This past week the leaders of the Israeli and American Reform and Conservative movements and Women of the Wall met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jewish Agency Director Natan Sharansky to emphasize how frustrated North American and Israeli non-Orthodox Jewry, including Women of the Wall, are with the delay in moving forward on constructing an egalitarian prayer space at the Southern Kotel Plaza following the January government agreement with all parties including the Chief Rabbi of the Wall that this would occur.

As the story below in the Forward indicates, the PM is committed to this plan, but the ultra-Orthodox members of his government want a renegotiation of the agreement they already signed only five months ago.

This is first and foremost a story about free and equal rights for Reform, Conservative, Women of the Wall, and non-Orthodox Jewry at the holiest site in Judaism. But it is more importantly a story about religious liberty in the state of Israel. The Muslim and Christian communities enjoy that freedom, but ironically we Jews do not. To date, all religious rights have been dominated by the ultra-Orthodox. The Orthodox has every right to observe Jewish tradition according to halacha and their interpretations, but they do not have the right in a democratic state to tell other Jews how to practice their Judaism.

The great strength of Jewish religious community in the United States is that each religious stream does what it wishes according to its interpretation of the tradition without government interference. It is not (yet) the case in Israel. And this is what the struggle at the Kotel is really all about.

Reform and Conservative Rabbis still do not have the right to marry and bury Jews in the Jewish state. Our religious streams receive no funds from the government, except for specific projects, as do the Orthodox to the tune of a billion shekels annually. The right of Israelis to marry civilly is also not given, and so hundreds of thousands of Israelis who do not wish to live as Orthodox Jews must leave the state to marry their beloved.

Many in the Knesset understand what is at stake, but they are by and large NOT in the ruling right-wing coalition, and so they do not have the numbers of Knesset members necessary to open Israeli democracy wider to accommodate the religious rights of all Jews there.

The Kotel agreement is symbolic and real at the same time. It is a message to the American Jewish community that we are one people that shares with Israel a strong personal and communal relationship to the people, land and state, and a spiritual and religious connection to our people’s holiest sites.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and JAFI Director Sharansky understand this, and they are to be commended for striving for years to bring about this agreement at the Kotel that would insure the rights of the non-orthodox communities to pray at our holiest site without interference from the ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Now is the time to move forward notwithstanding the threats from the Haredi community. Their political courage, will and understanding of the legitimate needs and desires of world Jewry hang in the balance.

See the Article in the Forward: “Benjamin Netanyahu Says He’ll Keep His Promise, Orders New Prayer Podium for Western Wall”

The Israeli government will order a permanent bimah , the elevated platform on which a prayer leader stands, to be built in the southern section of the Western Wall holy site as a signal to American and Israeli non-Orthodox movements that it is serious about implementing its plan for an egalitarian prayer space there. The gesture comes at a time when American and Israeli non-Orthodox leaders are fuming over the plan, which was approved by a government cabinet in January, but has stalled amid ultra-Orthodox protest.