September 25, 2009
By Cnaan Liphshiz
Plans to separate new immigrants according to sex at Jewish Agency ceremonies near Jerusalem's Western Wall would both discriminate against the new arrivals and go against their preference, according to immigration-assistance officials.
"The army holds mixed ceremonies there all the time, so any decision cannot single out immigrants," said Dorron Kline, Director of Project Development for the South African Zionist Federation Israel, (Telfed). The organization regularly helps the Jewish Agency put together welcoming ceremonies for South Africans near the Wall. Kline was reacting to a report by Haaretz this week that the Jewish Agency is considering halting ceremonies granting identity cards to new immigrants at the Western Wall plaza after the rabbi of the wall said the immigrants must be segregated by gender at the Old City site.
It remains unclear whether the next Jewish Agency ceremony scheduled for next month will be separated or mixed.
Against their wishes
Most immigrants who attend welcoming ceremonies at the Western Wall do not wish to be separated there from members of the opposite sex, Kline added. "The idea of separating into men and women is alien to most new immigrants, who are used to different levels of observance and it's probably a good idea to let them breathe a bit during their first hours in Israel."
Michael Jankelovitz, a spokesperson for the Jewish Agency, said the organization had a "standing agreement" with the wall's rabbi, Shmuel Rabinovitch, that states that ceremonies can be mixed, and that this agreement will also apply on the next welcoming ceremony for South Africans scheduled for October 14.
However, Paula Edelstein, chairwoman of the immigration and absorption committee at the Jewish Agency, told Anglo File that Rabbi Rabinovitch has for the first time demanded that men and women be seated apart during the ceremony. The Rabbi could not be reached for a reaction, but his office did acknowledge that there is a directive to separate sexes at ceremonies held in the Kotel plaza whenever possible.
"At this point, it's not entirely sure what the ceremony will look like," she said. Edelstein said the Agency was considering stopping the ceremonies at the Western Wall and noted that it moved a ceremony honoring Russian immigrants in July to the Mount Scopus amphitheater of the Hebrew University.
Jankelovitz said the decision to hold the ceremony at Mount Scopus was taken because of "security considerations" and because the event was for 600 people, as opposed to events to welcome immigrants, held for a few dozen people.
Edelstein, who immigrated to Israel from the U.S. in 1972, is a member of the Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, which supports allowing women rabbis to pray at the Wall aloud while wearing prayer shawls.
One source familiar with the inner politics of the Jewish Agency said some people suspected that Edelstein had brought up the separation issue "to make headlines" and to "appear relevant" in the Movement. The source added that the responsibilities of committee chairpersons at the Jewish Agency have recently taken a cut.
A wider context
Edelstein strongly denied this, pointing out that in her 12 years in office with the Jewish Agency, she has not spoken often to the media on the subject. "My comments about the ceremony at the Wall were made in a wider context, which was the creeping trend of separation in Jerusalem - in buses, at the Wall and elsewhere. I am not focusing on the Wall, my issue is with separation in general," she said.
Kline from Telfed said the Wall issue has been "brewing" for a long time. "In past ceremonies, there would be an announcement that the rabbi of the wall asks that men and women be seated separately," he recalls.
"Most ignore the announcement and decide they want to be with their families having just made aliyah. So both sides would speak their mind and that would be that."
According to Kline, the next ceremony on October 14 "will probably be the same way, after all sides have had a chance to talk to each other and come back to their earlier understandings."
A spokesperson for the immigration-assistance group Nefesh B'Nefesh, which is responsible along with the Jewish Agency for immigration from North America and the U.K., said her organization was not involved in ceremonies in Jerusalem and declined to comment on the subject.
The Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel also declined to comment.