TEL AVIV, Israel (RNS) It was Sunday -- women’s-only day -- at the so-called religious beach in this Israeli city on the Mediterranean, and several hundred women and girls sat on the sand or frolicked in the gentle waves with an abandon they rarely exhibit elsewhere.
While some European beaches are banning women dressed in “burkinis” and other modest swimwear, and Americans are challenging women’s-only swimming hours at public pools, this Israeli beach has long been a haven for women whose strict religious beliefs, community norms or fears of sexual harassment, among other reasons, make swimming or sunbathing alongside men undesirable, even impossible.
“Were it not for the religious beach I couldn’t go to the beach,” said Molly, a young Orthodox woman who asked that her last name and photograph not be published because her religious beliefs require modesty.
“I can be myself here,” Molly said solemnly, perched on a piece of municipal exercise equipment as she looked out at the sea.
Established decades ago, Tel Aviv’s religious beach is one of about a dozen gender-segregated beaches sprinkled around Israel. Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays are designated for women only, with alternate days for men.
And many Israeli pools offer a few hours of separate male and female swimming.
Enshrined into law decades ago by ultra-Orthodox Jewish lawmakers, the segregated beaches attract mostly religious Jewish women, judging from their street clothes, “but also some secular women,” according to Yossi Cohen, the beach’s male supervisor.
Religious Arab Muslim women generally go to coed beaches with their male relatives, Cohen said, and, like all bathers, are welcome to wear whatever clothes they wish.
Cohen said a burkini, as well as other popular modest swimwear brands favored by many Orthodox Jewish women, “are safer than their robes and street clothes” because they are made of swimwear materials. “Everything else weighs you down and isn’t safe for swimming,” he said.
Uri Regev, president of Hiddush, a nongovernmental organization that promotes freedom of religion in Israel, said Israelis tend to be much more tolerant of religious practices and expressions of physical modesty than their European counterparts.
“European society views secularism as the norm and religious piety as threatening,” he said.
Israel, in contrast, sometimes goes to the other extreme, Regev said.
“There are examples of religious coercion, such as when gender-segregated ultra-Orthodox programs insist women can’t teach males, therefore limiting women’s job options. That’s discrimination.”
To Israel’s credit, Regev said, gender-segregated beaches and tolerance for all types of religious garb “demonstrate an acceptance for varied religious beliefs” not found in most countries. While Israeli rights advocates have successfully fought against gender segregation on public buses, Regev said, no one objects to gender-segregated beaches.
“As long as municipalities offer segregated beaches without detracting from the ability of others to swim at other beaches, this is a virtue, not coercion. Ultimately, it’s all about balance,” Regev said.
Shayna Weiss, who has researched Israel’s gender-segregated beaches, agrees.
“When it is balanced with concerns of equal access I think there’s a strong argument to be made for special beaches. That being said, these beaches set a precedent of gender segregation in the public sphere” that could potentially be applied elsewhere, said Weiss, the Distinguished Visiting Scholar of Israeli Studies at the United States Naval Academy.
Such concerns seemed far away at the religious beach in Tel Aviv, which is sandwiched between the Port, a popular and very secular tourist attraction, and the city’s dog beach.
Groups of women and girls, many pushing strollers and dressed in long skirts, long sleeves and tights, arrived at the beach, which is walled in on three sides. Once inside, some changed into modest bathing suits while others entered the water in their street clothes. A few wore traditional bathing suits, including bikinis.
Aside from Cohen’s small team and the lifeguards, no men were allowed onto the beach. A woman sold ice cream from a kiosk.
Varda Zagron, a retired schoolteacher, and her friend Simi Idan, a secretary, wore modest swimsuits as they rested in chairs under a shady pergola.
“We make a great effort to dress modestly in accordance with Jewish law,” Zagron said, explaining why a religious beach is her only option. “Here, we can walk around without our heads being covered. It’s a comfortable feeling.”
The segregated beach could be improved, Idan said, if it was open only to women six days a week, with a men’s-only beach next door.
“That way we could come to the beach as a family and meet up afterward.” That, she said, “would be wonderful.”