Protesters hound homophobic rabbi in Tel Aviv amid uproar over religious group

Activists demonstrate against Yigal Levinstein and religious coercion; head of Rosh Yehudi, facing opposition to gender-segregated Yom Kippur service, says he was spat on

Rabbi Yigal Levinstein makes his way through protests in Tel Aviv on September 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Rabbi Yigal Levinstein makes his way through protests in Tel Aviv on September 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Hundreds of protesters surrounded a synagogue in central Tel Aviv Tuesday night, where a controversial rabbi with a history of sexist and homophobic comments was speaking, leading to chaotic scenes as the rabbi was escorted out under heavy police protection.

The protest outside the synagogue of the Rosh Yehudi organization, a nonprofit that encourages Jews to embrace a religious lifestyle, came as the group fights for the right to hold a gender-segregated prayer in a public square, rousing anger in the famously liberal city.

Some 300 people attended the rally outside the synagogue to protest against the appearance by 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.”

Activists were also protesting the Rosh Yehudi organization and its head Rabbi Israel Zeira, whose efforts to proselytize for Orthodox Judaism in Tel Aviv have at times run into opposition in the secular bastion.

Protesters waved Israeli and LGBTQ pride flags, blasted air horns and vuvuzelas, and held up signs with slogans against religious proselytization and gender discrimination.

As he left the synagogue, Zeira was followed closely by several dozen protesters, according to Israel Hayom. The tabloid aired footage showing him walking with a few followers and several police officers.

Other footage showed similar scenes as Levinstein left the building, though some followers accompanying him could be seen lightly scuffling with protesters. Levinstein was surrounded by a large group of cops, who were forced to shove protesters back as they tried to surround him.

Activists energized by protests against the government’s judicial overhaul package have made a habit of loudly hounding targets, usually coalition politicians, while they are in public, in some cases leading to altercations.

Rabbi Yigal Levinstein delivers a lesson while activists protest against him at a Rosh Yehudi synagogue in Tel Aviv, on September 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Zeira told the Kan public broadcaster that “close to 100 people chased us.”

He told Radio 103FM Wednesday that he was spit on by protesters, but otherwise unharmed.

“We’re shocked by the level of violence and hatred in the eyes of people who are supposed to be intelligent and good,” he told the Kipa Religious Zionist news site,  adding that protesters worried for the state of the nation were “lashing out in all directions.”

He denied supporting religious coercion.

Zeira has in the past said that he supports proselytizing.

Israelis protest against Rabbi Yigal Levinstein in Tel Aviv on September 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Levinstein said he had come to offer support to Zeira and accused “those choking on liberalism” of “having no problem … attacking” the rabbi, Israel Hayom reported.

Others in the Religious Zionist community, which both rabbis are closely associated with, also condemned the protest.

“What we saw last night looked like a scene from the worst periods in Jewish history,” said Religious Zionism party head Bezalel Smotrich, according to Israel Hayom. “A rabbi and religious citizen were brutally attacked by an inciting, violent mob because of their faith.”

Protesters defended their actions, noting Levinstein’s history of off-color remarks and accusing Zeira of attempting to bring restrictive religious mores to the city, changing its open character.

Chen Arieli (R), chair of the LGBT Association on July 25, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“What we saw yesterday was a community that is sick of apologizing and that wants to take charge of their lives. What did the heads of Rosh Yehudi expect,” Deputy Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Chen Arieli told Kan. “There was no mobbing, there was no violence. There were people who came to protest from the bottom of their hearts against racism and hate in the liberal bastion of our city.”

The protest came as Rosh Yehudi has found itself amid a tempest over its annual Yom Kippur service in the city’s central Dizengoff Square, after the city banned it from erecting a mechitzah – a physical barrier used during prayers to separate men from women in accordance with halacha, Orthodox Jewish law.

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

In response, Rosh Yehudi announced that the event would not be held unless the city withdrew its stipulation, because this would violate halachic principles. It is also seeking a court injunction against the city’s decision.

“They are on a messianic mission,” Moshe Radman, an entrepreneur with a high-profile role in recent anti-government protests, said on X. “They came to turn people religious, they came to build power bases in secular cities.”

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