Two days after the 'big bang' on Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv, we met with Israel Zeira, the leader of 'Rosh Yehudi,' to understand what happened there and precisely what the goal of 'Rosh Yehudi' is in the heart of Tel Aviv.
Israel starts with a smile and says, "From here, we can only go up," and then he elaborates on the event that took place on the holy day:
"Dozens of people arrived at the square in an organized and well-prepared manner. Before the holiday, we debated whether to hold the event and how to do it. In the end, we found a plan that was both in accordance with religious law and legal requirements. However, they organized themselves into groups to disrupt the prayer, and we have screenshots of that."
Did you know they would come to disrupt the prayer?
"At some point, we knew that they were organizing for something disruptive. They wrote that they would mix among the men and women without disturbances, essentially misleading us and the police. We complained to the police before Yom Kippur and requested their protection for the prayer. In the end, they arrived with great force and in an organized manner, screaming and with a strategy to disrupt the prayer. This was something we never expected, as another red line was crossed, and another sacred cow was slaughtered, which was the Yom Kippur prayer that had become a consensus even in the secular world.
"The prayer was disrupted by an anarchist group. They defiled the Torah, the prayer, previously the army, the economy, the academia, and they fight against nationalism and fight against sanctity."
If you knew, you would say we will conduct the prayer because it's Jewish pride, or is it better to be wise and not right?
"Hindsight-wise, everyone is wise. Initially, we acted correctly in holding the prayer. After extensive consultation within our team and with important rabbis, on the same day that the petition was filed with the Supreme Court, Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi David Lau called me and said: 'I want to make sure that you are conducting the prayer and not canceling it. My wife is ill, so I can't attend, but if I could, I would pray with you and sleep over by you.' There is a tremendous and very moving support from all corners."
Why Tel Aviv specifically? After all, if they were to open a center for people who have left the religion in the settlements, it would upset us?
"Because Tel Aviv has everything – it has the will, the desire, and the thirst, and it's pluralistic. In Bnei Brak, they won't open a stand to sell non-kosher meat because there won't be demand for it. But Tel Aviv is a big city with everything in it, and it takes pride in its liberalism. Furthermore, when you open a Tefillin stand in Tel Aviv, there's a long line. I am the liberal one. I embrace complexities and differences. I tolerate what I may not agree with, and I live here proudly, loving the people who are different and my friends. Where has your liberalism gone? Suddenly, you've become afraid?"
It scares them, can you understand this?
"Something amazing is happening with Israel, drawing closer to the Almighty day by day. It's a divine promise unrelated to us. The Lord is restoring Zion's soul; the soul of the nation is returning and urging us to draw near. This is expressed in the faithful singers who sing holy songs and fill Caesarea, Omer Adam dons Tefillin, dozens of artists declare they won't work on Shabbat. Where was all this 40 years ago?"
Zeira also reassures, saying, "I say with a full heart, we are against religious coercion. Secular individuals have nothing to fear from religious coercion. In another ten or so years, secular people will be a minority, not due to demographics, but because people define themselves as traditional. No one wants to impose the Torah because that's against the essence of the Torah. The Torah is for freedom, for free choice, even 'Rosh Yehudi' who is in favor of religiosity is in favor of the freedom to choose good out of knowledge and reason."
"What suffering a baal teshuva goes through, and what a price he pays. We have a community of baalei teshuva, these are people who should be revered. A person can return on their own in teshuva; I don't know how to bring someone to do teshuva. I can help them, study with them, invite them for Shabbat, but not cause them to do teshuva."
A call to the national religious community - spread Torah!
"Let's stop hiding, let's stop being weak-minded, and let's stand strong with the spiritual stance that says we are joyful in our Torah, and we are joyful and proud of our religion. We have something good that belongs to everyone, and we want to share it with all of the Jewish people. I have a secular friend whose son started a group with already 100 people who want to learn Torah following the events of Yom Kippur. Truth has healing power. Invite people to the sukkah, open up lessons, there's a tremendous thirst. The most important thing is to spread Torah."
What will happen on Simchat Torah?
"Last night we received a hearing from the Tel Aviv Municipality to cancel the second hakafot (Simchat Torah celebrations). I think this is a terrible and awful thing. The municipality is surrendering because of the upcoming elections and wants to show that it is anti-religious. Even Yair Lapid said that we need to soften and unite. There will be second hakafot, but I don't know how yet."
How is the atmosphere around you right now?
"A lot of support, an amazing successful donation campaign, and on the other hand, people are shouting shame at me in the street. Tonight, a protest is planned in front of my house, we will offer them bread and water like our forefather Abraham, and even more than that. There will be no physical violence and no verbal abuse. In conclusion, Israel smiles with hope, 'It will be good.'"
** The interview took place before the municipality announced that it would cancel the permit for the second hakafot and before Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir canceled his protest prayer in the city.