Let the Sun Shine

The actions of a small group of religious zealots have caused tremors in the tranquil homes and gardens of the upmarket suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh

09bshemeshsign (photo credit: Netty C. Gross)
(photo credit: Netty C. Gross)
Cover story in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Beit Shemesh is a modern, attractive town 10 miles west of Jerusalem, in the midst of a building boom. Lush, multi-colored bougainvilleas cascade down the terraces of the apartment houses that line wide boulevards. Building cranes dot the skyline and real-estate billboards sing the praises of the latest development. Two homes in one project were recently purchased for $1 million apiece and a free-standing private home in another neighborhood fetched $2 million. Beit Shemesh means "house of the sun." It is built near the site of an ancient city named after the Canaanite sun-goddess Shemesh, who was worshiped there in pre-biblical antiquity. Today it is one of Israel's fastest growing cities, having developed from a sleepy backwater of tiny one-family homes and drab low-rise tenements housing immigrants from Bulgaria, Iran, Iraq, Romania, Morocco and Kurdistan who were settled there in the 1950s to a city with a population of 73,000. Beit Shemesh has a local winery, a small mall (called BIG) and two industrial zones, which host small industry. During the high-tech boom between 1996 and 2001, it was home to several start-ups. Matrix Global, a subsidiary of one of the country's largest information technology companies, is based in Beit Shemesh and employs several hundred ultra-Orthodox women. The greatest change occurred in the 1990s, when immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia were settled there, and large numbers of religious Jews from North America and Europe, both modern-Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, chose to make their homes in new developments there. Many of them were professionals and they were attracted both by the suburban environment and the proximity to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv - about 25 and 35 minutes by road, respectively. A quarter of the population is made up of new immigrants: Russian-speakers constitute the largest group, 53 percent; Ethiopians, 10 percent; French and North Americans, 15 percent each. Growth has brought turf wars to Beit Shemesh. One well-documented culture clash took place several years ago in the old part of town between secular Russian-speakers and traditional Sephardim over the sale of pork products in local shops - a controversy which died down when City Hall passed local laws forcing such shop owners to areas on the periphery of the city. There have been counter lawsuits and the issue is currently before the courts. Today's religious battles are being waged between different Orthodox factions in the suburban neighborhoods south of the city center known as Ramat Beit Shemesh (Beit Shemesh Heights). In the early 90s ultra-Orthodox haredi families, forced out of Jerusalem by the tight real estate market, settled there. Some of them are adherents of the Eida Haredit, a small group of anti-Zionist extremists. An unusual coalition of modern-Orthodox religious Zionists and moderate, mainstream ultra-Orthodox residents complain that for the past year, a small group (60 families, it is estimated) of these zealots (kanaim in Hebrew) have engaged in acts of religious coercion and intimidation in order to impose their lifestyle on the majority. For now, the zealots are most vocal about women's modesty in dress and observance of Sabbath laws, although some anti-state activity has also taken place such as flag desecrations on Independence Day. There have also been reports in recent years of attacks on young people who stroll in co-ed groups together on Friday night; and of burning oil and gasoline thrown into a pizzeria where men and women sat together. An unofficial zealot spokesman, Eli Tombeck, married and in his thirties, defends the attitude of his group. He tells The Jerusalem Report in an interview by telephone, "We are merely trying to preserve our way of life." He denies belonging to the Eida Haredit, which is thought to have only 15,000 adherents across the nation, saying he's of Litvak orientation (i.e. more mainstream) and serves as a beadle at a large, normative ultra-Orthodox Beit Shemesh synagogue known as Kehillat Yaakov, led by Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein. Tombeck charges that it is the modern Orthodox who are escalating the war by holding demonstrations, using political muscle and speaking to the media. Moderates admit that they retaliate against the kanaim by waving Israeli flags from rooftops and terraces, hoping to irk the anti-state zealots. Modern Orthodox residents paint a very different picture. "Rocks, dirty diapers and tomatoes have been pelted at and damaged our hospital van," says Judy Lev, an emergency room nurse, who works at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem and is required to work on Saturdays. The zealots' loud screeching at cars traveling on Shabbat near religious precincts is offensive to the moderates, although they too would prefer cars to stay away from their neighborhoods on the day of rest. Sharon Ra'anan, an ex-Californian married with three children and a resident of bucolic Nofei Aviv, a modern Orthodox neighborhood of single family homes, reports that even "on a Tuesday" a friend's car was stoned as she drove through an adjoining zealot's neighborhood, Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. A burning baby carriage was placed in the road, says Ra'anan. When her friend stopped her car to remove it, a brick was thrown into her back window narrowly missing her son. Ra'anan says it is unclear exactly why the woman was accosted, but the incident, she says, underscores the kind of hostile atmosphere, which has erupted in the town. She also knows of a doctor whose arm was broken "by hooligans" but could not elaborate on specific details and another modern Orthodox man who was roughed up by zealots. She also cites the case of a woman who had been harassed after she chose to sit in the forward "men's section" seating area of a neighborhood bus. Ra'anan, 43, who works as a technical writer in Jerusalem, immigrated 10 years ago. She says she was brought up as a "serious Conservative." She does not wear a head covering and she co-founded a women's payer group in Beit Shemesh after she moved in. She says local police prefer not to react to complaints against zealot violence and have on occasion refused to respond to calls. Ilan Geal-Dor, a modern Orthodox community activist and former city councilman (1999-2004), who has lived in Beit Shemesh for the past 15 years, confirms that police in Beit Shemesh once told him that "this is not serious urban crime." Yehuda Gur-Aryeh, a spokesman for Beit Shemesh, dismisses the criticism and says police "take all calls seriously." What angers the moderates most is that mainstream ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians have not loudly condemned the violence, either out of tacit agreement with zealot behavior, out of fear, or out of a desire to make political capital. Beit Shemesh has been quiet in recent months, although in mid-July the violence flared. Eida Haredit adherents torched a municipal car, set fire to garbage bins and plastered new angry wall posters decrying City Hall, after municipal employees demolished two pre-fabricated homes, which were being used as makeshift Eida Haredit synagogues and were operating without the relevant permits. Indeed, as the city readies itself for new municipal elections in November and the interlocking interests of religion and politics stir old tensions, an unsettling stand-off prevails and tensions are bound to resurface, say moderate residents. Beit Shemesh's long-serving, three-term mayor (15 years) Daniel Vaknin, 59, is running for re-election on the Likud party slate. Modern Orthodox himself, he has been blamed, some say unfairly, by all sides for turning a blind eye to the conflict, and, worse, playing off one faction against the other. "He's been in the job too long. And the city is stagnating in many respects," says Ra'anan. Specifically, he's accused by moderates of poor urban planning as reflected by his decision to place a central road, open on Shabbat smack in the middle of the zealot's neighborhood, Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. A by-pass road is being built. The zealots, Ra'anan says, belong in a "less central and more isolated area." Others say Vaknin has kowtowed to the zealots, citing a recent article in an ultra-Orthodox paper describing a hush-hush meeting between Vaknin and ultra-Orthodox rabbis sympathetic to the zealots, over building a new haredi girls' school in an area near modern Orthodox homes. Critics fear that this school will become a hotbed of zealot hostility and cause the neighboring modern Orthodox to relocate. Till now, moderate politicians have succeeded in blocking the project as part of a "carrot and stick" policy to rein in the zealots, meaning that "we refuse to reward bad behavior with a gift of land," says Deputy Mayor Shalom Lerner. In the upcoming elections, Vaknin will be facing stiff opposition from Lerner, 55 (National Religious Party-National Front), who was born in Brazil, has lived in London and the United States, and has been active in battling the violence and intimidation. Lerner, who is currently part of Vaknin's 17-member city council coalition (only the Labor councilman is not part of the coalition), faults the mayor for indifference to the religious problems in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Lerner is one of the leading opponents against building the girls' school. "It's just too close to modern Orthodox homes," he says. He favors giving the group an alternate site. In an interview in his office, Vaknin dismissed the criticism and said that reports of violence are "greatly exaggerated" by the media and the troublemakers are a "tiny minority." He paints a rosy picture of his city, avoids difficult questions and prefers to focus on the positive aspects such as the low unemployment rate (2.7 percent); ties forged with other cities (Cocoa, Florida and Ramapo, New York); the mutual benefits of having a popular modern Orthodox yeshiva in town (Raishit Yerushalayim) as well as a privately-run program in which American teen volunteers work with disadvantaged Ethiopian youths. Soft-spoken but steely, Vaknin says he believes in a live-and-let-live policy and says he spearheaded an ambitious urban plan whereby Beit Shemesh more than tripled its size. He recalls that the first ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, Nahala U'menucha, was built in Beit Shemesh in the early 1990s when ultra-Orthodox Knesset member Avraham Ravitz was deputy housing minister. "And there was no problem." The trouble started in 1998 when Ramat Beit Shemesh was developed, practically doubling the size of Beit Shemesh. As he sees it, most Beit Shemesh residents of all religious stripes get along. "It's a few zealous punks," who create strife, he says dismissively. Vaknin believes "quiet dialogue" with religious communal leaders who will rein in "the troublemakers," and will end the religious strife. "The worst thing is to give the zealots publicity," he says. Experts are divided in their opinions about the broader significance of the conflict in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Shoshi Becker, director of Gesher, a Jerusalem-based religious-secular dialogue group, says communal religious disputes (as opposed to national battles) are generally less frequent these days because Israelis tend to "self-segregate," she says and mixed neighborhoods are altogether vanishing. As for the prevalence of intra-religious communal strife, she can hardly recall another all- Orthodox incident, "because religious people usually understand each other's communal needs." Former councilman Geal-Dor doesn't consider what's going on in Beit Shemesh to be a real kulturkampf because he believes even mainstream ultra-Orthodox residents do not support the zealots. Geal-Dor, 44, asserts that the mainstream ultra-Orthodox "have the most to lose if the zealots get any real power. And they know it." He says the zealots will not hesitate to make even more stringent demands on the ultra-Orthodox. But Tel Aviv University Jewish history professor David Assaf, an expert on the 19th-century hasidic movement, says historically ultra-Orthodox infighting was common and is usually connected to some hidden agenda. Assaf says ultra-Orthodox tumult over women's modesty or Sabbath observance or any other theological topic often masks a true issue of "economic self-interest." For example, one ultra-Orthodox group may want to assert a monopoly over kashrut supervision, or ritual slaughter and may orchestrate riots as a display of power. Mainstream ultra-Orthodox silence in Beit Shemesh over zealot aggression, he says, may be part of a wider strategy on that group to "flush out the modern Orthodox like they did in Har Nof," an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem suburb largely cleansed of moderate Orthodox and secular residents. He says Vaknin may prefer to accommodate the zealots because "it helps him politically." "The zealots are convenient henchmen," meaning that they do the bidding of the mainstream ultra-Orthodox, says Assaf. He says Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Jews are generally more intolerant than Sephardi, and that the clash between modern Orthodox religious Zionism and Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy is especially keen because of their sharp differences on Zionism. (Indeed, graffiti in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet likened Palestine's first chief rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, godfather of religious Zionism, to Shabtai Zvi, the 17th-century kabbalist who claimed he was the messiah and converted to Islam.) "Moshe Cohen," 33, an ultra-Orthodox man who immigrated from New York some 11 years ago and asked that his real name or profession not be published out of concern for his personal safety, agrees with Assaf but says what is unfolding in Ramat Beit Shemesh is more complicated and nuanced and underlines changing norms in ultra-Orthodoxy. He was roughed up by a gang of zealots several months ago for his efforts to cooperate with modern Orthodox residents to end the violence. "Cohen" believes that the conflict in Beit Shemesh reflects a power struggle between mainstream ultra-Orthodox groups and the Eida Haredit, which he says is deeply fragmented, has lost its Jerusalem power base to the vagaries of real estate and modern times, is widely ignored by mainstream ultra-Orthodox and hopes to reinvent itself in Beit Shemesh. In a drive around town, Deputy Mayor Lerner says he is puzzled how "a city of immigrants" developed these pockets of suburban religious radicalism. "Westerners aren't quite prepared to face this sort of religious intolerance" in the Jewish state, he says. He points out the most obvious examples of that intolerance in Beit Shemesh: the rash of wall signs and graffiti requesting that women dress modestly, specifying that "collars be buttoned to the neck; long sleeves and skirts; not too fitted." These signs are on display in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, which one must drive through in order to reach other neighborhoods such as Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, a mixed modern- and ultra-Orthodox area. But they are also elsewhere. In Aleph's sprawling outdoor shopping arcade, nearly every store displays a uniform English and Hebrew sign (provided free by the zealots) instructing women how to dress "to respect our way of life." A particularly large metal sign is displayed on the wall of the supermarket. Lerner says the city council voted to have signs placed on local government property removed, including a large one above the supermarket at the shopping area in Aleph. But he says Vaknin caved into pressure by zealot-affiliated rabbis to put them back. As for the signs in stores, Lerner says shopkeepers "go along with the charade" out of fear of the zealots, but until someone files a police complaint "there is nothing we can do on private property." Lerner says that if he's elected mayor, he will remove the signs. One modern Orthodox Israeli shop owner at the Aleph shopping arcade, who asked not to be identified, says he was coerced to display the window sign, which he finds "insulting and distasteful." A resident of a nearby village, he was approached two years ago by several ultra-Orthodox men who came into his store, saying that the sign was meant for secular women from downtown Beit Shemesh, who came to shop in Aleph clad in scanty clothes. Just to be sure, the shop owner put the sign in the front window because he does not, he says, carry insurance and "it's better than getting a rock. The enforcers are wild people." Once, he witnessed a young scantily clad woman being harassed by ultra-Orthodox men, but says things have since quieted down. A different shop owner, a (newly religious) Maine-born wine seller, said he was not particularly bothered by the request to display a modesty sign. His only negative encounter with the enforcers was when they asked him not to sell "open bottles" because they did not want a bar in town. "But I do have a wine-tasting every Thursday," he added somewhat sheepishly. In mid-July 2008, a young woman in tank top and shorts, escorted by an older burly man with a yarmulke, walked briskly through the Aleph shopping area undisturbed, as did other women in slacks and short-sleeved tops. Zealot spokesman Tombeck, who has been known to station himself outside Shefa Shuk, a supermarket in Aleph, and warn women to cover up, was nowhere to be seen. In the phone interview he admits to having hung signs and passing out flyers calling for women to dress modestly but denies partaking in violent activity. "Israeli women often dress in public as though they are going to the beach," he says. "And our streets are not beaches." Last year, Nofei Aviv resident Ra'anan co-founded with Catriel Lev and others an Action Committee Against Violence in Beit Shemesh. Lev, 52, the father of five, followed his brother from Baltimore to Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, where he has lived for eight years. A tall, soft-spoken translator and editor, he says it pains him to look at "my Jewish brothers as enemies." He also worries that the sociology of ultra-Orthodox culture promotes extremism. "It's like a contest among them to out-extreme each other." The Action Committee attempted but failed to create a fruitful communal dialogue with the mayor and police, says Ra'anan. (Last December, Police Chief Oz Eliasi held secret talks with zealot rabbi leaders, it was reported.) But the Action Committee helped organize what is regarded as a successful rally in November, which was attended by 1,500 moderate residents, mostly English-speaking. "The purpose of the rally was to protest against mainstream ultra-Orthodox silence against the violence," says Geal-Dor, who served as the master of ceremony of the event. The Action Committee has since also distributed a carefully worded petition composed with rabbinic approval, says Lev, which condemns violence. Not surprisingly, some locals have already moved out to more tranquil and tolerant areas elsewhere, such as nearby Modi'in to the north. David Resnick, a 29-year-old computer programmer who is married with two children and not religiously observant, did just that. (There are several "For Sale" signs on Nahal Dolev, a main residential street in Aleph.) Brought to Israel as a child in 1980, Resnick settled in Aleph in 2002 but left for Modi'in three years later, because "I could no longer ignore the hostility of the people in the neighborhood." Resnick told The Report that he felt hostility from "all black kippa" wearers, referring to all ultra Orthodox. But "Moshe Cohen" insists distinctions are in order. All ultra-Orthodox groups have fought their battles with the Eida Haredit, he says, including the large hasidic groups of Belz, Gur and Vizhnitz, and the smaller ones, such as Boyaner and Karlin-Stolin. Each sect, has ignored the Eida which has taken on issues which "no one else would touch," says "Cohen," such as attacking scholar Adin Steinzaltz in the 1980s for translating the Talmud into different languages. The same holds true for the non-hasidic Lithuanian groups in Israel, who follow rabbis Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Aharon Leib Shteinman, says "Cohen." Nevertheless, he says, the Eida Haredit insists that it represents all ultra-Orthodox Jews, and imposes its view on others. Having lost their power base in Jerusalem (mainly because young couples could not afford apartments there and their outdated ideological anti-work and anti-state ethos) and unwilling to settle over the Green Line (because that could be seen as supporting Zionism), the Eida decided to assert themselves in Beit Shemesh "where they have the express intention of taking over, that means, establishing their standards and imposing those standards on everyone," says "Cohen." He says the group planted its own rabbis, supporters and activists in various Beit Shemesh neighborhoods and "dragged non-Eida rabbis to support Eida causes." Besides violence, "Cohen" says the Eida also uses connections made by sympathetic mainstream ultra-Orthodox rabbis meeting on the Eida's behalf with political figures. "They scream against the Zionist state and secretly work with it," he says. Another weapon used by the Eida effectively against the mainstream ultra-Orthodox is the threat of excommunication, says "Cohen." He has formulated a confidential memo, in which he with anti-violence leaders (including Lerner) name Beit Shemesh rabbis whom he says are plainly sympathetic to the zealot cause and condone violence. Included on "Cohen's" list, obtained by The Report, are some of the most "anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox religious figures" operating in Israel, according to "Cohen." But the subtleties of the ultra-Orthodox world are lost on many Beit Shemesh Western immigrants. "Jews should get along with other Jews," declares Catriel Lev's mother, Sarah Lee Wolff, a retired social worker from Baltimore, Maryland, who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, near her married sons and grandchildren. And for the most part they do. Despite the tumult, Beit Shemesh is filled with contented residents. Geal-Dor insists that Ramat Beit Shemesh has a "fantastic community and is a wonderful place to live." What he fears most, he says, is that negative publicity might unjustly give Beit Shemesh a bad reputation. Similar thoughts trouble his friend and neighbor, modern Orthodox Daniel Goldmann, 39, who came from Newcastle, England in 1992. A private investor who lives and works in Beit Shemesh, Goldmann is active in the two-year-old Beit Shemesh Foundation, which is modeled on the Jerusalem Foundation and promotes cultural and charitable events in town, such as cycling events and concerts. Goldmann is married and the father of four. He believes the way to affect change is by "building things up" and not giving extremists publicity. He refuses to shop in Aleph because he is offended by the modesty signs, which represent a form of religious coercion, he says. "I care about my city and want it to be a pluralistic, welcoming place for all." He says the way to achieve change with the ultra-Orthodox is to facilitate more employment and recreational opportunities for them. "Fact is," he says, "many thousands of them do work." Goldmann says that Beit Shemesh's image is hardly helped by the phenomenon of a small bizarre sect of women, who espouse a hyper-radical form of modesty and chastity. Donning floor-length garments which conceal their bodies and have drawn comparison with Muslim burkas, the women (mostly newly religious) appeared to be followers of a local guru and mother of 12 known as Bruria Keren, who in late March was indicted for allegedly abusing some of her children and failing to report incest among them, and is under house arrest. She has denied the accusations in media interviews. Some believe there is a connection between the Beit Shemesh "burka ladies" and the zealots, and point out that Keren's son-in-law allegedly belongs to the latter group. Others, including Tombeck, brush the women off as "total nutcases." (This reporter did not see any "burka ladies" per se, although one middle-aged turban-topped woman appeared to be wearing a heavy overcoat on a particularly hot summer day.) Technical writer Ra'anan worries that fewer Western newcomers may decide to settle in Beit Shemesh. "I don't want to move," she says. But as of now she has to "think twice" about what to wear before going shopping at the shopping center in Beit Shemesh Aleph. A modern professional woman, she finds the plethora of signs offensive to look at. Once she was handed a skirt upon entering the supermarket to cover up. "It's very demeaning to say the least." Lerner hopes the suburban zealots and other radicals of Beit Shemesh get the message that "violence and religious coercion will not be tolerated here." With its diverse population, Beit Shemesh is a microcosm of Israel itself, says the would-be mayor, and its different types of Jews, he says, "must not be silenced by fear or intimidation." • Cover story in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.