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

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 mass protests.

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 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 jeering 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 dance 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.

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But in a decision announced Thursday, both permits were canceled.

Religious and reform Jews sing together in a sukkah on the 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 bamboo frame had been a “severe” violation of its terms that had 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 frame divider had not been a physical barrier, and warned allowing it to continue holding 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 during a public prayer or Yom Kippur on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, Israel on September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

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.

עיריית תל אביב יפו קיבלה היום בלב כבד, החלטה שמבטלת את ההיתרים לעמותת "ראש יהודי" לקיים אירועים במרחב הציבורי.

ההחלטה התקבלה לאחר שהארגון לא קיבל אחריות על האירוע בהפרדה שהתקיים בכיכר דיזינגוף ביום כיפור, ולא כיבד את ההיתר, את הנחיות העירייה ואת פסיקת בית המשפט בנושא.

כולם… pic.twitter.com/pbLWt8VojM

— רון חולדאי (@Ron_Huldai) September 28, 2023

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.

Protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul plans went ahead with an egalitarian “prayer for the peace of democracy” event at Habima Square on Thursday evening as a protest against the gender-segregated prayers on Yom Kippur.

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.