Thousands of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men from the Sephardi community filled the Jerusalem Payis Arena Sunday night for a commemoration event staged by the Shas party for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the movement’s founders and its former spiritual leader.
The event marked the end of the 12-month period of mourning in the Jewish calendar, for the rabbi, who died on October 7, 2013.
Despite concerns that the arena would not be filled following a series of poorly attended events staged during the course of last month, the 15,000-capacity arena was almost entirely filled with Shas supporters and activists from around the country.
Shas chairman Arye Deri even took to the stage to announce that large numbers of people waiting outside the stadium would not be able to enter but could watch the even on giant screens, saying that the thousands in attendance honored the memory of Yosef.
In addition, 5,000 women attended a live screening of the event in the Jerusalem International Convention Center, Deri said.
However, the crowd did not pay due attention to the rather rambling keynote speech of the new spiritual leader of the Shas movement, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, with large numbers of attendees milling about the arena as he was speaking, including some asking for charitable donations as the rabbi spoke.
A noticeable portion of the crowd had already left due to the late hour when Cohen took to the stage.
The event featured a star-studded lineup of Shas celebrities and senior rabbis, including Cohen, the new president of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, son of Rabbi Ovadia, along with his brothers Rabbis Moshe Yosef, Avraham Yosef and David Yosef, as well as Deri and other Shas MKs.
At a time when Shas’s fortunes in opinion polls have taken a turn for the worse, the rally was an important statement for the party and Deri that the movement and its leadership remain strong without Yosef, and is capable of drawing large numbers of supporters around the banner of its departed leader.
Speaking at the rally, Deri reached out to his rival in the Shas party, MK Eli Yishai, who he ousted as party chairman, thanking him for his work and for standing by the side of Yosef during the years Yishai served as chair.
“It has been a year of persecution, of great danger to the haredi world, to yeshivas, yeshiva students and to schools,” said Deri in reference to the actions taken by the government against haredi political interests.
Deri also sought to emphasize the bona fides of Shas’s new leadership, saying that Yosef during his last days had expressed support for Cohen as the spiritual leader of the party.
Deri pointed out how Yosef had – quite literally – passed his mantle to his son, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, in the ceremony in which he gave his son the cloak and hat of the office of chief rabbi shortly before he died.
Speaking at the event, Yitzhak Yosef called for unity in Shas, saying that “God forbid there be any division in the party,” a reference to the ongoing tensions between Deri and Yishai and concerns that the latter will split away and form a new party.
Despite the loss of Yosef and the divisions that have opened up in the party, the crowd that gathered for the event was generally upbeat and in good spirits.
The thousands of spectators greeted Deri, Yitzhak Yosef and other significant leaders enthusiastically although the reception for Rabbi Shalom Cohen despite a scrum that formed around him as he entered the arena.
One attendee, Shmuel, 21, from Bnei Brak, said that Shas’s influence and importance had not waned since Yosef’s death, although he mourned the passing of the great rabbi.
“Shas is special, it’s more than a political movement, it’s about community and unites an entire community together, even though Rabbi Ovadia is no longer with us,” he told The Jerusalem Post
“Rabbi Ovadia was unique and special, he did everything with grace and love,” he conceded, but praised the new leadership of the movement, including Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Rabbi Shalom Cohen.
“Shas will carry on and grow stronger even without Rabbi Ovadia,” he said.