Thursday, December 15, 2005

Western Wall Renovations I

There’s a new plan in the works for renovations at the Western Wall Plaza. For Hebrew speakers, here’s the article about it from Ma’ariv, and here’s the one from Yediot Aharonot. For those readers who don’t speak Hebrew, here is my translation of the article from Ma’ariv.

An Upgrade for the Western Wall
The Western Wall—the most popular place in Israel, with five million visitors per year—wants an upgrade. As part of efforts by the Western Wall administration to increase the number of visitors even more and appeal to new target populations, today the cabinet will approve a plan that will make it interactive. Video cameras broadcast from the Western Wall Plaza 24 hours a day and the holy site is a hit on the Internet.
This morning, cabinet ministers will approve a budget of NIS 68 million over five years to renovate the Western Wall Plaza. The money will be invested in placing signs in the plaza, renovating the bridge that ascends to the Temple Mount and installing air conditioning in the Western Wall Tunnels. Alongside the renovations, Western Wall officials are trying to strengthen Diaspora Jewry’s connection to the holy site. “We have placed a video camera that broadcasts from the Western Wall Plaza 24 hours a day, and we have built an interactive website that tells of the history of the area,” said Aryeh Bauner, who is responsible for the educational program at the Western Wall. The site has become extremely popular, with two million visitors just in the past year. In addition, a new visitors’ area will be opened at the Western Wall in approximately a month. The area, which will be called The Chain of Generations, will have visitors’ walk that tells the story of the Jewish people via glass pillars, light and sound. The administrator of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, said yesterday, “A generation has grown up here that has not visited the Western Wall, and we are asking ourselves what happened and are trying to turn the Western Wall into an area that will speak to everyone. I believe that we should not make Judaism into a business, and therefore anyone who wants to have an aliya to the Torah is invited to do so without payment, rich and poor alike,” Rabinovitch said.
The Western Wall administration has been working together with the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Ilan Cohen, and with Tourism Minister Avraham Herschson in recent months on a plan whose goal is to bring the secular population to the Western Wall as well. Among other things, the plan is to encourage children in Israel and throughout the world to celebrate their bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. “We intend to place one of our employees with every family who will help them plan a ceremony appropriate to the relevant ethnic group and its customs,” Bauner said. In order to bring the public to the Western Wall, a large campaign which will call on the general public to come and visit the Western Wall is being planned. Within its framework, attempts are being made to create various attractions which will draw visitors. “We are working on a system that will help everyone find their roots. People can type in the country of origin of their grandfather or grandmother and get the whole path that their families traveled over the past two thousand years,” Bauner said.

So, Rabbi Rabinovitch, you’re wondering why people don’t visit the Western Wall anymore? You’re wondering what happened? Here’s one possible reason: in recent years, the Western Wall has been transformed gradually into an ultra-religious synagogue instead of the inclusive national site it was meant to be. This has turned off a lot of people, including many who are religiously observant. So, in my opinion, here is a way to increase the number of visitors to the Western Wall: include them. Everybody. Men, women, those who are religiously observant and those who are not. Include them as they are, without telling them in all sorts of subtle and non-subtle ways that the Western Wall is now a strictly-run ultra-religious synagogue and if they want to be welcome there, they must behave accordingly. Call off your aggressive female ushers who throw those awful capes over the shoulders of girls and women whom they feel are not covered well enough. (If you are trying to educate them to respect our holy sites, that is not the way to do it.) Move the mehitza to give women more room outdoors, and give them more space indoors as well. Be more welcoming toward those of us whose religious outlook differs from the current ultra-religious party line. The Western Wall belongs to all Jews, not just to those of a certain stripe.

Stop with the glitzy packaging and work on the real problem. Without true and sincere inclusion, no glass pillars or sound-and-light shows will do the least bit of good.

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