Rosh Yehudi head said living in property intended as a shul

Judge rejects Orthodox group’s petition over canceled permits for its Sukkot events

Tel Aviv District Court judge urges Rosh Yehudi, municipality to come to agreement on planned gatherings in city, after Yom Kippur altercations; jurist cites ‘reasonableness law’

Israel Zeira, head of Rosh Yehudi, an Orthodox group, speaks with police officers during protests after the group set up a gender divider for a Yom Kippur public prayer event at Dizengoff Square, in Tel Aviv, September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)
Israel Zeira, head of Rosh Yehudi, an Orthodox group, speaks with police officers during protests after the group set up a gender divider for a Yom Kippur public prayer event at Dizengoff Square, in Tel Aviv, September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

A Tel Aviv District court judge rejected a petition on Friday from Rosh Yehudi to cancel a decision by the Tel Aviv municipality to pull previously approved permits for the Orthodox Jewish organization to hold public events in the city during the upcoming Sukkot holiday.

Judge Magen Altuvia turned down Rosh Yehudi’s request to grant an interim order that would allow the planned events to go ahead, while urging the parties to meet “immediately” and come to an agreement “in the spirit of the holiday” which began Friday evening.

The municipality canceled Rosh Yehudi’s permits on Thursday after the organization attempted to hold a public Yom Kippur prayer service in the heart of Tel Aviv with an improvised gender divider, sparking bitter confrontations between organizers and attendees and protesters, and unprecedented scenes of anger and accusations on the Jewish Day of Atonement earlier this week.

The city claims Rosh Yehudi, which has sought to increase Orthodox devotion in the largely secular city, violated the conditions of its license by erecting a makeshift bamboo barrier with Israeli flags as it held services at Dizengoff Square, which the city had banned.

In his decision Friday, Altuvia wrote there was “doubt if the court… has the authority today to intervene in the [city’s] decision in light of the change to legislation on the matter of the reasonableness law.” The controversial law, passed in July, is part of the hardline coalition’s legislative push to upend the judiciary and exert more government control. The Basic Law amendment curtails the ability of the High Court to judge government decisions based on the judicial standard of reasonableness.

That reasonableness standard had allowed the Supreme Court to annul government and ministerial decisions if it believed that there had been substantive problems with the considerations used in such decisions, or the weight given to those considerations.

Activists opposed to a gender-separated public prayer event confront worshipers in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur eve, September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

(Friday’s decision was issued by a district court over a municipal matter.)

The reasonableness law is at the center of a never-before-seen showdown between the government and the judiciary, which saw a panel of all 15 justices of the High Court preside over a historic and highly charged session earlier this month in response to petitions against the law. A decision is not expected any time soon.

Interior Minister Moshe Arbel, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a key member of the coalition and a backer of the legislative push, slammed the judge’s reasoning in a statement issued by his office, and cited by public broadcaster Kan.

“A day when a judge in a district court does not know the plain language of a Basic Law is [like a] Yom Kippur for the [judicial] system. The judicial system desperately needs trust, and that’s not how you build it,” Arbel said.

In response to the judge’s decision on Friday, Rosh Yehudi accused the Tel Aviv municipality of canceling its events “because they chose the violent side and blamed the victim; the protesters who came to the square had a goal to destroy the prayers, and it doesn’t matter in what way.”

“We are willing to negotiate with the municipality to reach agreements on how to manage the events and ask for business-like conduct on the part of the Tel Aviv municipality,” the organization added.

Over Yom Kippur on Sunday and Monday, heated arguments broke out around Rosh Yehudi’s religious services, with worshipers forced to decamp by angry protesters who say sex segregation — traditional in Orthodox Jewish prayers — is inappropriate in public spaces.

The city had said the event could go ahead but prohibited Rosh Yehudi from erecting a gender divider at the event. The organization appealed the prohibition with the Supreme Court, which rejected the petition, siding with the ruling of a lower court in favor of the Tel Aviv municipality.

Activists protest against gender segregation in the public space during a public prayer event in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, September 25, 2023. (Itai Ron/Flash90)

Rosh Yehudi, which encourages Jews to embrace a religious lifestyle, then said it would move forward with the event on the Jewish Day of Atonement, after previously declaring it would not do so if it were not allowed to use a divider.

At Sunday’s Yom Kippur event in Dizengoff Square, Rosh Yehudi participants strung up Israeli flags as a makeshift barrier, or mechitzah, between the male and female worshipers in the city’s Dizengoff Square. Protesters then pulled down the flags and removed the chairs that organizers had set up, effectively preventing the service.

The incident sparked angry exchanges of words between activists on both sides and one secular demonstrator was detained by police for some three hours before being released.

Hundreds of demonstrators could be seen standing next to the area of the prayer service and chanting “shame, shame,” at the participants. Most of the worshipers left shortly afterward.

Similar scenes played out again in Dizengoff Square on Monday, in a number of Tel Aviv neighborhoods, and elsewhere in the country as the fast day ended in the evening, when groups attempted to erect gender dividers at public events despite the court ruling and activists intervened.

Protesters shout at Israel Zeira (right), founder of the Orthodox Jewish group Rosh Yehudi, which set up a gender divider for a public prayer event on Yom Kippur in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

Following the fracas, Haaretz reported Thursday that Rosh Yehudi founder Israel Zeira was said to be living in a basement apartment in Tel Aviv intended for use as a synagogue. The property is on Aharonovich Street, near Dizengoff Center, and appears to be Zeira family’s primary and official residence, according to the newspaper’s findings. Documents showed the 100-square-meter space was owned by an organization named the “Association of worshipers of the Aharonovich Synagogue in Tel Aviv,” the report said.

The Tel Aviv municipality announced it launched a probe into the use of the premises.

Last month, the municipality had granted a permit to Rosh Yehudi to set up a Sukkah, or traditional makeshift hut, on Zamenhof Street for the Sukkot holiday on October 1. It was also given permission to hold what is known as Second Hakafot on October 7 at Dizengoff Square — a traditional celebration held immediately following Simchat Torah to show solidarity with Diaspora Jews, who mark the holiday a day after Jews in Israel.

Simchat Torah marks the end of the previous year’s cycle of Bible readings and the start of a new cycle, and is celebrated by Orthodox Jews with sex-segregated folk dances while holding Torah scrolls.

But in a decision announced Thursday, both permits were canceled.

In a letter to the Rosh Yehudi group following a hearing on the matter, the municipality said the improvised mechitzah (gender divider) on Yom Kippur had been a “severe” violation of its terms that caused a “significant public disturbance.”

“Rosh Yehudi’s event on Yom Kippur at Dizengoff Square turned from a prayer service to a humiliating event… that almost developed into a mass brawl,” the letter read.

The municipality slammed the group for maintaining that its divider had not been a physical barrier, and warned that allowing Rosh Yehudi to hold further events could “lead to another eruption which will once again cause public disorder in the city.”

In a statement, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said the city made the decision with a “heavy heart.”

“Everyone is invited to operate in our public space, and there are also places for public prayers, as long as they are held in accordance with the law and without gender segregation,” he said.

Rosh Yehudi has organized public prayers at the end of Yom Kippur since 2020. This was the first year the city banned the gender divider.

This week’s events have been seen by some as an extension of the societal conflict unleashed by the government’s judicial overhaul, which has spread to multiple areas of life and overlaps with sharply divergent visions of the country’s future and its character.

Michael Horovitz and Canaan Lidor contributed to this report.

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