Fred Shahrabani

The Battle for Judaism’s Soul on Tel Aviv Streets

I grew up in a traditional household in Tehran, Iran, where my parents frequented the Orthodox Iraqi Jewish synagogue, Ettefagh, in the Laleh Park district of Tehran. Men occupied the main floor for prayers, while women sat in the balcony. It wasn’t until I reached the age of 20 and attended university in Los Angeles that I encountered women rabbis and mixed seating. It felt alien to me; nevertheless, I was determined to understand the new, very different Jewish customs. Today I am comfortable with the customs of all major Jewish denominations, yet my heart remains anchored to the traditions of my youth.

As such, I am hardly opposed to Orthodox practices or gender separation during prayer. Rather, what is deeply concerning is the agenda of many Orthodox organizations in Israel and abroad that seek to replace liberal Jewish values with a brand of Judaism that goes well beyond gender-divisions.

Following 40 weeks of intense protests, a significant portion of Israelis have articulated a commitment to a set of core values that define their Judaism, Zionism, and Israeli identity. These values encompass a robust democracy, the checks and balances provided by an independent Supreme Court, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the right to practice Judaism as one sees fit, and a vision of eventual peace and coexistence in the land.

If Rosh Yehudi, the organization behind the Yom Kippur prayers, truly aimed to promote unity, as it claims, it could have demonstrated its commitment to at least some of the core values cherished by Tel Aviv’s residents. However, without any such demonstration, it forced itself onto an embattled city with drastically different views and values.

In a recent video clip, Rabbi Israel Zeira, head of Rosh Yehudi, expounded his worldview to fellow members: “When you see a secular world, you have to consider how to change it, how to fix it. How to engage with it not just for friendship, but for influence.”

Given this perspective, it prompts us to question the vision that Rosh Yehudi seeks to replace the secular world with. It matters that a few days prior to the Yom Kippur prayers, Rabbi Zeira hosted Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who derided women entering the IDF as “crazy” and labeled LGBTQ citizens as “deviant.” It matters that Rosh Yehudi has ties to Itamar Smotrich, Israel’s current finance minister, who proclaims racist views.

Under these circumstances, Rosh Yehudi’s claim to promote unity through prayer seems ironic at best and destructive at worst. Exploiting Yom Kippur and various Jewish symbols to advance its religio-political agenda is unconscionable, and  diminishes a unique and multifarious heritage that belongs to all Jews.

As such, the protesters were not rallying against Judaism but against advocates of an unrecognizable version of it.   

Yesterday, following the Yom Kippur fallout, Rosh Yehudi’s request to construct a sukkah in Tel Aviv was once again denied. It is expected to continue to apply for access to the public square as part of its religious activities. If unity is truly central to its mission, there is a way forward for Rosh Yehudi.

If Rosh Yehudi will unequivocally support Israel’s liberal democracy, the Western Wall’s shared use with Judaism’s Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist denominations, supremacy of the rule of law, the principles articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, unequivocally condemn the harassment of Jewish women on public buses and in other spaces, prioritize liberal education alongside Torah study—it will then certainly be welcome in Tel Aviv, and moreover, it can build gender-dividers to its heart’s content. 

However, if it cannot support these values and instead backs Netanyahu’s push for an illiberal autocracy, claiming Tel Aviv’s central square for prayers becomes a provocative and cynical act.

As a Mizrachi Jew with roots in traditional and orthodox customs, I do not recognize or accept Orthodox Judaism leaders who endorse intolerant and undemocratic values that alienate most of the world’s Jewish population. These positions deviate from the tolerant, wise, and peaceful Judaism I was raised in. If the Orthodox Mizrahi communities of Iraq, Persia, Morocco, and other eastern nations existed today, their leaders would be appalled by the abyss into which current Orthodox leaders and their messianic representatives in the Knesset have steered Israel. 

About the Author
Fred was raised and educated in Tehran. He hails from a family of Iraqi Jews who fled Iraq, and subsequently, in the wake of the the 1979 Islamic Revolution, fled Iran. His parents spent formative years in Israel. As Arab Jews and Zionists who experienced the generosity of Moslem culture, and in particular the high spirit, hospitality, and graciousness afforded them in Iran, his perspective is formed by many of the historic events that engulfed the region.
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