Sharansky in N.Y. offers plan for egalitarian prayer site at Western Wall

NEW YORK (JTA) – Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky presented a plan to Jewish leaders in New York calling for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.

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The proposal, first reported by the Forward on Tuesday, would create a separate space south of the main plaza where non-Orthodox Jews of both genders would be allowed to recite prayers together.

Sharansky in a short statement released after the meeting did not divulge details of his plan. The statement called for Jewish unity.

“One Western Wall for one Jewish people,” Sharansky said. “In this way, the Kotel will once again be a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife.”

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, who attended the meeting, did not go into detail about Sharansky’s proposal, saying it had yet to be presented to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for approval.

“I’d love to share but the process is that we create tables to have discussions and debates,” he told JTA.

“Sharansky’s statement is clear. He states there should be one Kotel,” Silverman said, using the Hebrew name for the sacred Jewish site.

Women’s prayer at the Western Wall has been a contentious issue for years. Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center and head of Women of the Wall, has led a campaign aimed at permitting women to recite prayers in a quorum there.

Orthodox groups have vigorously opposed such an accommodation, saying it constitutes a violation of Jewish law.

Sharansky’s proposal would turn an archaeological site adjacent to the main plaza near the ancient Robinson Arch into a space where egalitarian prayer would be permitted. The plaza would be expanded to encompass the additional prayer space at the site, which is the southern part of the Western Wall.

The proposal is expected to encounter stiff opposition from Orthodox groups. Islamic groups like the Waqf, the religious body overseeing the nearby Al Aksa mosque, the third holiest site to Islam, also may come out against the proposal.

Initial responses from non-Orthodox Jewish leaders mostly supported Sharansky’s idea.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told The New York Jewish Week that the initiative represented a signifcant step toward “respecting and protecting the rights of non-Orthodox Jews.”

Hoffman was quoted by the Forward as saying the plan was not “everything we were hoping for” but still “a dramatic change, and it will make history.”

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