|Photo by: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90|
By DANIEL K. EISENBUD
"We must not fight to see how we can defeat each other, we must fight to see how we can be one people," says Sharansky.
Following a carnival-like atmosphere outside Jerusalem’s City Hall Tuesday afternoon – featuring costumed stilt-walkers, dancers, protesters and impassioned speeches from political leaders – hundreds of delegates from the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) marched to the egalitarian section of the Western Wall to pray as one.
Although Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky spoke of the sanctity of Jerusalem and the threat of Iran, the overriding theme of the GA’s closing ceremony was unquestionably Jewish unity at the Western Wall.
Indeed, speakers at the final gathering for the three-day event overwhelmingly framed the Western Wall as a primary symbol of the importance of ensuring Jews of all denominations are treated equally and with dignity at the holy site.
“The Kotel is the foundation of the Jewish people – it belongs to each of us and all of us,” said JFNA president and CEO Jerry Silverman, before introducing Barkat.
“Today I want us all to embrace Natan Sharansky’s bold, forward-thinking and pluralistic plan for shared use of the Kotel.”
As Barkat spoke of the importance of pluralism, a group of nearby protesters from the Jerusalem Foundation of Modern Democracy could be heard shouting their disapproval of the mayor’s coalition with Arieh King, chairman of the United Jerusalem Party, whom they called a racist for his divisive campaign for city council.
Several of the participants held placards reading “Save Jerusalem from the King” and shouted “We voted for Barkat, not the KKK!” Unfazed by the outburst, Barkat went on to describe Jerusalem as the “foundation of modern democracy” and emphasized the importance of tolerance here among different religious factions.
Sharansky echoed Barkat’s sentiments, adding that it was imperative to ensure the Western Wall served as “one Wall for one people.”
“The Kotel is about history and the connection to all Jewish people in the world,” he said. “The moment that is undermined, millions of people will become disconnected – and nobody wants that this connection is weakened.”
Sharansky then added: “Now, let’s go to the Kotel so everyone can pray and feel connected to Israel.”
As roughly 700 GA delegates marched to the Wall, several people expressed gratitude about finally being able to pray together at the holiest site for Judaism.
“I think this is a powerful ending to the conference and a meaningful way for Jews in the Diaspora to speak loudly in support of the Wall belonging to all Jews, regardless of the stream of Judaism they belong to,” said Michael Wise of Buffalo.
Stephen Kulp of Chicago said the egalitarian section made him “feel good about Jerusalem” by ceding power away from haredi dogma and what he deemed the disproportionate influence of the ultra-Orthodox.
“I can now go to the Wall and pray with my wife, which is the most important thing to me,” he said. “I’d rather have it like this than not at all.”
Still, not all the delegates expressed complete satisfaction over the compromise to make Robinson’s Arch, which sits dozens of meters away from where most Jews pray, the final destination for egalitarian prayer.
“The section is fine, but it’s not the same,” said Lili Kaufman of Tampa, Florida, while another participant said the removed location made him feel like a “second-class citizen.”
However, Kaufman’s friend Dorothy Wizer expressed pragmatism, saying she understood that the Western Wall served as a metaphor for “the bigger picture” of Jewish life and therefore required compromise.
“If moving over a little bit along the [Wall] makes for peace, then it’s fine with me,” she said. “We can’t continue fighting each other – we have enough enemies.”
After the group sang several prayers together as the sun set, leaving behind the light of an incandescent half moon, Sharansky conceded that Robinson’s Arch was not an ideal location for the egalitarian section but represented a “first step.”
“This is not what we dreamed of, but it is a beginning,” he said. “It’s very important that when people speak to God they speak in a way they are comfortable, and that’s the power of the Kotel – it’s long enough to include all our people.”
Noting the ongoing contentious impasse between the ultra-Orthodox community and Women of the Wall, who have been seeking egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, Sharansky said the incongruity of tradition and pluralism must not pit Jews against one other.
“The lesson from all of this is that we must not fight to see how we can defeat each other; we must fight to see how we can be one people,” he said.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said she viewed the egalitarian prayer space through a historical spectrum.
“For me, we are one Jewish family that has taken many different directions over many years to help the Jewish community thrive, and this is one of the most significant steps in helping us do it together,” she said. “We have multiple ways we seek to achieve [unity], but we must do it together.”
Meanwhile, Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, described Robinson’s Arch as an “interim step” in actualizing Sharansky’s vision of a more unified Western Wall.
“We’re waiting to see the prime minister’s next step,” he said. “If it is consistent with Sharanky’s plan, then it will be time to dance.”
Wernick added, “Now is the time to be grateful.”