Tel Aviv yanks religious group’s permits for Sukkot events after Yom Kippur fracas

Municipality casts Rosh Yehudi’s use of physical gender barriers as ‘severe’ violation of permit conditions, says now-nixed plans could have caused another public disturbance

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Activists from the Rosh Yehudi organization set up a 'mechitzah' divider made of Israeli flags ahead of a public prayer event in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur eve. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)
Activists from the Rosh Yehudi organization set up a 'mechitzah' divider made of Israeli flags ahead of a public prayer event in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur eve. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

The Tel Aviv municipality on Thursday canceled permits given to an Orthodox religious group to hold public events during the upcoming Sukkot holiday in the city, after the organization attempted to hold a public Yom Kippur prayer service with an improvised gender divider, sparking bitter confrontations.

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.

Heated arguments broke out around the services on Sunday and Monday, with worshippers forced to decamp by angry protesters who say sex segregation — traditional in Orthodox Jewish prayers — is inappropriate in public spaces.

Rosh Yehudi had received a permit last month 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.

FILE: Orthodox and Reform Jews sing together in a sukkah at Tel Aviv port, organized by the Beit Tefila Israeli community, during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, on October 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

In a letter to the Rosh Yehudi group following a hearing on the matter, the municipality said the improvized mechitzah (gender-divider) 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.”

Protesters shout at Israel Zeira, 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)

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, a nonprofit that encourages Jews to embrace a religious lifestyle, has organized public prayers at the end of Yom Kippur since 2020. This was the first year the city banned the gender divider.

On Wednesday, far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir announced that he was canceling his broadly criticized plan to hold a gender-segregated prayer service in Tel Aviv on Thursday in response to the clashes.

Several hundred people attended a prayer service at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square on Thursday night. The prayer, whose organizers said was for democracy and the State of Israel, was announced as a response to Ben Gvir’s subsequently canceled prayer service in Dizengoff Square.

“We are here to show there is another kind of Judaism, an inclusive and tolerant one,” Galia Sadan, a Reform rabbi from Tel Aviv’s Beit Daniel congregation, said during the event.

Participants in a pro-democracy prayer and protest rally at Habima Theater in Tel Aviv, September 28, 2023 (Eitan Schley, via protest organizers)

“We have reclaimed the Israeli flag and the Declaration of Independence,” Yaya Fink, a former Labor party activist and head of the left-leaning Darkenu lobby group, told the crowd at Habima Square, referencing symbols of the protest movement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

The 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.

Canaan Lidor contributed to this report.

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