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Segregated Yom Kippur prayers spark slurs and bitterness, not atonement, in Tel Aviv

In the final moments of Monday’s Yom Kippur holiday, when Jews pray for God to accept their atonement and inscribe them in the Book of Life, bitter, angry tussles and arguments — fueled by the frustrations of an unprecedented nine months of Israeli communal tensions — broke out, aborting court-banned gender-separated public prayer services in central Tel Aviv.

On the one side were Jews looking to close the holiday by attending outdoor services organized in Dizengoff Square that have become an annual event in recent years, aimed by Orthodox organizers to encourage non-praying Jews back to tradition in the heart of largely non-Orthodox Tel Aviv.

On the other side were also Jews, who arrived with banners and slogans against religious coercion, furious that the worshippers had defied the courts and the municipality by attempting to impose illegal gender segregation in a public space.

A septuagenarian secular woman yelled “Nazi!” at a younger religious woman.

“Go home already, you ruined the prayers, what more do you want?” the religious woman retorted.

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“I hate you and I want to hate you for what you destroyed for us these past years,” an older secular man, who had political protest stickers pasted to his chest, yelled to a younger religious man.

In return, the younger man called him a “stinking Kibbutznik,” referencing the country’s liberal, mostly Ashkenazi, founding pioneers.

Another protesting man told a young, kippah-wearing immigrant to Israel to “go home.”

“Why did you come here from France, where they gave you hell, and you came here to give us hell?” he yelled.

“Why are you racist?” Jordan, the Mizrahi French immigrant, shouted back, as he clutched his prayer book.

Protesters argue with worshippers during aborted Yom Kippur prayers at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, September 23, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn / The Times of Israel)

“I went to the army, I can say whatever I want,” yelled another secular man, who was being shushed by a man who wanted to pray.

“I hate paying for you and your children,” another screamed at a religious attendee.

The bickering pairs were among hundreds packed into the square, arguing.

The shocking scene was a replay of events the previous evening, as Rosh Yehudi, an organization dedicated to bolstering the practice of Orthodox Judaism in Israel that has in recent years hosted Yom Kippur prayers in the popular plaza, tried to do so again, this time attempting to sidestep a Tel Aviv ban, upheld by the Supreme Court, against gender segregation in public areas.

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

Protesters then pulled down the flags and removed the chairs that organizers had set up, effectively preventing the service.

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/Flash90)

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.

It was a reversal from the previous four years during which Rosh Yehudi hosted Yom Kippur prayers in the popular plaza without interference.

Different this year

To ask a question borrowed from the Passover holiday, why was this year different from those other years?

In the past nine months, deep-rooted rifts in Israeli society have come to the fore, surfaced by the political debate over the nature of the state, and specifically the balance of power between the Knesset and the judiciary.

Protesters clash with worshippers during aborted Yom Kippur prayers at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, September 25, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Divisions over religiosity and secularism, nation and culture of origin, progressive and conservative values, and sharing the economic and service burden to the state have played out in 38 weeks of public protests for and largely against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government and its judicial agenda.

Leaders from across Israel’s political spectrum have cautioned about the rise of the same gratuitous hatred that was blamed for the end of the Jewish people’s first two sovereign political entities, in biblical times.

Privately sponsored billboards calling for unity line Israel’s major highways, competing for space with ads for and against the government. On one, a corporate developer calls to “not destroy everything we built.”

That these calls went unheeded, on the holiest day of the Jewish year, a day focused on atonement and forgiveness, underlined for many in the square on Monday that something is being broken in Israeli society.

“You still see us as one nation? Some of us don’t,” a forty-something secular man said, speaking with a group of strangers who gathered to watch the ongoing spectacle. Among their number was a woman wearing a slogan on her shirt related to the anti-judicial overhaul protests, as were many of the activists.

Protesters clash with worshippers during aborted Yom Kippur prayers at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, September 25, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

While the protests that shut down both the Sunday and Monday attempts at prayer in Dizengoff Square had ties to the broader demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul, these Yom Kippur iterations were explicitly focused on countering the perceived steady creep of religious coercion into public life in a country where most residents are secular.

Alex, a Tel Aviv resident who carrying a rainbow pride flag, told The Times of Israel that he came on Monday because “we are fighting against the religious control over public spaces.”

“This city is secular and this is just barbarism. It starts here,” he said, gesturing to the square, “and ends in Bnei Brak,” he said, referring to the ultra-Orthodox suburb abutting the city.

Morin, who lives near the trendy plaza, said that she came to rally against the prayers because Rosh Yehudi, which she sees as a “settler group,” is “trying to take over my neighborhood.”

Morin said that her tradition is to take her children to the square on Yom Kippur, but that “this year it didn’t feel like Yom Kippur; they’re taking it from me.”

Protesters clash with worshippers during aborted Yom Kippur prayers at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, September 25, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

However, not all the secular people watching the proceeding agreed with the protesters. “They turned the holiest day into political theater,”  said Aliza from Tel Aviv.

Many in the square speculated that upcoming municipal elections, scheduled for October 31, may have played a role in the conflict. Although not a uniformly secular city, Tel Aviv is seen as the country’s liberal, secular bastion, and Mayor Ron Huldai has aligned himself with that vision, taking the stage at political protests against what are perceived to be broader assaults on those values.

Last week, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court order that enabled the Tel Aviv Municipality to block the planned gender separation during Rosh Yehudi’s services. The mechitzah separation barrier is a religious requirement for Orthodox Jewish prayer, although how to fulfill the requirement outdoors is subject to interpretation.

Israel Zeira, head of Rosh Yehudi, as the group sets up a gender divider, amid protests, during a Yom Kippur public prayer event in Dizengoff Square, September 24, 2023 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

Kidla Partosh, who runs logistics for Rosh Yehudi, told The Times of Israel hours before Sunday’s aborted Kol Nidre prayers that previous years’ sessions — which have featured barriers made variously of material, wood, metal and wicker stretching for several meters — were so well received.

Rumblings against the prayers “is something new,” but “there is only opposition from a few people who want to make noise,” she said. “It’s a holy day, people love to come, with their tank tops, with shorts [and] no one says anything,” she said.

However, the court noted in its ruling that segregation in public spaces has been banned in the city since 2018 and 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.

Rosh Yehudi initially said it would not hold the event if it could not be segregated, but then backtracked and apparently tried to appease both sides with its flag mechitzah.

Orthodox Jews pray while activists protest against gender segregation in the public space during a public prayer service on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, September 25, 2023. (Itai Ron/Flash90)

On Monday evening, with time quickly running out for Yom Kippur’s concluding prayers, Rosh Yehudi formally decamped to a nearby synagogue, while a number of members started spontaneous prayers in a grassy corner of the square.

“Shame!” an older, secular man cried out, trying to make himself heard above the dozens of white-clad penitents.