The Israeli government has constructed a large section for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.
It has built a 5,000 sq ft platform that will be open to Reform and Conservative Jews, and others wishing to hold mixed-gender services.
Until now, non-Orthodox services were only allowed at the archaeological park, in which part of the Wall stands. At that site there was limited space for prayer, visitors were only permitted during limited hours and, at certain times, an entrance charge was applied.
The platform has also been constructed in the archaeological park. It increases the capacity for prayer there to more than 450, and the new facilities will contain government-owned religious items such as prayer books. It is open 24/7 and free of charge.
“This new platform, built ahead of Rosh Hashanah, will help unify the Jewish people and enable all Jews to pray freely at the Kotel,” said Minister for Jerusalem and the Diaspora Naftali Bennett, who commissioned the platform.
The platform is a smaller gain to non-Orthodox Jews than that proposed in the blueprint of Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who was commissioned by the government to come up with a plan for the Kotel. He proposed a non-Orthodox section as large as the Orthodox section, to be accessed from the main Kotel plaza.
Mr Bennett has stressed that the platform is only an “interim” step pending a long-term solution. As such, Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements have given it a cautious welcome.
But Women of the Wall, the interdenominational feminist group that has led the battle for changes at the Kotel, has reacted furiously, and even staged a sit-in protest at the Wall last Sunday and Monday.
Despite Mr Bennett’s insistence otherwise, the group suspects that the platform is the government’s attempt at a long-term solution and that plans for further accommodation of non-Orthodox worship will now be quietly shelved. Its chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, disparagingly called the new platform a “sundeck” and an “exile”.