by Reb Akiva @ Mystical Paths
Meah Shearim is a 150 year old isolationist ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. It’s the first neighborhood built outside the walls of the Old City after the revival of Israel had begun. It’s name stands for “100 Gates”, and literally each home added that extended the neighborhood had (and still has) thick outer walls, huge iron shutters and bars behind it on the windows…and a large iron gate. At night every home closed it’s shutters and gates and the neighborhood became a secure warren from the not-so-occasional marauding Arab bandits.
Today the neighborhood is home to a number of major chassidic courts and chassidic yeshivot and thousands of the most isolationist ultra-orthodox families in the world.
That doesn’t mean the neighborhood isn’t also dotted with cell phone stores, furniture shops, Judaica stores, and a number of major Jewish charities are headquartered there.
Every Succot the chassidic courts throw a massive neighborhood wide holy party in honor of Simchas Beis HaShoevah – the water drawing festival held when the Beis HaMikdash (the holy temple) existed about which it’s written “if one didn’t see the happiness of the water drawing festival one has never seen happiness in his life”. The party is open to all Jews (who are willing to come dressed modestly.)
Each chassidic court brings in a live chassidic band and has gender segregated dancing from 8:00 PM – 4:00 AM all week long. Besides the music and dancing, free food and drink is served as well.
It’s a sight to behold with tens of thousands of chassidim dance together with tens of thousands of guests.
However, since the neighborhood is a bastion of ultra-orthodox Judaism, the mixed gender crowding became a problem as the narrow streets thronged with tens of thousands of guests. Being concerned about men pushing through groups of women and women pushing through groups of men, the neighborhood decided to segregate the (blocked off) streets. One side for men, one side for women…with an actual canvas fence down the middle to keep shoving ending up with men and women falling into each other.
It was a reasonable solution to allow the public to join their neighborhood celebration while maintaining neighborhood standards. The fence installation and removal was paid for by the neighborhood and agreed by the police. The police don’t provide security for the neighborhood during this event…the neighborhood provides their own security service.
This year during early discussions someone suggested that due to the growing size of the crowds versus the capacity of the streets, and that the majority of the events are attended by men and only smaller events are operating for the women…that the main entries to the neighborhood be open for men only and a separate path be for women. This suggestion was publicized but ultimately rejected by the organizing committee who set up the same pattern as last year, equal but segregated street paths.
Now, hearing this online a group in Tel Aviv immediately filed a LAWSUIT with the SUPREME COURT of ISRAEL for violation of equal public access and a demand to have a protest march through the neighborhood (in the midst of a 100,000 person festival). The City of Jerusalem defended arguing that the pattern frankly works given the small streets into the neighborhood, that a protest march would be inciting a riot.
The Supreme Court ruled that the protestors were right, ordered the street partitions removed (since they couldn’t order the stopping of full street segregation because it wasn’t happening!) and that the police must allow a march.
Today the partitions were removed (the festival ended at midnight last night) and the police escorted 50 (fifty whole protestors who have never been to Meah Shearim before) from the Jerusalem Central Bus Station through Geulah but NOT to Meah Shearim. All of Jerusalem and Geulah were shut down on a busy pre-holiday (before Simchas Torah) so 50 secular Israeli protestors could make a point.