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Academic restrained by police inside Berlin synagogue on Shabbat after community blacklists her

Shani Tzoref was forcibly removed after she wrote a JC column objecting to the liberal synagogue's gender segregation

    The Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue in West Berlin is described as liberal, but men and women are told to sit separately
    The Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue in West Berlin is described as liberal, but men and women are told to sit separately

    A US-Israeli professor has spoken of her fear and humiliation after she was physically restrained by police at a German synagogue that had just informed her she was blacklisted.

    Shani Tzoref’s forcible removal last Saturday was the culmination of her long-running dispute with the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue in Berlin, to whose gender segregation practices she strongly objects.

    But the synagogue said it had “no other choice” but to ban her.

    Ms Tzoref said she arrived at the synagogue for morning services last Shabbat, July 20, and was informed by security that its rabbi, Jonah Sievers, had banned her from attending.

    Told she must leave, Ms Tzoref nonetheless followed worshippers into a courtyard located in front of the main sanctuary, where she prayed and sang in protest at her exclusion.

    Police arrived at 10.05am and made physical attempts to remove her from the synagogue grounds. Ms Tzoref recalled four police officers grabbing her; in the process, her skirt flew up.

    The police’s actions “added to the humiliation,” she said. “I was scared of being hurt.”

    Berlin police told the JC that they were called to the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue after a 52-year-old woman went past security and entered the building’s courtyard.

    An official said Ms Tzoref was subject to a Hausverbot — ban on entering the building’s premises — and by crossing security, she had committed trespass, requiring police action.

    Such bans are usually only issued in Germany to right-wing extremists or Christian missionaries, although they can be made if someone were thought to be disrupting the peace and sanctity of a synagogue.

    Located in Berlin’s western Charlottenburg district, the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue defines itself as Liberal. It is home to the city’s largest synagogue choir and services include organ music.

    Sources in Berlin’s Jewish community told the JC that Pestalozzistrasse’s Rabbi Sievers was a difficult person and his leadership was resistant to change.

    Pestalozzistrasse is the only self-described Liberal congregation in Germany to enforce gender segregation in its seating.

    Seating at the four other Liberal synagogues in Berlin is mixed and other egalitarian establishments also exist — such as the Masorti New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse, which has a female rabbi and cantor.

    Ms Tzoref, who defines herself as “halachic”, had long opposed what she said was a “systemic discrimination that has cost people their dignity” and “my ability to act morally”.

    In February, Ms Tzoref wore tallit to the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue and had attempted to sit in the men’s section during Shabbat services.

    Writing in the JC at the time, she said she wanted to “challenge the gender discrimination practiced in some non-Orthodox Berlin synagogues.”

    The same month she left her job as Professor of Hebrew Bible at Abraham Geiger College and the University of Potsdam. She had not previously visited the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue regularly and was not registered as a member of the Jewish Community of Berlin.

    A spokesperson for the Jewish Community of Berlin said Ms Tzoref had “not observed the rituals of the synagogue.”

    As such, its leadership believed it had “no other choice” but to ban her when she returned in July.

    Her disruption and “repeated disregard” for the community’s ways of observance had “greatly disturbed” the other congregants, they claimed.

    It was only after Ms Tzoref put up a resistance and refused to leave the synagogue after being informed of the Hausverbot that security personnel had to use force in order to remove her.

    “Worshippers in any synagogue have the right to pray as they see fit, both in peace and free from provocation,” the community’s spokesperson said, confirming that the ban against Ms Tzoref remains in place.


    Update (July 24): This article was updated on July 24 to clarify that Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue is the only self-described Liberal congregation in Germany where men and women sit separately.

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