American Jews helped create prayer space equality at Kotel


The recent decision to create a mixed prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem may have been made in Israel, but the American-Jewish community was an active player in the process of pushing for pluralism at the site, according to local leaders.

“Issues like pluralism at the Wall and other pluralistic ideas don’t get that much attention there [in Israel], but they are really important here because if Israel is our homeland, then everybody needs to feel welcome there, and I think there is recognition there of that by the prime minister and others,” Richard Sandler, chairman of the board of trustees at Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), said in a phone interview. “This is a huge step of doing something in Israel that recognizes that.”

Israel Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel worked to educate people locally about the issue in recent years. Siegel’s emphasis was on insisting on dialogue over demonstrations when it came to the controversial issue of prayer at the Kotel. This was evident during a 2012 town hall meeting that he called for in the wake of Women of the Wall activist Anat Hoffman’s arrest at the Wall. 

“That night when Anat Hoffman was arrested or detained overnight in one of those demonstrations … there was, across the country, an effort to do demonstrations in front of Israeli consulates, and some of our friends in the wider community said they were going to demonstrate in front of the consulate,” Siegel recalled. “I said, ‘That’s really silly. Why don’t we engage each other rather than demonstrate against each other?’ ”

The meeting took place in November 2012 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, drawing some 400 people and featuring rabbis from across the religious spectrum. 

That same night, Siegel announced a task force on Jewish unity to discuss issues surrounding Israel, including the Kotel. It was made up of Los Angeles rabbis from multiple denominations who may not agree about the future of the Wall, but who could come together out of a shared affinity for Israel, according to Congregation Kol Ami Rabbi Denise Eger, the current president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. 

“David [Siegel] and I really said, ‘We’re never going to get anywhere in Los Angeles if we don’t start having a dialogue.’ We pulled together an unprecedented group of rabbis in the city from the right, left and center because one thing we do have in common is our love for Israel,” said Eger, a member of the task force that last met about a year ago.

Additional members include Rabbi Judith HaLevy of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation and Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation.

“It’s unusual that a consul general, given the complexity of problems facing Israel today, would not only represent Israel as we attempt to define Israel’s place in the world at large and in the Jewish community, but to define the Jewish community of the U.S. and our concerns and bring them across the bridge, and he has been extraordinary,” HaLevy told the Journal.

Siegel said many members of the Los Angeles rabbinic community played an important role in the fight for inclusion at the Western Wall.

“I’m proud of how, in the L.A. context, we were all part of a moment that is very significant. And it spread across the country,” he said. “I’m not saying we held the keys to resolving the issue — that was certainly done by the prime minister on down in Israel, on the Israeli side — but it was also done by the leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements, both in Israel and abroad.”

The Federation system was also involved in the process. JFNA, which represents 151 Federations, including the local one, was in communication with Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky during negotiations in Israel that culminated in the Jan. 31 vote that will pave the way for women and men to pray side by side at the Kotel and for women to pray with a Torah.

“We [JFNA] were working directly with Sharansky here in the United States convening … the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative movements and their rabbis. One of our top roles is to convene … in order to show a unifying front and help lobby the Knesset and the prime minister to make this happen,” said Jay Sanderson, CEO and president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a JFNA member. “And we are the backbone of funding for the Jewish Agency, so that allows us to work hand-in-hand with Natan Sharansky, who really was instrumental in moving this forward.”

JFNA, through the United Israel Appeal, contributed more than $86 million to the Jewish Agency in 2014, however, Sandler said the Jewish Agency worked toward a solution to tensions at the Western Wall for reasons beyond JFNA’s financial support of the agency.

“I don’t think this happened because of financial clout but I think the fact is there is a sensitivity. We rely on each other,” Sandler said. “I think Israel is very important to the Jewish people and I think Diaspora Jewry is very important to Israel, especially in North America and the U.S., where most Jews outside of Israel live.” 

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FOR THE RECORD 2/12/2016: A quote from Israel Consul General David Siegel in an earlier version of this story did not include what he said about the Orthodox movement's involvement in the process; it has been amended to reflect that.