Most Israeli hotels prevent non-Orthodox Jewish visitors from conducting mixed gender prayer services out of fear that the Orthodox Rabbinate will cancel their licenses to provide kosher food, according to a Channel 10 TV investigation.
The investigation, aired Monday, is likely to open yet another battle front for the Reform and Conservative movements, which represent only five to eight percent of Israel’s Jewish population but more than three million Jews in the US.
Unlike the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jews allow men and women to sit next to one another during prayer services and permit women to wear prayer shawls and yarmulkes and to participate fully in synagogue rituals, such as handling prayer scrolls.
“Most hotel managers in Israel refuse to allow egalitarian prayer services, not because they are opposed to them but because they fear the Chief Rabbinate will take away their kashrut certificates for food, which, from their point of view, is a death sentence,” the TV investigation said.
Kashrut supervisors are employed by hotels to check that the kitchens are operated according to Jewish religious law.
But employees at three hotels — Jerusalem’s Ramat Rahel and Inbal, and the Shefayim Hotel on the coastal plain — could be clearly heard on hidden camera recordings saying that decisions about non-Orthodox prayer were also the responsibility of the kashrut supervisors.
In one recorded conversation, an employee at the capital’s upscale Inbal Hotel answered a request for a mixed gender prayer service by saying that the Kashrut supervisors were the people who decided.
The employee insisted that the supervisors were responsible for “many areas,” not just the kitchens. “I don’t think they’ll allow us to provide a Torah scroll for mixed-gender prayer,” he said.
Jonathan, identified only by his first name, who runs a hotel in northern Israel that is popular among American Jewish visitors, told the program, “They [kashrut supervisors] request that we don’t allow egalitarian prayer.”
They did so via hints that made him “a little frightened and a little unwilling” to take any risks, he added.
The Conservative and Reform movements are already angry over the Israeli government’s failure to resist Orthodox opposition and allow the creation of an egalitarian prayer area at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
The Supreme Court has given the government until June 4 to reach a decision.
Last month the Jewish People’s Policy Institute left Reform and Conservative Judaism off a list of possible religious or secular streams with which 1,000 Israeli Jews were asked to identify.
In response to the Channel 10 probe, Israel’s Conservative movement said it would sue some of the hotels for damages on the grounds of illegal discrimination.
Yizhar Hess, head of the Conservative movement in Israel, said the rabbinate was exploiting its monopoly over religious practice in the country to “force onto the public sphere in hotels the Orthodox norms of halacha [Jewish law] which are not connected in any way to food being cooked in the kitchen.”
Channel 10’s findings represented “real sabotage” both of incoming tourism and of attempts to portray a positive image of the country, he went on.
“We want Jewish tourism, we want Jews to consider aliyah [immigration to Israel]. They come here to a hotel and are treated as second-class Jews.”
The rabbinate refused to comment on the TV investigation.
The Religious Affairs Ministry said in a statement that it was not aware of the directives claimed in the TV report and asked for “specific complaints” that could be brought before the relevant authorities.
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