By Jacqueline Hyman, opinion editor, @jacqbh58
The Israeli government approved a plan January 31 for the creation of a new egalitarian prayer space at the Robinson Arch area at the southern end of the Western Wall, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Many Jews around the world are excited about this decision, which will allow men and women to pray side-by-side, deeming it a “historic landmark” for non-Orthodox movements in Israel.
Freshman communications major Aliza Silverman said she was happy to hear that a new space will be provided. “I’m personally very excited about it, as someone who went to a synagogue growing up that was very egalitarian,” she said.
Rabbi Charlie Buckholtz said that he was relieved when he heard the news. “I wasn’t overjoyed, because it’s … a compromise, so it’s not ideal,” said Buckholtz, “but I think that for liberal groups, egalitarian groups, mixed groups, women’s prayer, to have their own space is progress.”
Silverman visited the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel, in summer 2014 when she traveled to Israel on a United Synagogue Youth trip in high school, aware of the laws separating men and women at the wall.
“I went and I prayed in the women’s section with the other girls on my trip, and … I definitely think I would’ve preferred having an egalitarian space,” Silverman said, “but at the time it didn’t bother me too much … just because I knew it was what existed for years.”
However, the agreement is a win for Women of the Wall, an organization that has been fighting for women to be allowed to read and kiss the Torah, as well as wear tallit and kippot at the Kotel. In the egalitarian space, women will be able to do so. There will also be a women-only section for women who would like to pray from the Torah while separated from men, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Buckholtz said he hopes the creation of the space help avoid conflicts, which have constantly arisen in response to the Women of the Wall. “For the government to create a space, a protected, legitimate space … to overrule all of the Orthodox authorities that have tried to prevent it from happening, it’s a big deal,” Buckholtz said. “At the same time, it’s a first step.”
Currently, the traditional prayer space is governed by Orthodox authorities, who opposed the decision, according to the New York Times. Silverman said she believes the new space should not affect the Orthodox community.
“I respect that not everyone agrees with it, but they don’t have to use it either,” said Silverman, an active member of Ometz, the Conservative group at Hillel. “They still have their space to pray separately.”
“I don’t have a problem with having a multiplicity of spaces for people to practice in different ways,” said Buckholtz, senior Jewish educator at Maryland Hillel. “I just think that the rules governing that should be equal and everyone should have a part in it.”
Both Silverman and Buckholtz said they believe American Jews will benefit from the new area. Silverman hopes to go to Israel this coming summer on a Birthright trip and said she would take advantage of it if possible. Buckholtz said he remembers his younger sister’s bat mitzvah, which took place in Israel.
“We couldn’t do it at the Kotel because my family is not Orthodox. They weren’t interested in submitting to Orthodox rules that they didn’t relate to,” Buckholtz said. “If there had been that space, we probably would’ve had her bat mitzvah there.”
Silverman said she hopes Ometz will discuss the new prayer space in the future. “As an egalitarian community, I feel like we should encourage people who enjoy that to take advantage of it being there,” she said.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the plan a “fair and creative solution,” Buckholtz said he does not believe this plan is the “be-all and end-all by any means.” He said he hopes high demand for the prayer space spurs further action toward even greater equality.
“I think that everyone should have the ability to practice in the way that they are comfortable with and feel connected to,” said Buckholtz, who considers himself a pluralist. “I just don’t think any one of them should be able to make decisions for the others.”