Tel Aviv officials, activists disrupt protest prayer led by terror-bereaved rabbi

Municipal workers dismantle sex-segregation barrier placed in Dizengoff Square by Rabbi Leo Dee and other worshipers in response to confrontations over the divider on Yom Kippur

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

A protester tackling Rabbi Leo Dee as he prays at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, Israel on October 5, 2023. (Video screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
A protester tackling Rabbi Leo Dee as he prays at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, Israel on October 5, 2023. (Video screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Employees of the Tel Aviv Municipality on Thursday dismantled a divider that worshipers placed in defiance of city rules in Dizengoff Square ahead of a protest prayer event they held there for Sukkot.

The incident follows weeks of tension over sex-segregated public prayers in Tel Aviv that featured heated confrontations on Yom Kippur between secularists and worshipers and underlined a social divide polarizing Israeli society.

During the prayer, an unidentified man was filmed bumping into the leader of the service, Rabbi Leo Dee, whose wife Lucy, 48, and daughters Maia, 20, and Rina, 15, were murdered by Palestinian terrorists earlier this year.

Opponents of segregated prayer in public say it’s a political act meant to uphold a conservative worldview that they say oppresses women. They note that those wishing to pray in a gender-divided area have dozens of synagogues available.

Several protesters came to the prayer with loudspeakers and chanted slogans against religious coercion. Toward the end of the event, women who prayed there were holding up a divide so that it would not touch the ground, lest it be considered a barrier.

Dee later downplayed the incident in an interview with Channel 13 (Hebrew link), saying he did not press charges against any of the hecklers. “The police called and asked whether I wanted to press charges. I said I didn’t. I hardly noticed it.” He added: “There was no shoving and no spitting.”

Dee, who prayed on Dizengoff Square together with a few dozen worshipers, wrote in an op-ed published in Maariv on Wednesday that he would pray on Dizengoff Square to protest the disruption there on Yom Kippur of a prayer that featured a divider, as required by Orthodox Jewish law.

Secular activists take down a gender divider made of Israeli flags that was set up by the Rosh Yehudi group in defiance of a municipality decision at a public prayer service in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The municipality forbade the organizers of that prayer, Rosh Yehudi — which says it did not organize the prayer on Thursday — from placing a barrier between men and women, as they had done in previous Yom Kippur prayers that Rosh Yehudi has organized there since 2020. The municipality gave Rosh Yehudi the permit for the event but stipulated for the first time that it must not feature a barrier, as this would be discriminatory.

The organizers placed a bamboo frame with flags hanging down from the top section to circumvent the ban. Police approved the divider, saying it was not a barrier because it was traversable. But secular protesters took it apart in a heated confrontation. The seculars disrupted a second public Yom Kippur prayer the following day even though it did not feature a divider.

A woman argues with Rosh Yehudi activists at a mass street prayer for Yom Kippur on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The municipality said Rosh Yehudi violated the terms of the permit for the Yom Kippur prayer and revoked permits given to Rosh Yehudi to hold events on Sukkot and Simhat Torah this week. The Tel Aviv District Court rejected Rosh Yehudi’s petition to overturn the ban. Rosh Yehudi said they would appeal to the Supreme Court, which on Yom Kippur rejected their petition against the city’s stipulation.

“My family and I made the highest of sacrifices to live in the world’s only Jewish free country, where one can exercise the Jewish faith openly and without fear,” Dee, who immigrated to Israel from the United Kingdom, wrote in his op-ed. “But now, on the streets of Tel Aviv, Jews face a culture of intimidation and coercion.”

Rabbi Leo Dee eulogizes his two daughters Maia and Rina, who were killed in a terror attack on April 7, 2023, at their funeral on April 9, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

He added: “It is time to confront those who say they have the right not to witness others pray in public in accordance with the Jewish tradition. For this is but the tip of the iceberg and Judaism is, as usual, only the first target.”

On social media, Dee’s stand drew praise but also criticism.

“The fact that he’s a bereaved father doesn’t give him the right to poke a finger in the eye of seculars on Dizengoff Square. Rotten dos,” one woman, Zehavit Orlev, wrote on X, using a slur against religious Jews that’s short for “Orthodox.”

Like many of the opponents of the sex-segregated prayer on Dizengoff Square, Orlev is an activist in the weekly protests against the hardline government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which is based on a coalition between his Likud party and five religious parties. The coalition’s judicial overhaul, which aims to transfer some powers from the judicial branch and the bureaucracy to elected officials, triggered a backlash and a societal conflict in which the role of religion is a prominent theme.

Many of the government’s critics feel it is advancing legislation that benefits religious Jews and forces their values on seculars and non-Jews. It is also detrimental to the status of women, the critics say of the government’s policies or legislative projects, which include empowering rabbinical courts.

Primarily the protesters argue that the overhaul will undermine democracy by removing the checks and balances on the government provided by the courts.

But many Israelis reject this view, arguing the judicial overhaul and laws that uphold Jewish traditions only strengthen democratic principles by giving a voice to millions of religious Israelis who feel silenced by what they perceive as a largely secular ruling and judicial elite.

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