Orthodox group says will hold Tel Aviv public prayer despite ban on gender divider

Though municipality and courts rejected request to segregate genders in public space, Rosh Yehudi reverses its declared intention to nix its two Yom Kippur events

About 2,000 worshipers attend the Yom Kippur Neilah prayer at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, Israel on October 5, 2022. (Courtesy of the Municipality of Tel Aviv)
About 2,000 worshipers attend the Yom Kippur Neilah prayer at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, Israel on October 5, 2022. (Courtesy of the Municipality of Tel Aviv)

An Orthodox religious group has said it will hold a mass prayer event in a central Tel Aviv square for Yom Kippur even though the city, backed by the courts, prohibited it from erecting a gender divider at the event.

Rosh Yehudi 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.

“After many consultations, we decided to hold the prayer in a manner that will adhere to halacha (Jewish law) and the law… The prayer at Dizengoff Square has become a touching symbol of love and unity and we are certain that will be the case this year,” it said.

Israel Zeira, who founded Rosh Yehudi in 2001, and Dikla Partosh, the organization’s logistics director, declined to elaborate on the specific arrangements they had devised for the prayers.

Whereas most Orthodox rabbis agree that a mechitzah, the Hebrew-language word for a divider, is necessary for prayer events, there is no consensus on what qualifies as a mechitzah. This allows for considerable flexibility on the issue, sometimes leading to creative solutions that use the layout of prayer space in ways that make dividers unnecessary. Contacted by The Times of Israel, Zeira declined to say whether such an arrangement would be implemented, saying only, “It will be alright.”

“We were urged by many not to cancel, and received backing and warmth from the public,” the group wrote on Facebook. “The prayer is open to EVERYBODY, with no exceptions.”

Rosh Yehudi has been holding two Yom Kippur prayers on Dizengoff Square since 2020: A relatively small Kol Nidre prayer that opens the fast, and the Ne’ilah prayer at the end of the holiday, which has drawn about 2,000 worshipers in recent years. The Kol Nidre prayer this year will begin at 6:15 p.m. Sunday and the Ne’ilah service is planned for 5 p.m. Monday, Rosh Yehudi said.

On Friday the Supreme Court rejected a petition to allow gender-segregated prayers in the square. The justices thus sided with the ruling of a lower court in favor of the Tel Aviv municipality, which forbade Rosh Yehudi from holding the event with a gender divider.

The conflict around the prayer service comes amid a growing national debate over the role of religion in public spaces that has become exacerbated as part of the protests against the government’s judicial overhaul.

Leading the panel of three judges, Justice Yitzhak Amit wrote that a ban on gender segregation in a public space is the “default,” noting that the Tel Aviv municipality has maintained a policy against physical gender segregation in such spaces since 2018.

“As a general rule, gender segregation in the public space is associated in the mind with prohibited discrimination, lack of equality, and the exclusion of women in the public space,” the ruling read.

“Given the default of banning gender segregation in the public sphere, the ruling of the lower court aligns with the ruling of this court and with the prevailing public policy.”

Related: Annual Yom Kippur mass prayer tests the limits of Tel Aviv’s vaunted liberalism

The ruling also noted that individuals who view gender segregation as a critical aspect of prayer are able to worship at any of the hundreds of synagogues throughout the city.

Since 2019, Rosh Yehudi, a nonprofit that encourages Jews to embrace a religious lifestyle, has organized prayers at the end of Yom Kippur.

Last month, the Tel Aviv municipality told the organizers that they could not erect a mechitzah in the square – a physical barrier used during prayers to separate men from women in accordance with halacha, Orthodox Jewish law.

Pictures from previous events have shown mechitzahs made from various materials such as wood, metal and wicker stretching for several meters.

While supporters of the city’s ban on a mechitzah at the event have praised the move as a blow against religious coercion, critics have expressed concern over pluralism and the ostensible lack of inclusion of religious activities in the city.

Amid the clash between religious and secular values, hundreds of protesters this week surrounded a Tel Aviv synagogue used by Rosh Yehudi to protest the appearance of Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, a top figure at the Bnei David pre-military academy who has called members of the LGBTQ community “deviant,” and females serving in the IDF “crazy.”

In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that enforcing gender segregation in public spaces is illegal if it infringes excessively on individuals’ freedom of movement. However, the ruling made significant exceptions, stipulating it may take place if alternatives exist and depending on the degree of disturbance caused.

Canaan Lidor and Michael Horovitz contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: