There has been a great deal of controversy over access to the Kotel itself over the past few years. It is widely known that the Western Wall itself, the Kotel, is treated as an Orthodox synagogue. This means that there is a big wall running down the middle, a Mechitza, separating the mens' side from the womens' side of the wall. Morever, the Orthodox rabbis running the site, with the force of Israeli law behind them for the most part, have prohibited women from praying out loud, reading from a Torah, wearing a Tallith or wearing Tefillin on the women's side of the Kotel. There has been a push for reform of this state of affairs to improve equality of access for everyone to the site, even to those who might not wish to conform to Orthodox prayer standards.
This past year, Natan Sharansky led a commission to try to find a solution to this challenge. His proposal, apparently, was a significant improvement to the Davidson Center in a way that would make it appear to be an extension (at the same level) of the Kotel. Sharansky's plan would have created, effectively, three sections at the Kotel - men, women and mixed. However, due to some Archaeological resistance and some resistance by Orthodox rabbis, the plan was put on indefinite hold, even though, as a compromise plan, it was approved by a number of different stakeholders.
|Davidson Center - New Platform with Tables|
After icing Sharansky's plan, powerful cabinet minister Naftali Bennett implemented an alternate solution. A platform was built at the Southern Wall ( the Davidson Center) and a number of tables were set up. The Israeli government indicated that the site would now be open 24/7 and would be free and accessible to all for non-Orthodox prayer. This was Bennett's effort to thwart Sharansky's plan. The plan, which was implemented on August 27, 2013, is described in the Jewish Week.
This did not solve the problem for some groups. For example, Women of the Wall, a group which has been denied the ability to pray on the women's side of the Kotel out loud and with a Torah scroll. Morever, the site is still difficult to access, out of the way and with limited ability for participants to actually touch the wall itself (unlike at the main Kotel).
Nevertheless, for those interested in conducting a religious service at the Kotel for a bar or bat mitzvah that is egalitarian and not separated, the Davidson Center is really the only alternative. It is now somewhat more accessible than it was previously. Certainly the hours are much better - and admission is free. Although it is something of an improvement over the previous state of affairs, I can't help but think that this is a stepping stone towards a much more egalitarian, accessible solution even though that type of dramatic change may take some time to implement.