A window into the haredi world

Community leaders discuss changes in ultra-Orthodox society at the launch of a book about hassidic life in Mea She’arim by photojournalist Gil Cohen-Magen.

Haredi man 521 (photo credit: Ofer Vaknin)
Haredi man 521
(photo credit: Ofer Vaknin)
Modern technology has impacted on haredi communities and has made them far less insular, Rabbi Shmuel Haim Pappenheim said last week.
Pappenheim, a prominent representative of Toldot Aharon, an anti-Zionist hassidic movement headquartered in Mea She’arim but whose adherents also live in Beit Shemesh and New York, was speaking at the Gesher Foundation at the launch of Hassidic Courts. It is a beautifully illustrated book of 141 photographs and 141 stories of hassidic life in Mea She’arim by photojournalist Gil Cohen-Magen.
Pappenheim was a member of a panel discussing perceptions of the haredi community, which is far from a homogeneous group.
“We have learned that there are many shades of black,” said Gesher executive director Ilan Geal-Dor. He congratulated Cohen-Magen on opening a window that has long been closed to the outside world and which, in a sense, conveys the essence of what Gesher has been doing for 40 years, namely bridging gaps among the different sectors of Israeli society.
For Cohen-Magen, a former long-time Reuters photographer, the book was a 10-year project, and the photographs selected were culled from thousands. A native of Jerusalem, he was sent on assignment by Reuters a decade ago to photograph in Mea She’arim, something he had not done before. He became enchanted realizing that geographically it was quite close to where he lived, but in terms of familiarity it was alien territory. He decided that he had to learn more about the people who lived there and to win their trust so he could photograph them candidly and in places where photography is generally forbidden. It was a very long and painstaking process.
At the launch, Israel Prize laureate Alex Levac, who has been photographing the haredi community for a much longer period, was asked by Geal-Dor whether there had been any major change in attitudes over the years. He replied that change had come with digital cameras. Suddenly haredim who in the past had objected to photographers and had hidden their faces when being photographed were running around with digital cameras and photographing each other.
But that wasn’t all. Geal-Dor noted that when haredim counted for a very small percentage in Israel’s demographic statistics, they were able to remain insular; but once they grew in number, they had to go into the outside world to earn a living.
Pappenheim, who works with the Joint Distribution Committee in its Tevet employment initiative to fight poverty, and which inter alia aims to put more haredim into the workforce by providing academic studies and vocational training for them, concurred. Like Levac, he attributed this evolution to technology. “We can’t deny the reality of technology,” he said, speaking to a mixed audience of men and women sitting together.
Nor could he deny that the rapid growth of the haredi population has also spurred change to the extent that “we must live as neighbors with people who were not our neighbors before, and we must go outside the community.”
There are close to one million haredim in Israel, said Pappenheim, and now that the IDF has made special provisions for haredi soldiers, a lot are going into the army, even though they are ideologically opposed to Zionism.
By the same token, many are now studying secular subjects, which they did not study before, and some are even teaching at universities around the country.
Another factor that makes the haredi world more accessible to outsiders, observed Kobi Nachshoni, who writes about haredim for Ynet, is that increasing numbers of haredi journalists are working for regular media outlets, including television.
While they are presenting a more balanced picture of haredi society than a secular journalist might do, Nachshoni conceded, it doesn’t work in reverse. He said he didn’t know of any secular journalists employed in the haredi media, which often spew vitriol against the secular establishment and against Zionism.
Asked about how the haredi community copes with the Sikarikim – the notorious religious fanatics who make life miserable for haredi moderates – Pappenheim initially shied away from the question, interpreting it as some kind of provocation. When assured that it wasn’t, he said that the Sikarikim are a small fringe element of extremists whose activities are condemned by most haredim but who unfortunately get a lot of publicity, which puts a blot on the haredi community.
What pains him, he said, is when a noted rabbinical scholar endorses a halachic argument used by the Sikarikim to justify their actions. Such endorsements give them a legitimacy they don’t deserve, he said.
TWO HOURS before Cohen-Magen launched his book, Chabad of Rehavia inaugurated its new center in the historic Rehavia Windmill with the dedication of a Torah scroll donated by Zev Kahan and his parents, Gershon Hanoch and Pearl.
The ceremony of dancing down the street under a bridal canopy, with the scroll being passed from one man to another, was accompanied by a drummer, a throng of people, a Chabad Mitzva tank replete with twinkling colored lights, loud tinny music and decorations such as a crown, a Star of David and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
A Chabad Torah dedication ceremony is usually much livelier than most others because the Chabadniks have not lost the spirit or the agility of their Russian forebears.
The Chabad Center, on the ground floor of the Windmill, is adjacent to the British Council and is accessible from a courtyard. In next to no time, the courtyard was packed with Chabad families and individuals, as well as tourists and a few local kibitzers.
Chabad has more than 20 facilities in the capital, at least five of which are within walking distance of its latest acquisition, which adds to the spiritual smorgasbord of the area that has numerous synagogues or congregations of sorts all within a few minutes’ walk of each other.
The Rehavia Chabad Center opened just in time for Rosh Hashana and will have Shabbat and Yom Kippur services free of charge. If anyone misses the Yom Kippur Yizkor service at another synagogue, it will be at 11 a.m. at the Chabad Center of Rehavia, where the spiritual leader is Rabbi Israel Goldberg.
The Rehavia Windmill, which some 25 years ago was developed as a shopping center, turned out to be a white elephant which was gradually abandoned by store proprietors. There are now several large stores standing empty on the ground floor.
When asked whether Chabad would eventually move into these premises, Goldberg replied, “From your mouth to God’s ears.”