The Mod (read modesty) Squad Gets Aggressive

Ultra-Orthodox residents’ violent objections to a religious girls’ school reveal underlying social and political rifts in Beit Shemesh.

National religious protest_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
National religious protest_521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
SHUKI, A CAB DRIVER IN HIS early 40s, says it’s easy to find the Orot Girls’ religious public elementary school in Beit Shemesh. “That’s where all the police cars are,” he explains.
Since the beginning of the school year, five conspicuously marked squad cars constantly surround the school to protect the girls, ages 6-12, from violent verbal and physical attacks by extremist ultra-Orthodox Jews. Groups of ultra-Orthodox men have been protesting, often violently, against the girls’ school because, they say, some of the children walk through, or close to, their homes. Although the girls are religious and the school dress code mandates that they wear long sleeves and skirts, the ultra- Orthodox groups insist that the “immodest presence of the girls in their field of vision,” as worded in pashquivillim (posters) plastered on the walls in their neighborhood, is a violation of their rights and religious beliefs.
The fanatical activists gather, almost daily, screaming in Yiddish “pritzas” (whores) and “Nazis” at the girls. On September 14, a fourth grade girl was assaulted with raw eggs while walking home alone. The child’s family, new immigrants from France, have filed a complaint with the police. The police have since increased their surveillance and have deployed members of an elite squat team, who stop cars driven by men wearing ultra- Orthodox garb if they slow down anywhere near the school.
The city of Beit Shemesh, population 72,000, is located on the site of a once-thriving pre-biblical city along an ancient trade route. In biblical times, it was the border between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The modern city was founded as a development town in the 1950s and settled primarily by immigrants from Morocco. Despite its location – on the western edge of the Judean hills, about 22.5 kms (14 miles) from Jerusalem and 42 kms (26 miles) along good roads, with efficient bus and train service – Beit Shemesh remained a backwater town whose name was synonymous with social failure – that is, until the 1990s. Then, large numbers of immigrants – first secular Russians and then national-religious immigrants, many of them from English-speaking countries – moved in and the city began to thrive once again.
But in the past decade, large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews have also moved into Beit Shemesh, primarily from Jerusalem; many of these newer residents are members of the most extreme sects in the ultra- Orthodox community. Each religious group has chosen to live in separate communities, but the proximity between the neighborhoods has led to numerous turf and cultural wars.
The most recent battle is being fought on the backs of elementary school-age religious girls.
THE OROT GIRLS’ RELIGIOUS public elementary school, attended by some 450 girls in grades one through six, is a public school that, according to its website, has a strong religious Zionist ethic and is part of the “Sha’alei Torah” chain of religious schools. Highly prestigious, it is one of the premier schools in Beit Shemesh and takes in girls from the city as well as from the surrounding towns and villages.
Until last year, the school was located in an old, inadequate building closer to the more secular sections of town. The location for the new school was chosen because it is adjacent to, but separate from, the Orot Boy’s religious elementary public school and because of its proximity to a new neighborhood, in which most of the residents are modern Orthodox “Anglos” (immigrants from English-speaking countries).
At 12:30 p.m. on a school day in mid- September, two weeks into the school year, Hannah Glasser, a member of the school parents’ committee and the mother of two girls who attend the school, steps out as a guard unlocks, and then carefully relocks, the gate to the courtyard.
Glasser is modestly dressed in a blue skirt and T-shirt, her short hair covered. She speaks rapidly in Hebrew with a clear American accent. “Ever since the riots began, my youngest daughter has nightmares and the older one is frightened,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. Glasser immigrated to Israel with her family 17 years ago and has been living in Beit Shemesh for the past 14 years. “We are very happy here and we won’t leave.”
The Ministry of Education supports the Orot schools’ Parents Committee. In a statement to The Report, Ministry spokesman Shauli Peer writes, “The Orot school for girls was established, following a request from the municipality of Beit Shemesh, as a religious public school for girls. As a result, the school was opened on September 1st. The Jerusalem district of the Ministry is closely following the functioning of the school, to make sure that the educative process is succeeding.”
The weak link in support for the school has been Mayor Moshe Abutbul, a representative of Shas, the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party. In late August, just before the school year opened, Abutbul announced that the municipality had not approved the opening of the school, thus adding fuel to the protests.
Shalom Lerner, a representative of the Beyahad (Together) party, which is part of the opposition in the Beit Shemesh municipal council, says that Abutbul is motivated by both ideology and politics. “Sadly, he actually does believe that these extremists are better Jews than we are,” Lerner tells The Report. “And he’s playing for time, hoping that the problem will go away, so he won’t have to alienate his ultra-Orthodox constituency.”
The mayor, says Lerner, wants to turn Beit Shemesh into an “ultra-Orthodox city.” Capitalizing on his political relations with the national Ministers of the Interior and Housing, both of whom are also members of the Shas party, Abutbul is attempting to gain permits for housing projects to be marketed solely to the ultra-Orthodox community.
“We won’t let him do that,” says Lerner.
Matityahu Rosenzweig, spokesperson for the Beit Shemesh municipality, refused to respond to The Report’s repeated requests for information and comment.
In the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood near the school, the walls along the sidewalks are plastered with pashquivillim warning, “Daughters of Israel: The Torah demands that you dress modestly,” along with death notices, information regarding sales and events, and a call to residents to “prepare for war over our houses.”
Men and women walking along the streets refuse to be interviewed; some of the men cover their faces with their hats, to avoid seeing a woman.
A young woman dressed in heavy black despite the autumn heat steps out from one of the buildings. In an advanced stage of pregnancy, she holds the hand of a toddler and pushes an infant in a baby carriage. She is reticent to answer questions about the conflict with the school, but when pressed, says only that the national-religious residents “bring their dogs to the neighborhood every day. We are afraid of dogs.” She refuses to say more and darts away, dragging her small son.
THE CLASHES BETWEEN THE two communities are about control of public space and turf, activists say. According to Dr. Benjamin Brown, senior lecturer in the department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University and an expert on ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, Beit Shemesh is a “bastion of zealots.”
Many of these people have moved to Beit Shemesh, Brown says, not merely because of the available housing, but also because they want to escape their rabbis, who have tried to restrain their extremism. These zealots, Brown says, will listen to no one but their own. “Even the most venerable rabbis and leaders hesitate to issue rulings,” says Brown, “for fear that they will be publicly disobeyed by the extremists.”
Among them are small, cult-like groups of radicals, many of them newly religious, who place extreme emphasis on women’s “modesty.” Residents of Beit Shemesh have become accustomed to seeing Jewish women, and even girls as young as five or six, dressed in burqa-like clothes that cover their entire bodies and their faces. In a more troubling development, in July 2009, the Jerusalem District Court convicted the member of one of these sects – popularly dubbed “the Taliban mother” because she and the other women in her group wear multiple layers of clothing to completely cover themselves – of child abuse, committed as part of the rituals of a cult run by a self-appointed “rabbi” and spiritual leader.
Others are members of the radical ultra- Orthodox group known as the Sikarikim, named after the assassins who, during the time of the revolt against the Romans, would hide small daggers (sicarii) in their clothing and assassinate both Romans and Jews who, in their opinion, were not loyal to the revolt or were not observant enough.
In the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Mea Shearim, the Sikarikim attack women whom they feel are immodestly dressed, deface and damage stores where modesty is not observed to their standards, and have tried to impose separate sidewalks for men and women. They have instilled so much fear that residents prefer to obey them or to leave the neighborhood rather than incur their wrath. They are, Brown says, apparently trying to do the same in Beit Shemesh.
The obsessive focus on gender and “modesty” issues, says Brown, is somewhat of a fad, since, in their attempts to maintain the struggles that distinguish them from other communities, these ultra-Orthodox extremists chose different issues over time. “For years, the Sabbath was a very high-profile issue for their protests and violent demonstrations,” Brown explains. “Then, for many years, it was archeology. Today, perhaps in response to growing permissiveness in secular and ultra- Orthodox society, they are focusing on modesty issues. The issues come in waves.”
Author and community activist Rabbi Dov Lipman is more blunt. “To view an eightyear- old girl in sexual terms is perverse,” he says. “Some of these people really believe that women are Satan. And their willingness to terrorize little girls is child abuse.”
According to Debbie Rosen-Solow, a member of the Orot school’s parents’ committee, several discrete meetings between representatives of the parents’ committee and rabbis from the ultra-Orthodox community have taken place. She attaches great importance to these meetings because, she reports, the rabbis expressed their clear objection to the actions of the extremists in their community. “But we are disappointed that none of the rabbis went public about their objections,” she adds.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, the Jerusalembased head of a more moderate ultra-Orthodox faction, is more forthcoming. He tells The Report that “these are people who are causing great damage to the ultra-Orthodox community and to the Jewish religion.” Adds haredi publicist Dudi Zilberslag, “This indiscriminate violence is giving the entire haredi community a bad name.”
Indeed, on the ultra-Orthodox street, there is open talk of a split between the “moderate” non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox and the extremists. Broadsheets posted in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh announce the formation of a special ad hoc committee to take a stand against the sect’s members. “Help! Help! Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh are crying out,” the posters read, referring to the “Taliban women” as “a new sect of cruel women making people miserable and destroying homes, risking lives and showing no mercy to little children.”
No official from any of the ultra-Orthodox institutions in Beit Shemesh agreed to speak to The Report for this story.
OPPOSING THE ultra-Orthodox extremists are the approximately 3,000 Anglos who live in the Beit Shemesh area, according to activist David Morris, a high-tech professional who established the well-known “Lema’an Achai” (For the sake of my brothers) non-profit social services agency. Over the past two decades, they have been attracted to Beit Shemesh not only by the housing that is still affordable by Western standards – especially when compared with Jerusalem – but also by the opportunity to live in a close-knit modern Orthodox community, often centered around a synagogue and a rabbi, that is similar to their lives in the US and other English-speaking countries. In moving to Beit Shemesh, they did not only buy property – they bought a lifestyle.
And they intend to maintain it.
“To give in to the ultra-Orthodox community’s demands that the school be moved will not solve the problem,” Glasser says. “Our girls aren’t the problem,” she says forcefully. Our being here is what bothers the ultra-Orthodox.”
“The girls are not what is troubling the Haredim,” agrees Rosen-Solow. “They want the building, the neighborhood, the entire city. We understand that this is a struggle not only for the residents of Beit Shemesh, but for the residents of Jerusalem and other places, too. We have had enough and are putting our foot down! We will not move from here.”
“This is a turf war,” says Morris. Referring to the extremists as kano’im, a derogatory Yiddish term for zealots, “They want to live their way, and they don’t want to allow us to live our way. But we aren’t going to give in.”
The national religious, modern-Orthodox community has mobilized. A Facebook page in English and Hebrew serves as an open forum for the exchange of ideas and information. On the second Friday of the school year, women from all over the region came to the school and handed out flowers to the girls as they sat in an assembly on the sports’ field. “As these flowers bloom beautifully, so you, too, are beautiful. From a sister to a sister,” the principal read the message from the women, as the young girls cheered and clapped.
Lipman says that until now, the Anglo community has been “too nice. We’re not going to act in ways that aren’t part of our values. We’re not going to break any bones. But we will actively protect our culture and lifestyle. We bought our homes here. We are part of this country. We will use our Anglo know-how to organize and be forceful,” he says.
In mid-September, on a pleasant Friday night, hundreds of members of the modern- Orthodox community walked along the streets of Beit Shemesh. “It was a delightful, peaceful walk,” says Lipman – and it made the point to the extremists that we are a presence.”
Paradoxically, Lipman continues, the extremist violence has brought together all the other parts of the community. “Modern- Orthodox Anglo immigrants have taken a leading role organizing the entire community of Beit Shemesh. We supported a group of secular parents when the ultra-Orthodox extremists wanted to push their children out of a school so that they could put a yeshiva there. We have joined the struggle against segregated seating on buses. We’ve mobilized and joined with the veteran residents of Beit Shemesh to make sure that the cultural center that has been planned for the city is built, even though the ultra-Orthodox oppose it.”
Lipman tells The Report that at a recent demonstration in support of the cultural center, he and other Anglos were invited to speak, together with Russian and Ethiopian immigrants and veterans of Moroccan descent. “It was an honor to speak there, with my Angloaccented Hebrew,” he says. “And it shows what this city can become.”