At the Wall, separate is rarely equal

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A protester was arrested near the Western Wall in Israel this week. But this was no ordinary activist. This was a Conservative rabbi, Baruch Zeilicovich, from Fort Worth, Tex. His crime? Unfurling a banner with some of his rabbinical colleagues next to the Kotel that says: “The wall belongs to us all.”

Zeilicovich was arrested Tuesday, Feb. 10, and briefly detained by police because he did not have a permit to put up the banner.

The rabbis who joined him wanted to protest current construction taking place at the Wall. As those who have visited the Kotel know, the area up against it is segregated into men’s and women’s prayer sections. Over the years, men and women who have chosen to pray together must stand a distance away from the Wall, and even then, risk incurring the wrath of the fervently religious who have thrown garbage — or worse — at them.

Now, the Orthodox authorities who control the Wall are doubling the size of the men’s and women’s sections, which means mixed-gender groups will have little, if any, room to pray there at all.

The Conservative rabbis, in Jerusalem for the annual convention of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, say the move to extend the gender-segregated prayer area is part of an attempt to further monopolize Jewish life in Israel by the Orthodox. The Orthodox keepers of the Wall deny that.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the administrator of Jewish holy sites including the Wall, defended his decision to extend the gender-segregated area, saying it was done to accommodate an increase in worshippers — not as a slight to non-Orthodox religious movements.

But the Conservative rabbis aren’t buying that.

“It sends a message that Reform, Conservative, and egalitarian groups in general, including Orthodox egalitarian groups, are not welcome anymore,” said Paul Arberman, a rabbi in Netanya originally from Brooklyn.

In the ongoing fight of the Jews versus the Jews, lawyers for the Conservative movement say the Orthodox authorities began construction without consulting anyone. The Orthodox apparently tried to do the same in 2000 and again in 2003, but they had to cease when the Conservative movement put a stop to it. The Conservative movement, once again, may soon resort to the courts.

At a time when American Jews are staying away from Israel because of terrorism, this move doesn’t exactly send out a message that they are welcome. We would hope there could be more of an effort to allow the non-Orthodox to pray in the way they find most meaningful.

As another Conservative rabbi, Richard Hammerman of Toms River, N.J., put it, “They are gradually trying to make it more difficult for people to lead normal lives, where men and women live side by side. We don’t want a Khomeini state. We did not fight and die for a medieval shtetl.”