Tel Aviv Officials Bow to Orthodox Pressure Over Women at Purim Event

Orthodox sponsors balked at pluralistic holiday event with Conservative group featuring women reading from the Book of Esther; city-run community center obliges.

A woman reading the Megillah (Book of Esther).
Tomer Appelbaum

To placate its Orthodox sponsors, a city-run community center in Israel’s famously secular Tel Aviv has withdrawn plans to host a pluralistic Purim holiday event Wednesday night that would have featured women reading from the Book of Esther.

The event, initiated by the center in the upscale neighborhood of Ramat Aviv Gimel, was supposed to have included a local congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement and a group of Orthodox young families who have recently set up a base in the neighborhood.

The Orthodox families are members of a newly formed “Garin Torani” – government-funded religious Zionist families that move in groups to disadvantaged communities where they perform outreach work.  It is very rare for such groups to set up bases in major cities, even more so in affluent neighborhoods.

This particular Garin Torani had received about $100,000 from the government several years ago to run social and religious programs in this particular Tel Aviv neighborhood, which is home to two Conservative congregations.

The head of the neighborhood community center had asked Hakehila Hachadasha, one of the two Conservative congregations, and members of the Garin Torani if they would agree to hold a joint megillah-reading ceremony on its premises. Both sides accepted the invitation, but when the Orthodox group members learned that the Conservative congregation planned to have women read from the Book of Esther, they said they could not participate, since according to their tradition, only men can engage in this practice. The two groups then notified the community center that they would not be able to participate together in the joint event.

But rather than cancel it, the community center decided to hold the event exclusively for the Orthodox group. Posters hung around the neighborhood this morning advertising it notified residents that the megillah reading was being jointly sponsored by the municipality, the local Garin Torani and an organization called “Yachad – Jewish Identity in the Community.”

Yachad is a joint venture of the Jewish Identity division of the Orthodox-run Religious Affairs Ministry and Ohr Torah Stone, an Orthodox outreach organization located in the West Bank town of Efrat. The project is run by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the American-born rabbi who helped found the settlement.

“It’s astonishing that there are still those who consider women reading from the megillah to be a provocation,” said Jeff Cymet, the rabbi of Hakehila Hachadasha. “It is even more astonishing that something like this can happen in Tel Aviv, and under the auspices of the local community center and the municipality. If the head of the community center had to choose between an activity that includes women and one that doesn’t, in the name of what public interest did she choose to exclude women?”

In response, the Tel Aviv municipality told Haaretz that the megillah reading at the community center was a “secular, mixed event” that takes place every year, noting that it is run and produced by a woman. “For the reading, a local male resident, who is an expert, was chosen,” a spokesperson said. The spokesperson added that two megillah readings by women were taking place nearby.

“The municipality rejects any form of exclusion and works to promote egalitarianism in all events throughout the year,” the spokesperson said. “Moreover the community center is open for all initiatives and other events.”

Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, noted that the Garin Torani movement has been expanding its influence in recent years around the country.

“It is a giant strategic project that it changing the rules of the game, benefiting from government handouts from several different ministries and offices, with an objective that is no longer hidden from the eye: the destruction of Israeli secularism.”