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Ari Goldberg

A Tale of Two Cities: Kikar Dizengoff on Yom Kippur

Drone shot of 2022 Yom Kippur Prayers at Kikar Dizengoff with voluntary mechitza (Photo by ליאור חיים ברקוביץ׳, used with permission)

“If the only way to build the Beit Hamikdash is through strife, it is preferable not to build it” — Teshuvah MeAhavah

My heart hurts.

The most incredible holiday in my life was Yom Kippur last year. At the end of the day, over 2000 people gathered in Kikar Dizengoff from all walks of life and the political and religious spectrums to hear the shofar blow that marks the end of the holiday.

Moments later bars were once again filled, cars were in the streets, and the world went back to normal. It may have been a brief moment a few minutes earlier, but, for that moment, it really felt like איש אחד בלב אחד.

It was such a unifying and powerful moment. I was on a high for days and fell in love again with this country.

This year, I was counting down the days to Yom Kippur. My friends thought I was crazy, but I was aching to get back to that moment from last year. This past year unfortunately was filled with a lot of fighting in Israel, and even just a brief moment of unity would be incredibly powerful.

In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, there was a lot of drama and back and forth between the Tel Aviv Irya, Rosh Yehudi (the organization who organized the prayers at Kikar Dizengoff the past 4 years), and the courts. Sadly, it seemed that outdoor prayers wouldn’t be taking place because of a dispute about the mechitza (separation barrier between men and women during prayers). I heard from people involved that there was a lot of work going on behind the scenes, meetings with the mayor and Chief Rabbi, and legal consultations. 

To many people’s delight, Rosh Yehudi announced erev Yom Kippur that they came to a compromise and that prayers would be happening at Kikar Dizengoff that are both legal and halachic.

I walked up to the Kikar a few minutes before the prayers were scheduled to start and saw that protestors had already filled the area. As I got closer to the bima where the chazan was I heard chants of “Racists! Racists!”, “בושה!” and “Go home to your settlements! We don’t want you here!”

I stood there, very visibly religious, and started getting harassed. 

People were screaming in my face, at the top of their lungs. I responded by saying that I love them, and asked if I could hug them. They said no, and that they hate me and want me to leave. 

Two of my friends, who were wearing long skirts (who I ironically had been to an anti-judicial-reform protest with in Jerusalem), were shouted at and called “the Taliban”. Some protestors threatened violence, shoved and assaulted people, and inflicted verbal abuse upon anyone visibly religious, even people holding their children and pregnant women.

I saw many religious men, women and children hysterically crying due to harassment and hatred being shouted at them. My many friends and neighbors who had come to pray were now targets.

I want to point out that the videos you see on the news were taken and filtered by the protestors. Those who came to pray did not have their phones out recording what was going on. Therefore you don’t see any videos of protestors shoving pregnant women and parents holding their little children, or calling people nazis. The reality was way worse.

It was truly a heartbreaking moment. I never experienced such hate and venom in my life.

I was shaking.

Were the protestors notified by the police that the symbolic flag mechitzah was legal? Yes.

Did the protestors proceed to ignore and defy the police and interpret the law how they wanted? Yes.

Were there numerous other prayer services that were disrupted despite having zero mechitza? Yes.

Was it right to find a legal way to do a symbolic mechitzah? In hindsight I’m not sure. Prayers shouldn’t be a point of contention or provocation, but for unity and peace. If I had known what disunity the prayers would cause I would not have gone. I think it is the last thing G-d would have wanted as well.

Does that justify the hate, violence, and harassment that people (many who didn’t even know about the symbolic flag mechitzah, like myself) were subjected to? Definitely not.

Was there more strife? Definitely. 

Have their been monthly Friday night prayers at Kikar Dizengoff (with a voluntary mechitza) for the past few years, organized by Rosh Yehudi, without any issues? Yes.

Was the event- something that had previously been coordinated with, and bragged about (with a voluntary mechitzah) by the City of Tel Aviv- politicized because of the upcoming Tel Aviv mayoral elections and current political environment? I’ll let you decide:

A Facebook screenshot by Tel Aviv’s official page used in accordance with Clause 27a of copyright law. Picture of last years yom kippur prayers at Kikar Dizengoff with a voluntary mechitza
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai speaking at Rosh Yehudi, Purim 2020. Photo by anonymous member of community (used with permission)
Ron Huldai dancing with Rosh Yehudi CEO Yisrael Zeira, Purim 2020. Photo by Anonymous member of community (used with permission)

I want to clarify that Rosh Yehudi is not an extremist organization from my experience. The people that go come from all walks of life, including many olim from all over the world, people from all over the political spectrum, religious spectrum, LGBT, as well as female soldiers. It is very accepting and I never heard anything controversial in their shiurim.

We all feel comfortable there.

By saying that they are extremist you are alienating and hurting me and my friends from the US, Belgium, England, Australia, South Africa, Austria, Mexico, Tel Aviv and many other places who were at Kikar Dizengoff on Yom Kippur (not the rumored “busses of settlers”) or at their other prayers.

That being said, I’m mad that such a beautiful moment and symbol of unity instead became provocation and an excuse for harassment and violence.

In the grand scheme of things, there were honestly only a handful of protestors. Well under 100 people. And that event is unfortunately what we and the news are focusing on instead of focusing on the thousands of people in Tel Aviv who succeeded in gathering together. 

One outdoor event nearby had an estimated 4000 people show up for the final prayers and shofar blowing.

I personally spent the final neila service surrounded by hundreds of my neighbors from Tel Aviv at Rosh Yehudi. We left the synagogue to finish the prayers and blow shofar in the street since there were  so many people who showed up to end Yom Kippur together, and we couldn’t physically all fit inside (it was scheduled to be at Kikar Dizengoff but moved to prevent more issues).

Most of the people there were chiloni or masorti, and many current and former soldiers/lone soldiers (including women), “anti-judicial-reform”, LGBT, olim, etc. Some men and women chose to stand separately, many chose to stand together.

No politics, no religious coercion. Just love and unity.

The powerful and loud singing together of Am Yisrael Chai and Hatikvah drowned out the few protestors who were shouting, despite there being no mechitzah.

Prayers and religious events shouldn’t cause more strife. They should be unifying. 

Wishing us a year of unity and peace, may we continue to love and respect each other, and love and respect each other even more, especially those we disagree with. 

Hoping the protestors from this year can come join the prayers next year. Their passion and loudness really would enhance it.

“God pardoned the sin of idolatry three times, but he did not forgive the sin of strife” — Midrash Lamed Bet Middot, Midrash Rav Eliezer 4.

About the Author
Ari Goldberg is an oleh and former 'chayal boded' from New Jersey. He has been in Israel since 2015, and works and lives in Tel Aviv
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