Women of the Wall demand right to read from Torah at Kotel, pending new prayer space

The Women of the Wall will insist on continuing to pray at the women’s section of the Kotel and will demand that the restrictions preventing them from reading from the Torah scroll in this space be lifted, until a new egalitarian prayer space has been constructed at the Western Wall that fulfills all its requirements.

This was one of the key conditions spelled out on Monday morning by Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, for eventually moving the prayer group’s monthly prayer service out of the women’s section and to the new mixed space.

Regulations initiated and enforced by the Kotel rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, have until now prevented Women of the Wall from bringing their own Torah scroll into the women’s section – despite the fact that Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel ruled earlier this year that for women to read from the Torah in the women’s section is not a violation of local custom.

Women of the Wall are also demanding that in the meanwhile, so long as they continue praying in the women’s section and until the new space is completed to their liking, the government take firm action to put an end to continued demonstrations against them each month by ultra-Orthodox men and women and prohibit the use of loudspeakers at the Kotel to drown out their prayers.

Women of the Wall plan to hold a special Rosh Chodesh prayer service commemorating the 25th anniversary on November 4 in the women’s prayer section. More than 400 women from Israel and abroad will be attending the service.

Before submitting Women of the Wall’s list of demands to Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit on Monday morning, Hoffman presented them at a press conference in Jerusalem. Mandelblit heads a government committee that is putting together recommendations to resolve the ongoing controversy over prayer at the Western Wall. His committee is expected to recommend creating a new egalitarian space on the other side of the Mughrabi Bridge – in line with the proposal initiated by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.

Hoffman has come under attack from members of her own organization for expressing willingness to compromise with the government and abandon the women’s section after 25 years of praying there. Dissidents in the organization, many of them American women who helped found Women of the Wall, have said they will continue to pray in the women’s section even if the government accepts all the group’s demands.

The following is a list of the demands presented to the Mandelblit committee:

• As reported in Haaretz earlier, Women of the Wall demand that control over the upper plaza of the Kotel (the area just above the segregated prayer spaces) be wrested from the hands of the Western Wall rabbi and be transferred to a new authority that will also administer the egalitarian space. This would restrict the authority of the Kotel rabbi to the men’s and women’s sections only.

• The new egalitarian space will need to accommodate at least 500 women and provide for direct physical contact with the Western Wall. It should be at the same level as the existing women’s prayer section and a natural extension of it.

• The new space should be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Entrance should be free of charge without the need to book the area in advance.

• The new space will be renamed to include the word “Kotel” in it. Instead of being called “Ezrat Yisrael,” it will be called “the Kotel – Ezrat Yisrael.”

• Half of the members of the authority administering the new space will be women, including members of Women of the Wall.

• The authority administering the new space will receive at least the same level of government funding as the Orthodox-run Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which today administers the entire area of the Kotel.

• The government will take active measures to refer visitors from abroad, school children, soldiers and visiting dignitaries to the new space. It will also hold official ceremonies there.

• Women of the Wall will participate in designing the new space to ensure that those women who wish to prayer together, and not as part of a mixed service, have the means to do so, and that individuals with disabilities are provided with convenient access to the area.

• A sign will be displayed at the Western Wall commemorating its conquest by Israeli army paratroopers in 1967.

• The authorities administering the different prayer spaces at the Western Wall will hold joint meetings six times a year.