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Activists block public Tel Aviv Yom Kippur prayers as Orthodox group sets gender divider

An Orthodox religious group defied the Tel Aviv municipality and an order from the Supreme Court and set up an improvised gender divider at a mass prayer event in central Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square at the start of Yom Kippur on Sunday evening, sparking an angry response from liberal activists and the abandoning of the event.

A similar event on Monday night, marking the end of the fast day, was also contested by activists and abandoned. And there were tussles and friction surrounding several other public, gender-separated events on Monday evening.

At Sunday’s event, Rosh Yehudi participants strung up Israeli flags as a makeshift barrier, or mechitzah, between the male and female worshippers 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.

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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 worshippers left shortly afterward.

After the Orthodox group dispersed, hundreds of secular activists gathered in the square,  beating drums, blowing trumpets and chanting.

The Orthodox Jewish group Rosh Yehudi sets up a gender divider made of Israeli flags in defiance of a High Court order at a public prayer service in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

The demonstrators, many of them affiliated with the mass anti-judicial overhaul protests that have rocked the country in recent months, also issued a call to go and protest all public gender-segregated prayer sessions on Monday night, when the Jewish Day of Atonement ends.

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

In Dizengoff on Monday, angry exchanges echoed across the central Tel Aviv square as some 200 demonstrators again forced worshippers to abandon plans for a segregated prayer service.

גרעין תורני עלה על תל-אביב. https://t.co/Nuk3DWVKcb

— אילנה מנדיל (@ilanamandil) September 25, 2023

In the north Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv on Monday night, dozens of residents gathered to prevent a mechitzah from being set up in a shopping center, outside a synagogue, by the local Chabad group.

At first, the two sides engaged in discussions, with people on both sides brought to tears until men from the Chabad began to sing and dance through the crowd, which responded with chants of “democracy.”

Tel Aviv city inspectors also prevented the setting up of a segregated improvised synagogue on a sports field in the Maoz Aviv neighborhood, the Haaretz daily reported.

Secular and Orthodox residents confront each other as the Chabad group tries to set up a gender segregated prayer area outside a public center in the Ramat Aviv neighborhood in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur in defiance of a High Court ruling on September 25, 2023 (Courtesy)

Similar incidents were also reported in Jaffa, where a planned public gender-separated event relocated to a synagogue as protesters gathered, and in the northern cities of Haifa and Zichron Ya’akov, Haaretz said.

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.

עכשיו בכיכר דיזנגוף. pic.twitter.com/EV2LJiYV7K

— Or Kashti אור קשתי (@OrKashti) September 24, 2023

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.”

He noted that the Tel Aviv municipality has maintained a policy against physical gender segregation in such spaces since 2018.

Secular and Orthodox activists clash after the religious group sets up a gender divider made of Israeli flags in defiance of a High Court order at a public prayer service in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

“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.

Secular activists take down a gender divider made of Israeli flags that was set up by the Rosh Yehudi group in defiance of a High Court order at a public prayer service in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

Despite the court ruling, Rosh Yehudi had said it would move forward with the events, 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.

כיכר דיזנגוף ת"א: עימותים בין חילונים למנכ"ל ראש יהודי, ישראל זעירא. pic.twitter.com/uChFOxhwRa

— חזקי ברוך (@HezkeiB) September 24, 2023

The mechitzah is a physical barrier used during prayers to separate men from women in accordance with halacha, Orthodox Jewish law. 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.

Police detain an activist protesting against the Orthodox Jewish group Rosh Yehudi which set up a gender divider made of Israeli flags in defiance of a High Court order at a public prayer service in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

Last month, the Tel Aviv municipality told the organizers that they could not erect a mechitzah in the square

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 last 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.”

Secular and Orthodox activists clash after the religious group sets up a gender divider made of Israeli flags in defiance of a High Court order at a public prayer service in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

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.