(photo credit: Courtesy)
MKs Yossi Beilin (Meretz-Yachad) and Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) have joined the fray in a religious power struggle being waged between Breslav Hassidim and secular-minded residents for control over a synagogue in a quiet Haifa neighborhood.
On Monday, at Beilin's behest, the Knesset's Interior Committee will discuss the fate of the Meir Synagogue in Romema which, secular residents say, has been "commandeered" by a group of about 20 families loosely associated with Breslav Hassidism. Gafni declined to comment before the discussion Monday.
Beilin, speaking from Egypt where he was on a diplomatic mission, said that he normally did not get involved in municipal-level disputes, but the Romema synagogue was different.
"When people told me about how a bunch of weirdo Breslav Hassidim forcibly took over a synagogue that was run by a group of liberal Israelis that wanted a place to pray where they could feel comfortable, I felt I had to get involved," he said.
The secular residents said that Beilin was the only MK they approached who was willing to get involved on their behalf. Beilin even visited the synagogue and gave a short speech denouncing what he called attempts to forcibly take over the synagogue.
The secular residents, who only attend the synagogue occasionally - during the High Holy Days or for family memorials - seemed more opposed to seeing their neighborhood overrun by men with beards and side-locks wearing long black coats and hats and women with headcoverings than by the prospect of losing control over a prayer house which they do not attend regularly anyway.
"If we allow them to establish their yeshiva here in the synagogue they will come to live in the neighborhood," said Shlomi Senderovitch, 34, an attorney who recently moved in to Romema.
"As a secular person I don't want a yeshiva right under my nose. If we can manage to close down the yeshiva they opened in the synagogue hopefully they will leave the neighborhood. There are enough yeshivot in other places."
"Y," 28, head of one of the 13 Breslav Hassidic families which have so far moved into the neighborhood, said that those who opposed him and his friends were "anti-Semites."
"I never believed my fellow Jews could act in such a hateful fashion," said Y, who preferred to remain anonymous because, he said, he was afraid his secular neighbors would try to hurt him or his wife.
According to Y, all of his Breslav friends come from secular families. They embraced Orthodox Judaism late in life. Most grew up in Romema or in one of the adjacent neighborhoods. The group calls itself Mehama'amakim [From the Depths] and is a type of commune. Members, who feel estranged from the secular culture they abandoned and different from religious peers who grew up observant, support one another socially and economically. They pray together and learn together.
Some have full-time jobs while others, like Y, who is a computer technician by profession, spend their days learning at the yeshiva that was set up at the Meir Synagogue. Those who dedicate their days to Torah study receive a stipend of more than NIS 1,000 a month which is raised by a Mexican businessman who lives in Jerusalem.
"The fight has nothing to do with the synagogue," said Y. "They want to kick us out of the neighborhood." Israel Bar-David, a veteran Romema resident, is spearheading the move to wrest control of the synagogue from the Breslav Hassidim.
"They changed the prayer custom, they demand complete separation of men and women, they use the synagogue as a yeshiva all day long without permission, and they even proselytize among Romema's younger population." Bar-David, who said he never attended the synagogue regularly, "only on holidays and memorials," does not like how the Breslavs "act as if they own the place."
Senderovitch added: "They are hysterical during prayer. They shout, they dance. At night they wander around the neighborhood looking for a place to be alone and meditate."
However, Mordechai Honig, a veteran member of the synagogue and its present caretaker, said he was happy that the Breslav Hassidim came.
"For the past few years the numbers of regular synagogue-goers has gradually fallen," said Honig, 71, a Holocaust survivor.
"When Rabbi Haim Fishman died, the numbers dwindled even lower. There were a few young Breslav Hassidim living in the neighborhood who recently became religious. They asked me for permission to come to pray and to learn at the synagogue. I was delighted to have them. Now every day there is a quorum of men three times a day.
"It drives me crazy that people who had never set foot in the synagogue for all those years since it was first established in 1977 now all of a sudden want to tell me what to do."
Several times in the past few months Haifa police have intervened, fearing tension between the vying groups would deteriorate to violence. Restraining orders were issued against members of the secular opposition.
Meanwhile, the Internet site belonging to the secular residents who want to oust the Breslav Hassidim provides video clips showing young men in ultra-Orthodox garb blowing whistles and shouting loudly while a group of secular men and women try to listen to a lecture.