Minister defends principal who told student not to lay tefillin in public space

Yoav Kisch say video of incident did not reflect fact that Ra’anana school permits such religious actions within classrooms

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

Illustrative: A Jewish man prays with tefillin and prayer shawl at a mass prayer for in Habima Square in Tel Aviv on August 2, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Illustrative: A Jewish man prays with tefillin and prayer shawl at a mass prayer for in Habima Square in Tel Aviv on August 2, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Education Minister Yoav Kisch has defended the actions of a school principal who was filmed telling a student to stop putting on tefillin, a Jewish ritual involving prayer, in a public space.

Shai Stern of Ostrovsky High School in Ra’anana did not object in the video to the ritual being performed on school grounds, as many viewers assumed, but was enforcing the school policy that this action takes place inside classrooms, Kisch said Thursday.

“It’s important to find out the facts before passing judgment,” Kisch wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

The incident at Ostrovsky, one of the country’s most prestigious high schools, coincides with a heated debate that escalated this year following the government’s judicial overhaul on the role of religion in society.

Jewish conservatives on X and beyond presented the video as proof of anti-religious extremism by seculars.

In the video, Stern is heard telling a student putting on tefillin: “You are going to a public school so you will observe the rules I put down, so stop now before I get angry.” A student is heard challenging Stern, telling him: “What, are we back in the days of the Roman Empire, when Jewish worship is banned?”

But Kisch noted that Ostrovsky, a public school in a city where at least 15% of the population is observant, allows daily tefillin prayers in classrooms, as per the school’s code of conduct.

Education Minister Yoav Kisch in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on March 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Tefillin is made up of two small black leather boxes with long leather straps. The boxes contain scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. One box is worn on the arm and the other is worn on the forehead. Chabad Lubavitch followers often solicit Jews, particularly in largely secular areas, to put on tefillin as a form of outreach. Many secular Israelis object to this action, which they view as inappropriate proselytizing in the public space. In recent years, multiple expressions of hostility have been recorded around tefillin solicitors.

Earlier on Thursday, the Tel Aviv District Court dismissed a petition against the city municipality’s decision to ban the placing of a barrier between men and women at a public mass prayer event at the end of Yom Kippur that has been taking place at Dizengoff Square since 2020.

Men and women sit together at an event held by Rosh Yehudi on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on November 10, 2022. The event featured a mechitzah, or divide. (Courtesy of Rosh Yehudi)

The municipality said the barrier, known in Hebrew as a mechitzah, would excessively violate people’s freedom of movement. The organization behind the prayer initiative, Rosh Yehudi, said this would prevent it from holding the event according to Jewish Orthodox law, meaning it would be canceled.

Opponents of the prayer event say it’s a show of strength by religious conservatives in the heat of secular Tel Aviv that also violates women’s rights. Supporters have disputed this, calling the event a show of unity that respects women and the benefits of worship for both men and women under sex segregation.

The decision by the city, cherished by many locals for its liberal character, follows protests by champions of secular causes, including Reuven Ladianski, a council member who is running for mayor in October’s municipal elections.

Many of the opponents of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believe its judicial overhaul – designed to heavily limit the power of the judiciary – benefits religiously devout Jews because it limits the courts’ ability to reverse allegedly discriminatory policies.

Supporters of the overhaul say it seeks to restore power to a conservative majority from an overly activist High Court.

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