Israel's Cabinet voted Sunday to allow non-Orthodox Jewish prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a move advocates said marked a historic show of government support for liberal streams of Judaism.
The issue is of particular importance to the Jewish community in the United States, where the more liberal Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism are dominant. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed the plan in an attempt to please American Jews, a key source of support for Israel, despite stiff opposition by ultra-Orthodox and religious nationalist elements in Israel who are key members of his own government.
"I know this is a sensitive topic, but I think it is an appropriate solution, a creative solution," Netanyahu said at the start of Sunday's Cabinet meeting, where members voted on the plan.
According to the government plan, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, Israel will build a new plaza for mixed gender prayer at the Western Wall, adjacent to the Orthodox prayer plaza but separate from it.
The Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella group of Jewish communities, issued a joint statement with the Reform and Conservative movements calling the decision a "dramatic, unprecedented and critical acknowledgement" by Israel that the holy site should incorporate liberal Jewish prayer traditions.
"Though much work regarding the implementation of this decision still remains, it is because of our perseverance and commitment to Jewish peoplehood that we are measurably closer today to the ultimate symbol of that reality - one wall for one people," the statement read.
The Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple complex, is the holiest site where Jews may pray. The site is administered by ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authorities, who have a monopoly over religious affairs in Israel. There are separate men's and women's prayer sections and non-Orthodox prayer, like mixed-gender services and women-led prayers, are forbidden.
A leading women's prayer group, Women of the Wall, caused controversy for years by holding monthly non-Orthodox prayers at the site. Police arrested women carrying Torah scrolls and wearing religious articles traditionally reserved for men, practices ultra-Orthodox Jews oppose and consider a provocation.
The Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism have supported the group's cause and demanded representation at the holy site. Netanyahu appointed a committee in 2013, led by the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, to seek solutions for non-Orthodox prayer there. Shortly after, a temporary prayer platform was erected for mixed-gender prayer, but advocates say it was not an official site and that it was not always open.
The $9 million initiative will build a permanent mixed-gender prayer area where the temporary platform is today. It will also create a new entrance to the Western Wall area so both Orthodox and non-Orthodox prayer areas will be given equal prominence. The pluralistic prayer area will not be managed by the ultra-Orthodox rabbi of the Western Wall, but by a committee including representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements. The new prayer area will allow Women of the Wall to hold women's prayers.
"It stands to open the floodgates of women's rights in the public sphere in Israel ... and opens the floodgates for Jewish pluralism in Israel," said Shira Pruce of Women of the Wall. "This is unprecedented change." Pruce said a Cabinet minister's staffer relayed the result of the vote to the group before the Cabinet officially announced it.
Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, said in a statement that he received news of the decision "with a heavy heart and a sigh of relief."
He said that "Ever since the fringe and vociferous group of Women of the Wall started its mass-media activity" the sacred place "went from being a unifying site to one of incessant quarrels. "
"The Western Wall will continue to remain open to any worshipper - man or woman - at all hours of every day, with respect and loyalty to Jewish tradition and Jewish heritage, as the Western Wall is the clear symbol of these," he said.
Uri Ariel, a hard-line Cabinet minister from the Orthodox-leaning Jewish Home party, said he opposed the initiative. It "gives standing to the Reform. Their intention is to create conflict and dispute. It's not appropriate. The Western Wall is a place of unity," Ariel said on Israeli Army Radio.
Arieh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, also opposed it. "Israel for all of its years has been administered by devout Judaism. All this problem with Reform and Conservatives never existed in Israel, and there is no reason it should now," Deri told Army Radio.
Israel's Orthodox rabbinical establishment wields a monopoly over key aspects of religious life in the country, such as marriage, divorce and burials while Reform and Conservative rabbis are not recognized and their movements are largely marginalized. Unlike in the U.S., most Jews in Israel, while secular, follow Orthodox traditions.
These long-simmering tensions between the world's two-largest Jewish communities have been aggravated by a series of steps by religious elements in Netanyahu's coalition government meant to halt attempts by the liberal streams to win recognition in Israel.
The religious-nationalist government last year canceled reforms meant to ease conversion to Judaism, unraveling painstaking efforts by the previous government to weaken the grip of Israel's Orthodox establishment. That was followed by inflammatory rhetoric from the Cabinet minister responsible for religious affairs, saying he does not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish. Netanyahu distanced himself from the comments.