IDF - Eliyahu Hershkovitz - October 23 2011
Female soldiers at Simhat Torah celebration at the Eshkol Regional Council. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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About 100 female soldiers left the main celebration sponsored by the Israel Defense Forces marking the end of the Simhat Torah holiday on Thursday after they were asked to move to a separate women's section.

The traditional "Hakafot Shniyot" event, which comes after the holiday's formal conclusion and includes dancing with the Torah, was held in the Eshkol regional council area in the south. The commanders of the women soldiers decided to have the women board buses and leave after some objected to their being directed to a separate area cut off from the main event.

The separate women's section was set off by cloth sheeting, but according to one of those present "it was very hard to feel connected to the event there." The event was attended by about 500 people, including a mix of civilians and soldiers, among them, about 100 women soldiers. Those in attendance said before the request was made for them to move, the women had been dancing at one side, separately from the men and also separated by a long table. The women soldiers were then ordered by an officer from the military rabbinate to go to a separate, closed area about 50 meters away, following complaints over the initial setup.

Orthodox Jewish religious authorities call for separation of men and women in certain circumstances. For many observant Jews in Israel, however, it is the custom for men and women at Hakafot Shniyot to dance separately but without the women being relegated to another designated area. The IDF's chief rabbi, Rafi Peretz, as well as the commander for the IDF's Gaza division, Yossi Bachar, were present but did not intervene in the matter. The rabbinate has been under pressure recently to adopt strict interpretations of halakha, Jewish religious law.

The IDF Spokesman's office said in response: "As is the custom at these events every year, there is an area designated for women," adding that "no IDF official was directed to verify that men and women were separated." The IDF rabbinate is unaware of some of the complaints made over the issue and the matter will be looked into, the spokesman said.