. Bennett said, whose "goal is to unify all the walks of Jewish life."

Instead, the announcement ignited new divisions.

Leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism offered cautious praise, while Women of the Wall, the group whose monthly prayer sessions have prompted arrests and mass demonstrations over the past year, started a 24-hour sit-in to protest it.

The prime minister's office distanced itself from the new plaza, releasing a statement saying the government had yet to reach a decision on the matter.

Anat Hoffman, the leader of Women of the Wall, called Mr. Bennett's new plaza a "monstrosity" that "looks like a sunbathing deck" or a "rock-star stage." She said she would continue to push for access to the women's section of the main area.

As the sun fell Sunday, she and about a dozen supporters chanted the afternoon prayer under an Israeli flag near the Western Wall, then settled in with study materials for a long night.

"They've taken the keys to the holiest site and just given them to one extremist group that uses violence," said Ms. Hoffman, referring to the ultra-Orthodox, who in recent months have shouted and spat at the women's group. "We have to be vigilant and fight for every centimeter. We are equal."

The struggle over prayer at the wall is one of many battles about religious practice and identity roiling Israel, and it has attracted much attention from Jewish leaders abroad.

A remnant of the retaining wall of the ancient Temple, the Western Wall is one of Judaism's most sacred sites, and since Israel wrested it from Jordanian control in 1967, it has been a pilgrimage site for foreign tourists and a place for the daily prayers of thousands of Orthodox Israelis.

It is governed by ultra-Orthodox rabbis, with prayer areas segregated by sex, and women are required to dress modestly and refrain from singing aloud. Since the late 1990s, mixed prayer has been allowed at Robinson's Arch, by appointment, during limited hours and for a fee.

After 25 years in which legislation and legal rulings barred women from wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries at the site, the activist group won a court victory this spring allowing members to pray as they wish. Over the past several months, thousands of ultra-Orthodox young people have crammed the site to prevent the women from using it, creating a new set of problems.

As outrage among American and other international Jews mounted, Israel's prime minister asked Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, to find a solution. Mr. Sharansky proposed a new mixed prayer area adjacent to the women's section and accessible from the main entrance, unlike the current Robinson's Arch.

He also spoke about changes to the main plaza behind the current prayer area, and a governing body for the mixed area that would include non-Orthodox leaders.

The plaza Mr. Bennett unveiled Sunday sits atop scaffolding but remains several dozen feet below the main Western Wall area.

To get there, visitors must wind their way through an archaeological park and up and down many stairs. Equipped with Torah scrolls and tables, prayer shawls and prayer books, it is open around the clock, for free, just like the main site.

"If it is, as is suggested, a temporary step on the longer journey toward the transformative plan, then it's a very nice step," said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. "But it's a very, very small step -- very modest."

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, described the move as "important steps forward," adding, "Unfortunately, the interim solution is not going to satisfy everybody."

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