Unity coalition bids to revive mixed gender prayer plan at Western Wall
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Unity coalition bids to revive mixed gender prayer plan at Western Wall

Plans for an enlarged egalitarian prayer space, widely supported by progressive Jews, were frozen by Benjamin Netanyahu

Michael Daventry is foreign editor of Jewish News

Women campaigners for egalitarianism at the Western Wall, pictured in 2017
Women campaigners for egalitarianism at the Western Wall, pictured in 2017

Plans to create a permanent mixed gender prayer space next to the Western Wall are set to be revived if Israel’s proposed unity government is sworn in next week.

The coalition agreement struck between opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett includes provisions to expand the small egalitarian prayer platform into a more permanent space.

Liberal streams of Judaism would be represented on a committee that would oversee the prayer space under the plans, which were frozen by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2016 under intense pressure from strictly-Orthodox parties.

A vote on the new government will take place in the Knesset on Sunday.

The present gender segregation in the main Western Wall Plaza would remain under its plan for the Kotel, but the existing temporary platform for egalitarian prayer at the southern end of the wall would double in size.

Another change would be in the way worshippers access the prayer spaces: the present physical separation of the egalitarian space is physically separated from the main plaza would end and all three prayer spaces share a common entrance.

The original plans, frozen five years ago, envisaged a larger mixed prayer space (blue) alongside the existing male and female spaces (purple). All three would use a common entrance (Photo: JTA)

The Times of Israel reported members of the new government were confident the plans could be implemented because Israel’s two strictly-Orthodox parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism, which are key allies of Netanyahu – would not be in the coalition.

Calls for more egalitarian prayer space have long been supported by diaspora Jews, especially in the United States, where many communities are progressive and oppose Orthodox rules on gender segregation and the ban on women wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall.

The existing mixed-gender prayer platform was described by Naftali Bennett, then minister of diaspora affairs, as a temporary arrangement when he opened it in 2014.

Bennett will become Israel’s next prime minister if the eight-party coalition deal receives a vote of confidence in the Knesset on Sunday.

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