Haredim make immodest inroads in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph

Modern Orthodox exodus grows; last secular pre-school closed.

haredi beit shemesh 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
haredi beit shemesh 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Outside the Shefa Shuk supermarket in the heart of Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, a sign in black and red letters warns female shoppers: "Do not enter in immodest dress." "Shirts must be closed [at the neck]," declares the sign. "Sleeves must be long, skirts must be long - pants are forbidden, and all clothing must be loose-fitting, not tight or revealing." The sign, one of several posted in the entrances to businesses in the local commercial center, is testimony to the haredization of Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, a neighborhood that started off seven years ago with a mix of modern Orthodox, secular and haredi residents. Today there are about 4,000 families living in Aleph, the vast majority of whom are haredi or who identify with a haredi way of life. Beit Shemesh Aleph's haredization process, which has intensified in the past two years, is part of a larger trend affecting Orthodoxy, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. A growing number of Orthodox Jews, including those who grew up in modern Orthodox families, are convinced that to protect their faith they must reject pluralism, openness and accommodation to secular culture. The modern world is not an opportunity for intellectual and cultural growth for them. Rather it is a threat to spiritual purity and destructive to true Judaism. Meanwhile, more liberal elements within Orthodoxy who are willing, in principle, to maintain a more open approach to foreign cultures, or be more lenient in their dress codes, kosher food supervision or adherence to Jewish law, are under constant pressure to maintain higher standards of practice. In the past decade, Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Bayit Vagan and Har Nof have been taken over by such a haredization process. Religious Zionist educational institutions have also been "sliding to the right," a term used by sociologist Samuel Heilman as the title of his book, which describes how American Orthodoxy has become increasingly contra-acculturative and conservative. Many of the people Heilman wrote about are also immigrating to Israel. In Beit Shemesh Aleph, which has large proportion of "Anglos," the posting of the modesty signs marks another victory for the enclavist, parochial elements of Judaism who are heavily influenced by the adjacent Nachala U'menucha and Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet neighborhoods, both of which are overwhelmingly haredi. The signs are designed to keep out unwanted neighbors. "We call on all public representatives to wage a holy war," declared a group of neighborhood rabbis - including Mordechai Goldstein, Shlomo Zalman Perlstein and Elimelch Kornfeld - who supported posting the sign. These rabbis and others from the more haredi neighborhoods overturned a compromise agreement reached among Beit Shemesh's haredi, modern Orthodox and secular city council members. According to the compromise, the sign was to be worded in a less extreme way: "You are asked to arrive in appropriate dress that does not hurt the feelings of residents living in the neighborhood." But the rabbis rejected the toned down version. A large chunk of Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph's residents may not actively support the posting of the modesty signs. But they are also reluctant to oppose it, for fear they will be accused of being lax in their religious duties. After all, a respectable Orthodox Jew cannot honestly defend the right of a woman to dress lasciviously. Also, some truly believe deep down that the only way to protect Orthodoxy is by distancing oneself from all forms of secularism. "Listen, I am against those signs because I believe they are worded in an extreme way," said Yigal Brezman, a Beit Shemesh real estate agent who defines himself as haredi. "But I also would not fight to have them taken down." Meanwhile, many Beit Shemesh residents who are actively opposed to the more insular style of Judaism preferred by the haredi majority are leaving. "At least 20 modern Orthodox families are moving out of Beit Shemesh this summer because they do not want to put up with haredi extremism anymore," said Bill, a modern Orthodox resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph who preferred to remain anonymous. "That's about 150 people." "When I moved in to Rehov Katlav seven years ago, it was one of the most secular streets in Aleph," said Bill, who immigrated from Britain. "It was half secular, half national religious. People got along terrific. There was complete harmony. The secular residents, who drove on Shabbat, would stop their cars to wish us a Shabbat Shalom. Religious would invite secular to their homes on holidays. "But in the past two years the street has been totally transformed. Every secular family that moved out was replaced by a haredi one. Now the street has a majority of haredim." More moderate residents also suffer as a result of the religious wars waged by the zealot residents of Beit Shemesh. For instance, Alan "Wiggi" Wigman, who works for PC Integrity in Beit Shemesh and lives in the prosperous Sheinfeld neighborhood, where houses cost half a million dollars, was recently caught in the crossfire of a haredi stone-throwing incident. "I was on my way to work one morning. As I approached Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, I saw a bunch of Natorei Karta and Satmar types rioting. There were a bunch of special police forces dressed in black with batons and helmets. Suddenly I looked to my right and saw a barrage of rocks flying in my direction that were aimed at the police. I managed to press the accelerator and get out of there before the rocks hit me," he said. Wigman was referring to a mass demonstration that took place on July 2 in protest against the municipality's decision to remove a sign that called on all who entered Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet to dress modestly. The sign, which was posted illegally, had been up for several years. Despite his harrowing experience, Wigman does not intend to move. "All my friends are here. My children grew up here. To tell you the truth, most of the time things are pretty peaceful here. And there is nothing you can do to change things anyway," he said. However, some moderate Orthodox residents of Beit Shemesh have opted to neither abandon their homes nor to resign themselves to the haredization process. They are putting up a fight. Shalom Lerner, Beit Shemesh's deputy mayor, is pushing to attract modern Orthodox institutions and residents to Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph. "We have plans to relocate a hesder yeshiva here and we also want to bring a pre-military academy in. The Orot school, which includes both a boys and a girls school, is being expanding and Rappaport will be expanded to include both an elementary school and a high school. "Also, we have a new housing development called Ramat Shilo with 340 units that are specifically for the modern Orthodox crowd," he said. Lerner, who holds the municipality's tourism portfolio, is also planning to build a multimillion-dollar Jewish Heroes Museum. In a tour of the city, he showed The Jerusalem Post some of the many modern Orthodox institutions in Beit Shemesh, including several one-year programs for post-high school boys and girls, including the Reishit Yeshiva, a $20 million edifice built by French businessman Howard Ronson. But Lerner is fighting an uphill battle. The demographics are working in favor of the haredim. "Today 60 percent of the children enrolled in pre-school are haredi," said Moshe Montag, Degel Hatorah's representative on the city council. "And the numbers are growing every year. Meanwhile, the last secular pre-school in Beit Shemesh closed this year. "There is no doubt in my mind that Beit Shemesh is becoming a haredi town," added Montag. "You'll see it happen in the next elections in a year. Who knows, there might even be a haredi mayor."