Haredi man in Dead Sea - Gil Cohen-Magan - September 2011
Haredi men enjoying the Dead Sea’s waters in 2008. Photo by Gil Cohen-Magan
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The Monday after Spencer Tunick snapped his historic photograph of more than a thousand nude people at the Dead Sea, a convey of official cars drove down to the lowest place on earth. At the Zohar estuary on the southern shore of the lake, rabbis, cabinet ministers, Knesset members and their minions emerged from the cars.

Everyone was effusive in their praise for the head of the Tamar Regional Council, Dov Litvinov, for his decision to establish a strictly separate bathing beach for men and women.

The minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee, Silvan Shalom, said at the dedication ceremony: "We are at the place where, in Sodom, humanity faced one of its most difficult hours, morally speaking."

Shalom said it was a time "when some of the most horrific things that one could imagine happened, and precisely here, at the lowest spot on earth, we are rising up. We are helping many people to be able to come here."

Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger said that the declaration of the separate beaches was "a very great gift of this place to the Jewish people around the word."

Interior Minister and Shas chairman Eli Yishai said that the separate beach gave equal rights to Orthodox people and that this was a commandment, a good deed, from the Torah.

The section of beach in question had been set aside for separate bathing of men and women, to serve the ultra-Orthodox, years ago. But it deteriorated over the years because of the rising sea water and salt damage.

The current project is expected to cost about NIS 8 million, funded mostly by the interior and tourism ministries.

Many of the ultra-Orthodox visitors who will now feel comfortable dipping in the salty sea come from Arad, where there is a large community of Gerrer Hasidim. The group's representative in the Knesset, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, has been working for years to obtain funding to establish the separate beach at the Dead Sea, whose popularity has soared among the ultra-Orthodox.

Rabbi Haim Tzvi Shkol, the secretary of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael political party in Arad, said: "These are Orthodox Jews, some of whom come from abroad, for medical purposes as well. To this day they have no place to enter the water. The tourists, like yeshiva students, had to go and look for unofficial beaches, and their feet would get scratched up. It was terrible."

The Regional Council is well aware of the revenue from ultra-Orthodox visitors, particularly from the taxes paid by hotels who cater to this group. The beach joins some 12 separate bathing beaches in Israel on the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee.

Men and women will bathe at the same time, but on opposite sides of a wooden divider.