Heritage minister aims to sideline funded Shabbat events with ‘Traditional Friday’

Amichai Eliyahu says he prefers project that encourages Israelis to pray on weekend, sparking fears government has decided to cut funding from previous coalition’s program

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu arrives at a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu arrives at a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu revived fears on Monday that a program launched by the previous coalition to fund cultural events during Shabbat would be scrapped in favor of a project to encourage traditional Friday evening prayers.

Eliyahu, of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, told Kol Berama radio on Monday that a “Traditional Friday” initiative he was spearheading, geared to encourage Israelis to pray at synagogues and at home, was “a lot more important” than the “Israeli Shabbat” program launched by former culture and sports minister Chili Tropper (National Unity). Hours later, amid growing criticism, he denied that the government had made a final decision on the matter.

Tropper’s Israeli Shabbat initiative in 2021 saw the opening hours of museums and heritage sites extended into the weekend in periphery towns, offering residents free or highly subsidized events. The initiative took place on Fridays and Saturdays, with municipalities able to choose whether or not to hold them on the Jewish Sabbath based on their residents’ level of religiosity.

Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar sparked outrage in January when he ordered an end to the project, whereupon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened to reverse the order.

On Monday, Eliyahu said, “We have the right to decide what we invest in. I have my preferences. A minister has the right to choose and prioritize projects that he wants to advance.”

Eliyahu said the idea of his project “is to attract the traditional public to [Friday] prayers, like it used to be 30 years ago. To connect them to the synagogue, to the heritage of their grandparents, to Judaism. Not in the sense of religion and Jewish identity, but in the sense of a deep heritage, a deep-rooted connection.”

The minister said that when he was growing up in the northern town of Shlomi, “the whole secular public used to come to the synagogue like this. This is a project that in my eyes is much more important and much more significant.”

Responding to criticism, Eliyahu later said he “never” meant the ongoing Israeli Shabbat initiative had been cut, just that there was no budget yet to keep it going.

“When I was asked about it, I answered that I had no problem with it continuing, but at the moment it had no funding until the state budget is approved,” he said.

Culture and Sport Minister Miki Zohar (R) with his predecessor Chili Tropper at a handover ceremony in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In response to Eliyahu’s remarks, Tropper called on Netanyahu to ensure the project remained funded.

The end of the Israeli Shabbat initiative, he said, would “prevent many Israelis, religious and secular, from visiting cultural and heritage sites, without financial barriers and according to their personal beliefs.”

Tropper said Eliyahu’s remarks were a “disgrace” and “an expression of dishonesty.”

The Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah movement, an organization that seeks to promote moderate Orthodoxy in Israel, also slammed the minister’s comments, saying the potential cancelation of the initiative “harms Israelis who enjoy a quality alternative to observing Shabbat.”

The group said it is “impossible to enforce Shabbat,” and that the project provided free access for all citizens, religious and secular alike.

The Center for Local Government also decried the “regrettable” remarks, stressing that the project was valuable in ensuring accessibility to heritage and cultural sites.

“The initiative is very important to Israel’s citizens and we hope that the government will find suitable funding to continue the activities,” it said.

Zohar also chimed in, telling Ynet that though his ministry “would not initiate activity on Shabbat,” it would continue to fund the Israeli Shabbat initiative.

“If there is someone who wants to initiate this activity on Saturday, an activity that allows people to go to museums free of charge, they can keep it going through my office’s budget. They can contact me and ask for the budget,” said Zohar.

Just four months ago, cultural coordinators in periphery towns received a notice from Zohar’s Culture Ministry warning them not to hold such events from 5 p.m. on Fridays until an hour after sundown on Saturdays.

In a joint statement, Netanyahu later said he and Zohar had agreed that the initiative would continue.

At the time, Zohar charged that by including events that take place on the Sabbath, Tropper’s initiative violated the historic status quo barring most public events on the Jewish day of rest. However, Zohar’s interpretation of the status quo is not accepted by critics, who say that municipalities whose residents are secular should be allowed to hold events on Shabbat.

Tropper noted that a special budget had been allocated for arrangements that allowed Shabbat-observant Israelis to attend such events without violating their religious practices.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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