Orthodox Diaspora delegation to lobby Bennett against Western Wall compromise – The Times of Israel

Posted By on February 23, 2022

A delegation of Diaspora Jewish leaders is set to meet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday to lobby against religious reforms, including a compromise at the Western Wall that is widely supported by Reform and Conservative Jews.

The group of around 45 people includes the executive leadership of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox umbrella group also known as Agudah. The trip was organized by Am Echad, an affiliate of Agudah that says it aims to unite Israeli and Diaspora Jewry around traditional heritage.

The group will deliver a petition to Bennett against the so-called Western Wall compromise with over 150,000 signatures from Diaspora Jews.

The compromise, long a point of contention between Israels government and Diaspora Jewry, would create a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Jerusalem holy site, with representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism sharing an oversight role.

Bennett and Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana decided to freeze plans to implement the compromise in December, amid violent confrontations at the holy site between ultra-Orthodox protesters and would-be reformers, and efforts by the right to use the as-yet unimplemented deal to fuel opposition to the government.

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The compromise is often framed as a dispute between Diaspora Jews and Israels establishment, but the Am Echad delegation seeks to show Israeli leadership that Orthodox Jews outside Israel also oppose any compromise at the Western Wall, also known as the Kotel.

Yaminas Naftali Bennett (R) and MK Matan Kahana in the Knesset on June 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Israeli government was turning to the Diaspora Jews for their opinion on how the Kotel should be set up, and the voices of the Reform and Conservative parties were very strong, and we felt that not everybody was being fairly represented, said Leah Zagelbaum, Agudahs vice president of communications, who is part of the delegation.

Am Echad launched its One Kotel campaign in early January to show Diaspora opposition to the compromise. The campaign started slowly, spreading by word of mouth, then took off on social media and chat groups. It spread in waves in Orthodox communities in the US, UK and elsewhere, reaching participants in 56 countries and hitting its goal of 150,000 signatures last week.

The campaign reached observant Jews who do not often use the internet by providing sign-up sheets in some synagogues and opening a phone line. It included outreach in Yiddish and other languages.

Participants signed up from across the religious spectrum, including Modern Orthodox, yeshivish and Hasidic groups, Zagelbaum said.

She said organizers vetted the submissions to check their authenticity by sorting and reviewing everything they received, checking for duplicates and suspicious submissions. The campaign portal display includes the names, locations and communities of the participants, many of whom were known to the organizers. Parents were able to sign for their children. Am Echad sponsored the campaign, and Agudah supervised it.

Women of the Wall dance with a Torah Scroll during a Rosh Hodesh service in the Western Wall plaza in 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The One Kotel project sent the letters it received to Bennett, but he has not yet responded. The organizers plan to hand deliver a version of the petition to him on Wednesday.

We plan to just present it to him in person so he sees exactly how strong and how large the community is that feels about this, Zagelbaum said.

For 150,000 people to all agree on one particular view, I think thats very, very significant. Im not denying that emotions run high on both sides, she said, stressing that the campaign was not meant to stoke tensions around the sensitive issue.

Its not to demand that anybody pray in a particular way. Reform Jews are welcome at the Kotel, she said.

The campaign is meant to ask that the Kotel plaza itself retain the standard of halachic prayer. Its not to impose anything on anybody else, she said.

The compromise arrangement, negotiated between Israel and Diaspora leaders over more than three years, was approved by the Benjamin Netanyahu-led government in 2016, but was indefinitely suspended by him in 2017, under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

Jewish men pray at the Western Wall, Judaisms holiest prayer site, in Jerusalems Old City, April 19, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Bennetts government initially supported the compromise, but backtracked, as protests at the Western Wall intensified and Netanyahus Likud partners used the move as ammunition against the coalition.

Secular party leaders in Bennetts coalition including Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Merav Michaeli (Labor) and Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) also voiced support for the compromise after the government took power last year. Implementing the compromise was an important condition in the centrist Blue and White partys agreement for joining the coalition.

In the coalition agreement that was signed in June, the parties wrote that they were committed to advancing the deal that was canceled by the Netanyahu government.

Labor lawmaker Gilad Kariv was tasked with implementing the plan and made it his focus in the Knesset. Kariv is an ordained Reform rabbi, the first to serve in the Knesset, and the director of the Reform movement in Israel.

Kahana, who is Modern Orthodox, has pushed forward other religious reforms as a minister, which have led to death threats against him and additional security.

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Orthodox Diaspora delegation to lobby Bennett against Western Wall compromise - The Times of Israel

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