The haredi world’s new heroes

After sitting in prison for refusing to send their daughters to a non-hassidic school, the ‘Emmanuel prisoners’ have become the heroes of the haredi world.

311_Emmanuel demo (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
311_Emmanuel demo
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Chaim Krimalovski, one of the “Emmanuel prisoners,” recalls how he and the other haredi men going to jail were carried on the shoulders of a huge, tightly-packed crowd in Bnei Brak. “People were crying like babies, but for joy, when they saw us. They were asking us for blessings, as if we were admorim [great hassidic rabbis]!” he says with a mild stutter. “The most revered rabbis were coming up to me, sobbing, saying how they wished they could take my place in prison, how they envied me the privilege of performing such a great sanctification of God’s word. You know the expression ‘floating on air’? I was floating a mile above the ground.”
Krimalovski, 37, slightly built with a wispy, reddish beard and intelligent, gentle eyes, is one of the haredi world’s new heroes. He and 34 other men from Emmanuel sat in Ma’asiyahu prison for 11 days, refusing a Supreme Court order to send their daughters to a local, non-hassidic elementary school they consider religiously permissive. Their opponents were elements of the Shas (Sephardi haredi) party, the Education Ministry and the court, all of whom accused the men and their hassidic sponsors of being motivated by anti- Sephardi prejudice.
Yet during those 11 days, the Ashkenazi haredim – along with some Sephardi haredim – fought a nonviolent Jewish holy war, their massed, black-clothed rallies drawing tremendous media attention, and finally Shas gave in. The party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, reached an agreement with the religious authority behind the battle against the court petition, Rabbi Shmuel Barazovsky, admor of the Slonim Hassidim.
On the basis of the agreement, come next school year the Emmanuel prisoners’ daughters will very likely attend an elementary school run according to strict hassidic rules, without interference from Shas opponents, the Education Ministry or the Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court has learned that sticking its hands into haredi education is like sticking its hands into fire,” says Krimalovski, sitting in a little office in the local council.
TO THE HAREDIM, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s population, the fight in Emmanuel was over religious freedom, the right to educate their children as they see fit and the authority of their rabbis over that of Supreme Court justices. To Israelis at large, it was a fight to maintain Ashkenazi dominance – a misperception fed by the mainstream media – and to enforce the haredi minority’s tyranny over the state.
Last week, in his first days out of jail, Krimalovski, an Emmanuel town councilman and father of nine, talked to The Jerusalem Post about what it was like being in the eye of this storm that swept the haredi sector and incensed the country. His story illustrates how fervent, uncompromising and mobilized this sector is – especially when it feels threatened. His story also illustrates what a victory the haredim just won, and how they’ve been strengthened by it.
In a dispute that goes back three years, the die was cast on June 15. The Supreme Court ordered the 35 men to send their daughters back to Emmanuel’s Beit Ya’acov school in two days or face imprisonment for the remaining two weeks of the school year. Presiding Justice Edmond Levy said he “shuddered to think” that the men would obey their rabbis instead of the court.
“That settled it for us, when he said he ‘shuddered to think’ we would obey our rabbis. Does he think we won’t? Does he expect us to reject our spiritual leaders? Nobody – no Muslim, no Christian and no Jew – will abandon his spiritual leaders and his religious faith because a judge tells him to,” he says.
Levy ordered the men to agree in writing to obey the court ruling. They refused.
“Shma Yisrael!” shouted one father. They were fired up, ready to make any sacrifice for their cause, certainly to go to jail for it. “No power on earth can tear a Jew away from the Torah,” says Krimalovski, recalling the atmosphere in court.
For three years, events in Emmanuel had been building up to that moment. A “new element” had moved to the West Bank haredi settlement, including many hozrim b’tshuva, or newly devout Jews. Dozens of Beit Ya’acov parents claimed that the newcomers’ daughters were introducing “immodesty” in dress and language to the school and loosening its rigid standards of religious observance and scholarship.
So these parents separated their daughters from the mainstream of Beit Ya’acov pupils, putting them in new classes run according to strict hassidic rules. At first the parents, with the school authorities’ acquiescence, divided the Beit Ya’acov building with a wall and set up their own separate classes on one side of it. When Shas activists petitioned the court against this arrangement, Levy agreed that the makeshift hassidic school was discriminatory against Sephardi pupils, and he ordered Beit Ya’acov reintegrated.
But the separatist parents set up a pirate school, after which the court found them in contempt. Then they tried sending their girls to a hassidic school in Bnei Brak, but the Education Ministry blocked that move.
As the affair gathered headlines, these Emmanuel parents increasingly became a symbol of haredi bigotry in the eyes of the general public. But to Ashkenazi haredim, as well as many Sephardi haredim unaffiliated with Shas, they became a cause célèbre. A few days before the court decision, a council of the haredim’s most exalted rabbis called on their followers to “strengthen the hand of the parents in Emmanuel” and to “stand guard on this holy wall.”
The night after Levy’s decision, the 35 men, along with some of their wives, went to the Slonim synagogue in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim section to hear words of encouragement from the admor. “The admor said that in a conflict between the rule of the court and the rule of the Torah, you must obey the Torah,” Krimalovski recalls.
Krimalovski, at least, didn’t need a pep talk. “I had no doubts,” he says.
The following morning he said good-bye to his wife and children. “I told them we’re going to prison with joy, that’s it’s a mitzva, that we’re doing this in the name of education, of Torah.” Toward noon, he and the other fathers boarded two buses that would take them to the rallies in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, and from there to police headquarters in the capital’s Russian Compound.
They dressed in their Shabbat best.
IN BNEI BRAK, it took an hour and a half for the buses to advance a kilometer through the crowd. By the time they got to Jerusalem, they were nearly three hours behind schedule. “Our hands were aching for days. We shook hands by the thousands,” Krimalovski says.
As big as the crowd was in Bnei Brak, in Jerusalem it was much larger, with estimates of more than 100,000 people.
“Everyone was there – the admor of Vizhnitz, who’s about 90; Rabbi Levkowitz, who’s 93 or 94; Rabbi Vozhner, who’s 92 or 93; Rabbi Elyashiv, who turned 100 before Pessah. They all wanted to bless us, even the rabbis from Natorei Karta,” he says. “The very strict national religious rabbis, Rabbi Lior, Rabbi Dudkevitch, they were there, too. Everyone. The Supreme Court united the community like no one’s done in decades.”
Again, the fathers were lifted on the crowd’s shoulders. It was a horribly hot sharav day, they were dressed for Shabbat and they were being swamped in a sea of haredim. “One of the fathers, Rabbi Biton, said, ‘If somebody gave me $10 million to trade places with me, I wouldn’t take it.’” From Rehov Bar-Ilan the crowd headed to the Russian Compound, where the men from Emmanuel said a final good-bye to their wives and children and boarded the Prisons Service bus. Two men whose names had mistakenly been left off the service’s list of inmates fought unsuccessfully to get on. One man on the list, a kashrut inspector who’d been working in Hong Kong and the Philippines, had flown back at 6 a.m. for this “privilege.”
The admor of Slonim boarded the bus to talk to the men individually. “He told us to look after one another, to keep each other’s spirits up,” says Krimalovski. “One of the men has six daughters and he asked the admor to bless him for a son, and the admor told him, ‘You’re asking me to bless you? Today the gates of heaven are open to you, whatever you request, it will be granted. Ask God for a son – I will just say amen.’”
The atmosphere inside the bus was like “what you feel in synagogue when they close the ark of the Torah at the end of Yom Kippur. A mixture of trembling and joy.”
The men were driven out of Jerusalem “like the president of the United States,” he says with an ironic smile. The buses were accompanied by police cars, motorcycles and a helicopter. Traffic was halted and intersections cleared. “We didn’t stop for one red light from the Russian Compound all the way to Ma’asiyahu” in Ramle about 30 km. away.
“We were exhausted, we were still on a high,” he says, “but a very calm sort of high.”
When the men got off the bus at Ma’asiyahu, a prison official read off the list of names. “He starts reading: ‘Elmaliah... Biton... Beit Ya’acov...Baruch...’ then he stops and says, ‘They told me we were getting a group of Ashkenazim and I see all these Sephardi names.’
“We all started laughing. One of the fathers said, ‘In two minutes you’ve figured out what the Supreme Court hasn’t figured out in two years.’”
Of the 35 fathers who sat in prison, 11 were Sephardim, says Krimalovski. Off the top of his head, he names 10 of them: “Ziv Cohen, Shimon Levy, Meir Elmaliah, Shmuel Naimi, Yitzhak Naimi, Amos Meirav, Rabbi Eliahu Biton, Hanoch Beit Ya’acov, Avraham Baruch and Menashe Alali, who changed his last name to Klein at the request of his in-laws, who didn’t have a son to carry on the family name.” He can’t remember the 11th Sephardi father.
That has been one of the most overlooked aspects of the Emmanuel affair – that a sizable minority of the separatist “Ashkenazim” are actually Sephardim. In 2008, the Education Ministry appointed a former high official of the State Comptroller’s Office, Mordechai Bass, to examine the dispute, and he found that 27% of the pupils in the breakaway hassidic school were Sephardim. While criticizing the walled division of Beit Ya’acov as illegal and improper, Bass also wrote that it was done “without the intent to discriminate between pupils on the basis of ethnic background, and no such discrimination exists there in practice.”
And so it continued in prison, says Krimalovski. “We made sure that the Ashkenazi fathers had fish with lemon and the Sephardi fathers had fish with peppers and spices. On Shabbat, we’d all sing Sephardi songs and then we’d all sing Ashkenazi songs.”
As they weren’t “criminal” inmates but “civil” ones, in prison for violating a court order, the 35 men were kept separate from Ma’asiyahu’s general population. In fact, they were the only prisoners in Ward 14, staying in cells 3, 4, 5 and 6.
“It was very strange, very hard,” he says. They slept in bunk beds with thin, literally flea-ridden mattresses. The weather was miserably hot, and the small, crowded cells had metal ceilings and two windows with metal bars and slats that let in little air. The two fans in each cell didn’t help much. The men took off their coats; a few put on slippers. Otherwise, they stayed fully dressed except when showering and sleeping. “We’d look out the window and see the other prisoners out in their yard, and they’d have their shirts off, or they’d be in T-shirts, in shorts, in those flip-flops.”
At first the men vowed to use the time for “spiritual advancement – to pray, to study,” says Krimalovski, but after a couple of days they realized that they had to concentrate instead on boosting each other’s morale. “Some of the men had a hard time with the conditions, with the lack of privacy. And we all missed our families.”
They got a lot of moral support from the haredi community. Every morning a haredi Knesset member would make a solidarity visit and every afternoon a rabbi would come. At nights, a haredi crowd would gather outside the walls with loudspeakers to sing and encourage them.
Their families were allowed one visit, for 45 minutes. “There was a long table between us, but we could hug each other. My youngest children didn’t know what to say; it was so strange for them.”
The guards treated them very well. “They didn’t address us as ‘prisoners,’ but as ‘people.’ Once one of the guards called to us, ‘Tzadikim, after me.’” Shabbat dinner was supposed to end at 10 p.m., but at their first Shabbat dinner, as the hour to end it approached, the prison guard, a Druse, told them, “I don’t have the heart – take another half hour.”
At their second, final Shabbat dinner, the singing and dancing was unusually spirited, and another guard, wearing a white kippa, stood to the side, weeping. “We asked him, ‘Haven’t you seen anything like this in prison?’ He said, ‘I haven’t seen anything like this in my whole life.’” They’d sit up talking and singing until midnight or later. During the days out in the yard by themselves, they played variations of tag. “Like children,” he smiles.
On Sunday morning, June 27, the men were driven to the Supreme Court, where it was announced that an agreement had been reached and the petition withdrawn. All that the men had to do was sign a document saying they would abide by the court’s ruling, and they were free. On orders from “on high,” Krimalovski says, they refused. After a brief consultation, the state attorney told Justice Levy that the men would be sending their daughters to classes in “solidarity and love for Israel” for the last three days of the school year, as the court had ordered, so this was equivalent to signing the document.
“You’re free to go,” Levy told them.
They left in proud silence. “I had completed my mission,” says Krimalovski.
Outside, the men’s families and hundreds of joyous haredim were waiting for them, and they boarded a bus for a kind of victory lap in Jerusalem.
“What we wanted more than anything at that point was a mikve [ritual bath],” he says, and they drove to the mikve in Kiryat Sanz for the pleasure.
A convoy of honking cars carrying a loudspeaker led them through the capital’s haredi neighborhoods. “People were waving to us, taking our pictures,” he says.
They paid a courtesy call on Rabbi Ovadia Yosef at his synagogue in Har Nof. Then they drove to Bnei Brak to see some more rabbinical elders. Most of the men headed to a tisch, or festive meal, hosted by the admor of Slonim and attended by “well over 1,000 people,” says Krimalovski, who himself went off to a much smaller tisch hosted by his personal spiritual leader, the admor of Modjits.
He didn’t get home until nighttime. On his door was a hand-painted sign: “Abba, we’re proud of you.”
Days after his release, he remained a celebrity in Emmanuel and beyond. Men in town came up to shake his hand, saluting him with a phrase from the morning prayer, “Baruch matir asurim.” “Blessed be He who frees captives.”
“The rabbis still want to see us,” he says. “Today we’re going to Jerusalem to see the admor of Belz.”
He says the experience has deepened his faith. “You have to work on your faith, you have to train. This was very good training for me.”
Otherwise, Krimalovski says he feels no different. He has no new plans, saying he ran for local council at the local hassidic community’s behest and would be happy to step down. He’s anxious to catch up on his studies at Kiryat Ono Academic College’s “haredi campus,” where he’s in his final year of accounting studies.
“I’m looking forward to being anonymous again,” he says, noting that Emmanuel has been swamped with journalists.
He denies being anyone’s hero. I ask: What about to your children?
“To them, yes,” he smiles, and tells how one journalist asked his six-year-old son, Yehuda, if he wanted to go to jail like his abba. “Yehuda told him, ‘I’m still little, but when I get big, then I’ll go to jail.’”