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Police to Press Charges Against Orthodox Group of Men Who Tried to Disruptservices at a Reformsynago

Jerusalem police said Sunday they would press charges against Rabbi Eliahu Abergil who led a group of Orthodox men in an attempt to disrupt prayer services at a Reform congregation in the Baka suburb of Jerusalem Friday evening, the eve of Simchat Torah. He is also charged with making threats against the local Reform community.

The Jerusalem Police Chief said Sunday that accounts of violence at the incident were much exaggerated, Minister of Religious Affairs Zevulun Hammer, nevertheless, ordered an inquiry. According to the police, Abergil is suspected of having violated Article 171 of the Criminal Code. If convicted he could face up to three years in prison. Abergil was released on bail Sunday.

The incident has escalated the ongoing controversy in Israel over freedom of worship for all and religious extremism. Rabbi Richard Hirsh, head of the Progressive (Reform) movement in Israel said Sunday that protection of minority rights was the essence of democracy.

But Sephardic Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu said on a radio interview that while he abhorred and condemned violence of any kind, he opposed freedom of worship if that meant equality for all branches of religion.

Hammer, leader of the National Religious Party, stated that he favored complete freedom and protection for private worship but was against “importing problems,” meaning apparently the pluralism of Judaism that prevails in the U.S. and other countries. Israel recognizes and supports only the Orthodox branch.

Abergil denied charges that he hurled abuse at the Reform worshippers and that he and his supporters resorted to force to wrest Torah scrolls from them

Eye-witness accounts of the events at the Kol Haneshama congregation Friday night said “Abergil and his followers entered the community center gymnasium where services were being held At first they just watched. Then, two of the younger intruders asked to dance with the Torah scrolls and attempted to grab them. When they failed, Abergil began screaming invectives at the congregation, calling them evil and corrupt He said they made the synagogue into a house of prostitution.

“At that point, members of the congregation joined hands and began singing, ‘May He who makes Peace on High make Peace for us and all of Israel.’ Slowly they edged the intruders out of the building.”

Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of the Reform congregation told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency he was kicked by one of Abergil’s supporters. He said he was calling on all non-Orthodox Israelis to show their solidarity by filling Reform and Conservative congregations this Sabbath.

(In New York, Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement, said Sunday: “The attempt by ultra-Orthodox extremists to disrupt a joyous celebration of Simchat Torah in a Reform synagogue in Holy City of Jerusalem fills us with profound sadness, demonstrating as it does the fanatic and unremitting effort of certain groups to impose, by force if necessary, their view of how other Jews should worship the Almighty. We are grateful to the Jerusalem police for pressing charges against the perpetrators and to the Minister of Religious Affairs for ordering an investigation into this reprehensible act.”)

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