Natan Sharansky has a plan that he hopes will resolve the thorny issue of allowing egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
As the most important symbol of “our national history” and a place of deep religious significance, Sharansky told a small group of Philadelphia Jewish leaders on April 9, it’s important that the Kotel “be a site that unites us, not divides us.”
Sharansky said his compromise plan, reached after months of negotiations with the many parties involved, would establish a separate but equal section for egalitarian prayer along the Kotel, which is the last standing wall of the ancient Jewish Temple and is considered Judaism’s most sacred site.
The site is now divided into men’s and women’s sections, neither of which allow men and women to pray together. According to current regulations governing the site, women are not permitted to wear prayer shawls or read from the Torah.
Sharansky, the one-time Soviet dissident who served in several Israeli governments and now heads the Jewish Agency for Israel, arrived in Philadelphia straight from a meeting in New York, where he delivered his plan to American Jewish leaders, including rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements, which have long lobbied for egalitarian access to the site.
The issue has created friction between Diaspora Jews and Israel, one of several issues that divide those who advocate for religious pluralism in Israel and those who oppose it.
The Forward reported  Tuesday that Sharanksy’s plan involves significant compromises from all parties involved, including the Women of the Wall, a group that for more than two decades has sought access to the site for monthly prayer services and whose participants have been harassed and even arrested for donning prayer shawls and reading from the Torah. The latest arrests came April 11, just two days after the plan was reported,
The group's director, Lesley Sachs, was among those detained. A haredi man was also detained, according to Israeli reports, for attempting to set one of the women's prayer books on fire.
In 2003, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit prayer shawls, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall.
Mr. Sharansky’s proposal involves expanding the areas accessible for prayer at the southern section of the wall, known as Robinson's Arch. That area, which is now often used by the Women of the Wall, would, under the new plan, be open for Jews wishing to pray in a more egalitarian style 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The plan calls for the Robinson’s Arch area, currently excavated many feet below ground by archaeologists, to be raised to the level of the current Western Wall plaza. The two sections would share an entrance.
Sharansky said his compromise would require some technological engineering, but “it is possible to do.” Speaking to top donors to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia at the Jewish Community Services Building on Tuesday, he said the key is to “look at it as one big wall belonging to the entire Jewish people.” The whole wall needs to be equally reachable and accessible, he said, without one part seeming less important than another.
In an interview with JTA later this week, he said he hopes his solution could be implemented within one to two months.
First, Netanyahu must convene a forum to formally approve the plan before a “specialized group of professionals” conducts negotiations featuring the relevant parties, including the Western Wall’s rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who has already indicated he accepted the plan in principle. and Israeli Conservative and Reform leaders. After that, a timeline would be established for construction and an interim solution found for non-Orthodox worshippers. Only then will the space be dedicated and construction begin.
Sharansky acknowledged that the plan could still face myriad hurdles. Even if the process goes smoothly, it could be derailed by archeological concerns at Robinson’s Arch, opposition from the Waqf — the Muslim body that controls the Temple Mount — or a budget shortfall.
“There are so many bureaucratic obstacles and so many organizations that can destroy and undermine” the plan, Sharansky told JTA. “Tomorrow, we’ll find out that archaeological authorities have their problems and local authorities have their problem.”
Still, Sharansky said he was “close to making a recommendation” to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who tasked Sharansky last year with trying to find a compromise and who will likely face political pressure from Israel’s haredi population over the issue.
Sharansky, who was also in Philadelphia to meet with student leaders at the University of Pennsylvania, said he was hopeful his plan would be accepted by all parties. But he cautioned that it will not be simple. “I have to deliver to both the prime minister and to world Jewry,” he said. “That’s not easy.”