While on a trip to Israel last month, a group of students from the Solomon
Schechter School in Westchester, New York, which is associated with the
Conservative Judaism movement, were denied use of a Torah scroll for their
prayer service at a hotel because they were conducting a mixed-gender
The 66 students were in Israel on their senior two-month trip and
spending Shabbat in Shefayim, located between Herzliya and
Arrangements had been made to stay in the kibbutz’s hotel for a
Shabbat in February and the group had requested that a separate room be made
available for their prayer services.
On Shabbat morning, one of the
group’s counselors requested the use of a Torah scroll from the hotel’s
synagogue, but the hotel’s religious supervisor told them they could only use it
if their service was not mixed and they would not call women up to the
Men and women sit together in Conservative prayer services –
unlike in Orthodox synagogues where they sit in separate sections – and in some
Conservative congregations, women are called up to the Torah to recite the
blessings and read the weekly portion.
According to one of the
counselors, their service was being held after the hotel’s service in the
synagogue had ended and there was no other impediment to their use of the Torah
scroll other than the supervisor’s objections.
The group refused to
accede to his demand and held their service without using a Torah.
spokeswoman for the hotel told The Jerusalem Post that no formal complaint had
been lodged and she therefore would not comment on the specifics of the incident
to the media. Hotel management also did not contact the religious supervisor to
confirm or deny the details of the incident.
The spokeswoman stated,
however, that it is the policy of the hotel to ask any group that wants to
conduct their own service to provide their own Torah scroll, regardless of
The group’s senior counselor said that the staff
decided to hold services without a Torah after the supervisor said that they
could only use it if genders were kept separate.
“We wanted to stick to
our values of having an egalitarian service,” he said. “We also saw it as an
educational moment and explained to the group participants that this is one of
the biggest conflicts within Israeli society – the meaning of what a Jewish
state should be.”
“The goal of Zionism today should be to try and perfect
the country we have, not to get frustrated and work against it, even when the
government or the mainstream religious establishment rejects us,” the senior
counselor said he told the group.
Rabbi Andrew Sacks, the director of the
Rabbinical Assembly of Masorti Rabbis in Israel, called the incident an example
of “increasing zealotry” within Jewish life in Israel. Conservative Judaism is
largely represented in Israel by the Masorti Movement.
“A hotel does not
have the right to discriminate between the different religious practices of its
guests,” he told the Post.
“Either they provide their different services,
such as the provision of a Sefer Torah [Torah scroll], for all guests or not at
all, but to deny services to a specific group is unacceptable.”
added that Israel must begin to acknowledge the legitimacy of the broader Jewish
community, and that the Israeli public must stop “kowtowing” to pressure from
the religious establishment.
“In light of all of the difficulties we face
at the moment, it is particularly problematic that we would make it more
difficult for the Diaspora community to practice their Judaism when visiting the
Jewish state,” he said.