Religious Leader to Petition AG Over Jerusalem Hotel's Refusal to Allow Reform Services

Uri Regev says the Rabbinate uses its monopolistic power over kashrut to extort submission to its brand of Jewish observance.

A leading member of Israel's religious pluralism movement plans to file a formal protest with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein today, after a Jerusalem hotel reportedly forced a Reform group off its premises to pray, for fear they would disturb other guests and cause the establishment to lose its kashrut certificate.

"My intention is to ask that the operations of the Rabbinate be monitored so as to limit its work to questions of kashrut and food, period," said Rabbi Uri Regev, the president of Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality. "The Rabbinate and Religious Council are knowingly acting against the law and using its monopolistic power over kashrut to extort submission to its brand of Jewish observance," Regev said in an interview with Haaretz.

The formal protest follows a recent posting to the Facebook group "Reform Olim" describing a May 11 incident involving a Birthright group of Reform youth leaders seeking to conduct a Shabbat service with musical instruments at the Beit Yehudah Guesthouse in Jerusalem. The group, according to the posting, was allegedly told that its service would disturb other hotel guests and could lead to the hotel's kashrut certificate being revoked by the Jerusalem Religious Council.

Two independent sources among the Reform worshippers have confirmed the incident. Haaretz has since learned of two additional incidents at the same hotel last summer in which a mashgiach, or kashrut supervisor, interrupted two guitar-assisted Reform Shabbat prayer services that were held behind closed doors. The group held an outdoor service on a hilltop near the hotel.

Yishai Barnea, general manager of the Beit Yehudah Guesthouse, told Haaretz that he was unaware of the incidents, but he noted a recent attempt by a group of Reform guests to play musical instruments in the hotel's main dining room on Shabbat. According to Barnea, the people involved were asked to abstain from playing "so as not to disturb the other guests." Barnea said the hotel hosts numerous delegations from "all religious streams" and cited his long personal involvement in "supporting religious pluralism."

The Israel Religious Action Center - the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel - has been monitoring the banning of instrument-assisted Reform Shabbat prayers by some Jerusalem hotels for the past year. In January, IRAC attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski confronted the Jerusalem Religious Council over a written directive its kashrut division issued to hotels in 2008 prohibiting "any use of musical instrumentation on Sabbath and holidays - even in closed rooms."

Citing prior Supreme Court rulings rejecting any linkage between hotels' qualification for kashrut certification and events that occur outside the kitchen, Likhovski formally advised the council, the Guesthouse and several major youth groups that such bans were illegal.

Yehoshua Yishai, chairman of the Jerusalem Religious Council, confirmed in a reply to IRAC last month that the council "would not condition between it [prayer services with instrumentation] and kashrut certification."

"I stand by the contents of my letter to the Reform movement," Yishai told Haaretz yesterday. In a sharply worded letter last month to Israel's Tourism and Diaspora ministers, leaders of Israel's pluralist Progressive and Masorti movements called the refusal of some hotels to accommodate non-Orthodox prayer groups "insulting and humiliating." The letter, dated April 4, was signed by Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and Yizhar Hess, the executive director and CEO of the Masorti Movement. It assailed hotels for linking their prohibitions of non-Orthodox religious services to the possible revocation of kashrut certificates. "If kashrut supervisors in hotels or the local rabbinates are in fact doing so, it is a blatant deviation from authority that has no legal basis," they wrote.

Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov, in a letter to the leaders that his spokesman shared with Haaretz, said the ministry was not aware of such "incidents," but rejected "any form of discrimination."

Yet the minister's response appeared to send mixed signals, maintaining on one hand that the ministry "does not have the authority to dictate to hotel operators how to conduct their affairs," while on the other noting that it would "stand guard to reject any legislative efforts to link the receipt of hotel kashrut certificates with activities, religious or cultural ceremonies that take place at hotels," according to the minister's letter.

"Look, we don't have an enforcement capability in this matter," ministry spokesman Amnon Liebermann told Haaretz yesterday. "We can't tell the hotels what to do. These are private, commercial entities." Hiddush's Regev accused members of the food and tourism industry of "cowering to the demands of the all-powerful Rabbinate." He also plans to write to the prime minister and to the religious services minister.

"The main problem is the fear of anyone in the food/hospitality industry to challenge the illegal demands of this monopoly, for fear of retaliation in kashrut certification," Regev said. One hotel industry official, who spoke to Haaretz on the condition of anonymity, noted the "difficulty" of meeting the needs of its clientele while also submitting to the "rigid" requirements of the local religious councils. "We're caught between a rock and a hard place," said the official. "The mashgiachs are becoming more strict and are slowly beginning to phase out hotel practices that have been commonplace for years."

Shmuel Tsurel, director-general of the Israel Hotel Association, stated in a letter to Jewish leaders Kariv and Hess that he was not aware of any link between prayer services at hotels and the status of kashrut certificates. He added that while the association "could not force hotels to conduct themselves in one way or another," it did indicate to its member hotels that their facilities should be made available to guests "equally and fairly."

For now, however, organizations like the Reform movement's North American Federation of Temple Youth are no longer booking Shabbat reservations at Jerusalem hotels, according to Rabbi Rich Kirschen, director of Israel Programs Union for Reform Judaism. "We decided from now on that we needed to spend Shabbat outside of Jerusalem in hotels that were open and pluralistic because of the incident in Jerusalem," he said.

The debate over Reform services in hotels caps off an historic week for Israel's non-Orthodox religious streams. On Tuesday, Attorney General Weinstein informed the High Court that Israel was prepared to recognize Reform and Conservative community leaders as rabbis and fund their salaries.