An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
LONDON – A decision by the UK leadership of the Belz Hassidic group to ban their mothers driving children to their two London schools has drawn strong condemnation from Education Secretary Nicky Morgan.
In addition an inquiry has been set up into plans by Belz to expel any children brought to school driven by its adherent’s women.
News of the ban emerged in the Jewish Chronicle on Thursday and rapidly became a much commented on news story especially across the electronic media. Some 200 families in the Stamford Hill area of north London, home to one of the UK’s largest ultra-Orthodox communities will be affected by the ruling, it appears, said to reflect the decision of the leaders of Belz in Israel.
In a letter sent out last week, Belz members were told that female drivers went against “the traditional rules of modesty in our camp” and against the norms of hassidic institutions. From August, the letter added, children would be barred from their schools if their mothers drove them. It was also pointed out that exceptions to the ruling would be considered.
If a mother felt she had no choice but to drive her children to school, for example for medical reasons, she would have to “submit a request to a special committee to this effect” and that they would consider it.
The letter which, the Chronicle said, been signed by leaders of the Belz educational institutions and endorsed by their rabbis, noted there had been an increased incidence of mothers of pupils who had started to drive, which had “led to great resentment amongst parents of pupils of our institutions” Explaining the decision, they said the Belzer rabbi in Israel, Yissachar Dov
Rokeach, had advised them to introduce the policy, said to be the first time such a ruling had been made in the UK. Two of the Belz communities schools in London, in which 850 pupils study, would be affected – the Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass, a boys junior school, and the Beis Malka, a school for young girls.
Morgan however said the edict “was completely unacceptable in modern Britain” and in her other role, as minister for women and equalities, arranged for the Department for Education to launch an investigation. Morgan added that “if schools do not actively promote the principle of respect for other people they are breaching the independent schools standards” and where they are made aware of any such breaches they would investigate and “take any necessary action to address the situation.”
However, parents affected by the ban have responded by defending the rabbinical decree, saying it was part of their choice when deciding to live in the Belz community. Women rejected the suggestion that they were oppressed, and their schools wrote to Morgan stating the notice had been misrepresented. They said they regretted the language in the initial letter.
“We accept the choice of words was unfortunate and if a negative impression was created by our letter then we unreservedly apologize for that.”
Ahron Klein, chief executive of the boys school, said the community was guided by “religious principles and strong traditional values” and was concerned by the erosion of those values “caused by a proliferation of technology and the declining standards of visual and printed media.”
Klein added that they were proud of what they stand for and did not feel the need to excuse themselves “for our deeply held beliefs and staunchly maintained way of life.” It had, “withstood the test of time and is not prone to the vagaries of passing fads.”
Members of the mainstream Jewish communities were quick to distance themselves from the episode.
Dina Brawer, UK ambassador of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said “the instinct behind such a draconian ban is one of power and control of men over women. In this sense it is no different from the driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia.” That it “masquerades as a halachic imperative, is shameful and disturbing.”
She said the ban suggesting that women drivers somehow breach the values of modesty was absurd, “as by any objective standard there is nothing at all immodest about a woman driving a car.”
At the office of the chief rabbi, a spokesman said the Belz dynasty “has contributed significantly to the rich tapestry of our tradition but this particular view is entirely removed from mainstream Jewish practice.”
Meanwhile a Board of Deputies of British Jews spokesman said the letter was from a marginal and unaffiliated group within the Anglo-Jewish community.
The local Belz women’s organization Neshei Belz has since responded to some of the criticism stating they believed driving a vehicle was “a high pressurized activity where our values may be compromised by exposure to selfishness road rage, bad language and other inappropriate behavior.”
On Friday, several women driving large vehicles to collect their children just parked some distance from the school instead of outside its entrance.