JERUSALEM — Israel on Sunday approved a plan that would dramatically change the layout of Jerusalem’s Western Wall plaza, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, creating a space for egalitarian prayer and mixed-gender ceremonies for non-Orthodox Jews.

The new area, which will enable men and women to pray side by side, is to be adjacent to the existing plaza run by ultra-Orthodox rabbis. That area is split into prayer sections for men and women, although women are not allowed to read aloud from the Torah, wear prayer shawls or sing there.

Along with creating a change to the delicate status quo, this marks an unprecedented move by the Israeli government to officially recognize the rights of Conservative, Reform and other Jewish denominations to hold organized prayer at the site.

Jewish groups in Israel and the United States hailed the decision as a historic step toward religious pluralism in Israel. American Jewish organizations, many of which feel that their religiosity is sidelined in Israel, have been integral in pushing the plan forward and assuring it remains on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda.

“The Jewish state has always held a promise that it is for all Jewish people, and the Wall is such an amazingly spiritual and inspirational place,” said Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, an organization representing hundreds of Jewish groups.

“Now, to have a space that will recognize the way the majority of Jews practice their religion – at least Jews from the United States – is a monumental step forward,” he said.

After long-running negotiations with several Jewish groups, the plan was drafted by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and outgoing Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit.

The ultra-orthodox rabbinate, which enjoys a monopoly on religious Jewish life in Israel from births and marriages to places of worship, was unwilling to allow any changes at the site. Archaeologists expressed dismay that more development at the Western Wall could destroy precious artifacts and change a visitor’s view into the past.

The area around the ancient wall, part of the first and second Jewish temples, is also a sensitive spot for Muslims, who consider the adjacent al-Aqsa mosque compound the third-holiest site in Islam.


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