Reform Movement Wins Landmark Legal Battle, to Build Synagogue in Central Israeli City

Ending 15-year saga, district court orders Hod Hasharon municipality to allow Kehilat Yonatan to build a synagogue for its community

The Reform movement has won an important legal battle against an Israeli municipality that tried to block its plans to build a synagogue for its members.

In a ruling issued Thursday by the Lod District Court, the municipality of Hod Hasharon – a small city north of Tel Aviv – was ordered to move ahead with the project with no further delays and allow the synagogue to be built on land already allocated for that purpose. 

The ruling was handed down by the Lod District Court in response to a suit filed in May by Kehilat Yonatan, the local Reform congregation.

Rabbi Michael Boyden, the head of Kehilat Yonatan.
Nir Kafri

Representatives of the congregation had accused the municipality of religious discrimination, insisting that the project had been subjected to excessive red tape because it involved the Reform movement. The congregation was represented in its suit by the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in the country. 

The municipality, for its part, had cited the opposition of neighbors as grounds for backing out of its commitment to allocate land for the synagogue. The congregation rejected a recent offer by the municipality to move the synagogue to an alternative location in the city, noting that it had already spent hundreds of thousands of shekels in planning the building and that further delays in implementing the project could scare away donors. 

Judge Menachem Finkelstein, who wrote the verdict, called it a clear-cut case. “It was embarrassing to read the protocols of city council meetings, including all the twisting and turning by public representatives so that they would not have to fulfill the clear and professional recommendations of the [land] allocations committee and of the legal adviser of the municipality,” wrote Finkelstein, who serves as vice president of the court. "I am saddened by the behavior of the city's representatives, including that of the mayor, who tried to avoid fulfilling their duties, primarily that of behaving decently." 

The judge ordered the municipality to pay 30,000 shekels in legal costs to the petitioners. 

Responding to the ruling, Orly Erez-Likhovsky, director of the legal department at IRAC, said: “This should be a warning sign to all those local authorities that ignore their legal advisers for political reasons.”

Hundreds of Hod Hasharon residents attend services at Kehilat Yonatan during the Jewish holidays and thousands participate in lectures and other activities organized by the congregation each year. Until now, the congregation has used a building in the Alexander Muss High School – which provides programs for high school students from around the world – as a temporary venue for holding services and other activities.

Kehilat Yonatan, one of 50 Reform congregations in Israel, is headed by Rabbi Michael Boyden, who moved with his family to Israel from England in 1985. The congregation is named in honor of his son, Yonatan, who was killed in action in Lebanon in 1993. 

Kehilat Yonatan submitted its first request for land upon which to build a synagogue 15 years ago. A professional municipal committee approved the request seven years later, but the mayor vetoed the decision because he preferred to hand over the plot to other developers. It took another three years before an alternative plot was found for the congregation.