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 service.

The 66 students were in Israel on their senior two-month trip and spending Shabbat in Shefayim, located between Herzliya and Netanya.

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 Torah.

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.

A 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 religious stream.

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.”

Sacks 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.

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