US, Israel Jewish leaders demand right to pray in Jerusalem
JERUSALEM (AP) — The president of America’s Union for Reform Judaism blasted the Israeli government Monday for delaying a plan to give liberal Jews a special space to pray at a Jerusalem holy site, and vowed to escalate his movement’s struggle with public demonstrations and legal action.
“For this government agreement to collapse would be the signal of a real rupture of the North American-Israel relationship,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs.
The liberal Reform Movement is the largest American stream of Judaism, claiming to represent 1.5 million people. Reform congregations hold mixed-gender prayers, employ female rabbis and have members who drive to synagogue on the Sabbath - all customs that go against Orthodox tradition.
Reform synagogues are common in the United States but the movement is marginal in Israel.
In January Israel announced it would enlarge and officially recognize a special mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The wall, believed to be a retaining wall of the Second Temple, is the holiest place where Jews can pray. Leaders of liberal streams of Judaism in Israel and the U.S. negotiated with Israeli authorities for three years to obtain the agreement.
Yet the plan to expand the egalitarian space has stalled since. The Western Wall is managed by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who opposes Reform customs on the holy site.
In the meantime, Reform Jews have increased their prayer services near the traditional prayer plaza of the Western Wall, against the objections of the site’s rabbi. Hecklers have attacked activists as they prayed. Last week, an ultra-Orthodox man tore apart a prayer book belonging to an activist with Women of the Wall, a group demanding gender equality at the site.
In a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jacobs and leaders of American and Israeli Reform and Conservative movements said the current situation was “unjust and insulting.” They announced they would file suit in Israel’s Supreme Court and demand a third, egalitarian prayer space at the traditional Western Wall plaza, where today men and women pray separately. This space would be in the central prayer site, whereas the egalitarian space outlined in January would be a short distance away.