September 25, 2009
by HAVIV RETTIG GUR
The Western Wall's Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz and Jewish Agency officials have blasted critics from the Israeli Reform Movement, saying that their claim that agency events at the holy site could be canceled due to forced gender separation were false.
The rabbi, who heads the Western Wall Heritage Foundation that administers the holy site, said Wednesday that the claims were "just not the reality of the situation."
The Reform Movement's Paula Edelstein, a lay leader of the Jewish Agency's Immigration and Absorption Committee, told Haaretz on Tuesday that the "Western Wall administration demanded the agency separate men and women at the ceremonies. It also demanded no ceremonies be hosted by women, and that the events must take place even further from the prayer area, on the pedestrian route across the [Wall's main] plaza," according to the article by Yair Ettinger.
Edelstein told The Jerusalem Post that this demand for segregation was new and was part of the "creeping insistence of haredim on separation in the public sphere."
But according to Rabinovitz and Jewish Agency officials alike, this claim did not reflect the reality on the ground.
In recent years, Rabinovitz told the Post, many groups have sought to conduct events and ceremonies at the Wall, "practically turning it into an event hall."
"Now, none of us want to show up at the Kotel and have to listen to some politicians, or even to the Kotel rabbi, blasting on a loudspeaker," he explained.
So the Kotel administration decided that henceforth, no non-prayer events - "not for the Orthodox and not for anybody else" - could be held at the site, with the sole exception of national events traditionally held there, such as the IDF's swearing-in ceremonies and the national Memorial Day service.
To get approval for the aliya ceremonies this summer, "the Jewish Agency presented these olim ceremonies as prayer events," said Rabinovitz.
After a few such events were held, one of which saw excited Ethiopian olim break into a traditional mixed-gender dance, Rabinovitz approached agency officials and noted that the events were not being conducted as prayer services.
If they were, he said, they had to be gender-separated as per a High Court of Justice ruling that reserved the main plaza for gender-separate services and the Robinson's Arch section of the Western Wall for mixed-gender services.
This was not a new effort at taking control of the public sphere, he said, but a request to abide by existing Kotel regulations related to such events.
Senior Jewish Agency officials on Thursday agreed with Rabinovitz's account, saying he had shown great flexibility when, a short time after his complaint, he had reached a compromise with the agency's Immigration and Absorption Committee director-general Eli Cohen: The events could still be held at the site, but at the far end of the plaza from the Western Wall itself.
"He bent his rules for us," said one official.
Agency officials said that contrary to the Haaretz report, there were no plans to cancel future events, and that they were continuing with full and close cooperation between the agency and Rabinovitz.
The Haaretz report has been widely publicized by the Israeli Reform Movement, including on the Web site of its Israel Religious Action Center and on Facebook.
Edelstein declined to comment on Rabinovitz's complaint.