Israel freezes plan for mixed-sex Jewish prayer site at Western Wall

An Israeli official says the government has frozen a long-overdue plan to open a mixed- gender prayer area at Jerusalem's Western Wall.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center published in March 2016, more than half of American Jews identify themselves as either Reform or Conservative, while only about 10 percent observe Orthodox practices.

On Sunday, Sharansky, who was at the meeting in which Netanyahu announced his decision, said in a statement, "As chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, and on behalf of our partners, I must express my deep disappointment at today's decision by the government of Israel to suspend the implementation of its own decision to establish a dignified space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall".

In addition to today's cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted the ultra-Orthodox parties position to preserve the status quo in the Western Wall plaza and declared a freeze on the "outlines of the Western Wall". "The Women of the Wall will continue to worship at the women's section of the Western Wall with the Torah scroll, prayer shawls and phylacteries until equality for women arrives at the Wall as well".

On Sunday, he ordered top aides to formulate a new plan but said little more. "For two years we negotiated in good faith with the government", said Anat Hoffman, chair of the Women of the Wall group, which has pushed for egalitarian access to the wall.

American Jews, who have long lamented Israel should be as accepting of their religious practices as they are of their financial and political support, have been pushing for the new prayer area and had warned that if the deal did not go through it would lead to a risky rupture with North American Jewry.

More liberal streams of Judaism, which outside of Israel have larger followings than Orthodoxy, chafe at the restriction. Aiello divides her time between Calabria and the United States and is described on her website as "a spokesperson for Pluralistic Judaism - a movement that deliberately blurs denominational lines and extends the hand of Jewish welcome to Jews of all backgrounds". In parallel, the government also approved a freeze on the Western Wall plan, meaning that the situation in Western Wall Plaza will remain as is and any request to renew the plans will require another government decision.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, one of the few dissenting votes, said freezing the plan "represented a severe blow to the unity of the Jewish people, to various Jewish communities and to the relations between Israel and the Jewish diaspora". Israel's supreme court is expected to soon rule on a petition filed by more liberal religious movements to force the government to implement the decision to create the mixed prayer space.

"We all care deeply about Israel and we all see this as a distressing and dark day", Mr. Jacobs added.

"Today's decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world together increasingly more hard", Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a main outreach group to Jewish communities overseas.

AJC had hailed the compromise to allow egalitarian prayer at the sacred site in Jerusalem when it was first approved by the Israeli Cabinet in January 2016.

  • Leroy Wright