Anger at rule on gender segragation near Kotel

A move by the rabbi of the Western Wall to gender-segregate ceremonies taking place near Judaism’s holiest shrine is causing consternation.

Officials at the Jewish Agency are considering changing the venue of the ceremony at which new immigrants to Israel are given their first identity cards. According to the decision of the Western Wall Heritage Fund, headed by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, women and men would be forced to sit separately and women would not be allowed to speak from the podium.

Until a few years ago, only the sunken area close to the wall was regarded as a synagogue, and men and women were allowed to mingle freely outside that area. But four years ago, the prayer area was unofficially extended all the way back to the houses of the Jewish Quarter and the security gates.

The Israel Religious Action Centre, which is identified with Reform, recently wrote to Rabbi Rabinovich and to the Religious Services Minister, Yaakov Margi, objecting to the new rules.

“The forced segregation is insulting and discriminatory. It limits personal freedoms.”

Rabbi Rabinovich denied that the status quo has changed and promised that the state events that have always taken place at the wall, such as the annual national memorial service for fallen IDF soldiers, will continue.

However, he said that the Jewish Agency ceremonies were planned as “prayer events” and had to conform to the guidelines. Rabbi Rabinovich acknowledged that in the past the rules had not been enforced throughout the Wall area, “but 20 years ago, a million people came every year to the Kotel. Today it is 7 million and we sometimes have 100,000 people here at one go, so the entire place is now a prayer area.”

Last updated: 5:18pm, October 1 2009