Over the past two years, the Robinson’s Arch area of the Kotel has frequently been referred to as a “compromise,” a “sell-out,” and worse. I’m simply tired of correcting the perception that this area is not the “real” Kotel. Put in the international news cycle in 2013 due to the ongoing struggle by Women of the Wall to pray Shacharit at the Kotel, it’s as if the area was discovered recently. In reality, Edward Robinson discovered the ruins in 1838. With many names: Robinson’s Arch, the Southern Wall, the Masorti Kotel, and now Azarat Yisrael, the area refers to the southern end of the Kotel, which, in its entirety, stretches 488 meters, most of which is hidden. For 15 years, since 2000, egalitarian prayer has taken place at the site under the auspices of the Masorti Movement in Israel.
The need for an additional area beyond the men’s and women’s sections became apparent in 1989 after repeated attacks by haredim on Women of the Wall and egalitarian minyanim. In 2003, Israel’s Supreme Court instructed the Israeli government to prepare the site for prayer. The site was inaugurated in August 2004. At that time, both Women of the Wall and the Reform Movement rejected it for different reasons. Women of the Wall continue to seek their separate minyan in the Women’s section. As a separate women’s minyan, an egalitarian prayer space was not deemed appropriate. Rabbi Eric Yoffe, then President of the Reform Movement, said Robinson’s Arch was an archaeological site, and not the site understood as the Kotel. The Masorti Movement welcomed the decision and, since then, has maintained the prayer site there. Had this area been previously accessible, like the little Kotel in the Arab Quarter, it too would have become a traditional site.
In 2013, following some highly publicized incidents between Women of the Wall Chair Anat Hoffman and Jerusalem police, Natan Sharansky, Chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, unveiled the “One Kotel for One Jewish People” plan calling for a dedicated egalitarian prayer space at the Robinson’s Arch area of the Wall and equal access to all three prayer areas. JFNA also promised to work with Sharansky as he “develops a pathway whereby the Kotel is a spiritual center for all Jews and a symbol of unity for the entire Jewish community world-wide.” Worldwide speculation on how this would be accomplished ensued. What was not reported was the fact that, three years prior, the Masorti Movement in Israel had begun working quietly to create a plan for the site, also known as the Masorti Kotel, which was approved.
Since the Sharansky announcement, discussion continues about whether Women of the Wall will accept a compromise to pray there. Left out of the discussions is the reality on the ground. What began almost 15 years ago with a few dozen minyanim, today the Masorti Movement welcomes an average of 700 minyanim annually, serving tens of thousands of people from around the world. This year, like last, Masorti will hold a Yom Kippur Mincha / Neilah at the site. Last year men, women, and families prayed together. Others, looking to pray separately, used the site as an opportunity to stand together in the shadow of our collective history – mothers, fathers, and children together.
Azarat Yisrael may not solve the issue of whether a women’s minyan should be allowed in the women’s section of the Kotel, but it is not a compromise. It is not a sell-out. It is the start of the fulfilment of the promise made in Israel’s declaration to “guarantee freedom of religion.” This was a promise made to all Jews, and we are free to worship at our Kotel in our way.