Off the battlefield

Deputy Mayor Itzhak Pindrus talks about the Jerusalem Haredi community's struggle to preserve its particular way of life.

Itzhak Pindrus 521 (photo credit: Deputy Mayor Itzhak Pindrus )
Itzhak Pindrus 521
(photo credit: Deputy Mayor Itzhak Pindrus )
My meeting with Deputy Mayor Itzhak Pindrus (United Torah Judaism) last week was not set up for a specific purpose.
It was, as is often the case with city council representatives, an “offthe- record chat” to learn about the prevailing mood and atmosphere in their constituencies. But as the minutes turned into hours (more than two), it became apparent that Pindrus was giving this journalist much more than his opinion on current coalition issues.
The man whose broad smile and very Israeli-style manners have become his trademark suddenly sounded concerned, at times worried, and very sincere. With his words, he formed a picture of the haredi community as a fascinating combination of vulnerability and fierce dedication – one might even say stubbornness.
Pindrus described it as a community under threat that, as a result, threatens the rest of the city’s population, and called it an untenable situation.
Pindrus agreed to have this interview published. In Jerusalem is presenting – perhaps for the first time – the way things are seen from the point of view of an official representative of the haredi community and, more specifically, the attitude about such sensitive issues as the coexistence between the haredi and secular communities in this city, the special needs of the haredi community, and the way they perceive the secular sector’s attitude toward them. What disturbs them and what doesn’t, and how they envision things in the near future.
Shabbat demonstrations at the Carta parking lot are back on the haredi agenda; cultural events are being canceled or at least not being sponsored by the municipality; tension is mounting between haredim and the secular population in neighborhoods such as Kiryat Hayovel and the Katamonim (flyers were recently distributed in Beit Hakerem asking women to expose their cleavage in order to frighten off haredim who dare to frequent the parks in the neighborhood); and the struggle over the hegemony in Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition (the current issue is who’s going to be the eighth deputy mayor, after Barkat withdrew Rahel Azaria’s candidacy, following a resounding “no” from the haredim) is reaching its peak.
Behind the scenes, all sides are becoming more and more involved in preparing for the next elections, due to take place in two-and-a-half years. One way or another, the topic of haredi residents will once again be a major issue.
Pindrus adamantly refutes the rumor that he is considering running for mayor, stating that although it could become a strategic move at some point, the haredi community has no intention of repeating the experience they had with Uri Lupolianski. “We don’t want or need a haredi mayor; we just want to be sure that our rights are respected,” he says. According to Pindrus, while there has been tremendous improvement – at least in understanding and planning – regarding the haredi community’s needs, mostly relating to education, there has been no progress as far as housing needs are concerned. Pindrus says that Barkat has a fair attitude and conducts a dialogue in a “harmonious tone” but says that nothing has been done yet about the severe shortage of housing for haredi couples, hence “the growing tension and conflict in the city.”
On the sensitive issue of Sephardi girls within the haredi-Ashkenazi education system, Pindrus says tentatively that he will fight any form of discrimination or racism. But he adds, “That being said, we should be courageous enough to talk about the serious cultural differences and what these differences mean and stop sweeping them under the carpet. Things have to be said openly on that matter once and for all.”
Pindrus was born in Jerusalem to parents who made aliya from the US and settled in the city. He says he is a typical product of the Litvak haredi education system and way of life. “At our synagogue, there was no mistaking who was really important in our community. It was always the yeshiva students, who devoted their life to the study of Torah. Those who are in politics are set aside; they have their importance, but in a different way. I know that; I accept my position. I am not in the yeshiva anymore, and it takes its toll. These are the rules of the game, and in our community we all know what that means. We didn’t need anyone to understand that this kind of extremely demanding life is not for everybody. Those who cannot fit in move aside.
They will work and continue to be a part of this community, but they have no illusions about who is held in high regard, and it will never be those who work or go into politics.”
Pindrus adds that in order to save this form of pure studying, which is the only way to attain a high level of learning, “there is no need for a curriculum, and there is no way that is going to change, period.”
Pindrus reveals that the first time he understood the nature of the problem between haredim and the secular (or Orthodox and Conservative, for that matter) was when he moved, some 20 years ago, to Betar Illit, where he later became mayor. “I had come, for the first time, to an exclusively haredi location and, to my great surprise, the national flag was set on top of the municipality’s building and nobody tried to tear it down or to burn it as I had seen year after year in Mea She’arim, where I was born and raised.”
Pindrus says it didn’t take him long to reach the conclusion that since there were no secular residents among them, the haredim of Betar Illit didn’t feel they had to protect themselves from anyone or anything, and thus regarded all the symbols of Zionist- Israeli sovereignty with impassive indifference.
“I realized that in order to live in peace, the parties had to live separately. I know that it’s not politically correct these days to say that we should have separate neighborhoods; but frankly, unless we admit it and make it happen, things will only become worse here.”
I asked Pindrus why haredi couples insist on moving into secular neighborhoods when it is clear that such an act can only increase tension and even hatred. His answer was direct and clear. “Where would they go? We can’t build in Ramat Shlomo because President Obama won’t agree to it. In Gilo and Pisgat Ze’ev, there are no plans to build anything for us. So unless people want us to live in the sea, we are left with no other option but to buy wherever we can, be it Kiryat Hayovel, the Katamonim or Gilo. We have to live somewhere, don’t we?” According to the figures Pindrus has, there are some 3,000 new haredi couples in Jerusalem every year.
Two-thirds of them will leave the city immediately, as they can’t afford the housing here. “So we’re left with some 1,000 haredi couples per year and no plans whatsoever to build houses in their neighborhoods.
That’s the simple answer to your question.”
Pindrus admits that on that particular point, the haredim have failed to find any solution. “For us, the situation is nothing short of a catastrophe.”
The reasons, he believes, can be attributed to no construction being permitted in neighborhoods beyond the pre-1967 lines; Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur’s fierce fight to preserve nature and historical sites; and the decision to reject the Safdie Plan. “When you can’t build in Ramat Shlomo for political reasons, you can’t build in the city center because it has become a historical site to preserve, and you can’t build in the valley because green space has to be protected, what are you left with? Of course we have no choice. Our young couples buy wherever they can, and I don’t see any way that is going to change anytime soon.”
I suggest that the problem is not only the fact that haredi families live among the secular but that with each haredi family comes the need for public institutions that the secular don’t like to see around them, such as ritual baths. At that Pindrus bursts out laughing and says that ritual baths are only for the traditional.
“A true haredi woman would never go to the ritual bath in her own neighborhood [for reasons of modesty], never! For us this is not just a nice tradition; we don’t need the municipality to build ritual baths for us. We take care of this ourselves, so please don’t put that on our shoulders, too!”
On the issue of handing over public education buildings, Pindrus says he refuses to apologize. “What do you think would happen to a haredi child who has to go to a school in a warehouse or a rented apartment, while on the same street, like in Ramot for example, he sees large school buildings fit for 1,000 students that have barely 200? How would any mother respond in such a case? A haredi mother would say, ‘You can’t go there because we don’t accept the curriculum.’ And how do you think such a child would feel toward the curriculum and those who want to force it on him?“ In regard to the issue of the curriculum, Pindrus is adamant. According to him, there is no way it will be accepted in the haredi education system.
Asked what would be wrong with giving the tools to find a job and earn a decent living to those who will not be part of the “elite unit” of Torah students, Pindrus says there is no need for it until a student himself makes such a decision (not to continue to study Torah). “Otherwise, even the basics are at risk.
This age group, between five and 22, is critical to really delving into the learning of Torah. Anything else in the minds of students during that period of their life might jeopardize it. There is no place for it; there will never be. If a young haredi, at the age of 22 or over, decides not to continue, he has various avenues to choose. It won’t take him more than a few months to bridge the gap and learn English and mathematics; but only then, when he decides to step out of the yeshiva world, and not one minute before.”
However, Pindrus is well aware of the criticism from the secular society about the haredim not participating in the workforce yet demanding financial assistance. “Frankly, I don’t get it.
Today in Jerusalem, 64 percent of the students from kindergartens to high schools are haredim, so what do these people expect? That they should not study because they are haredi? Look at Bnei Brak – it’s all haredi, so all their institutions are independent, without the curriculum, etc. – so what? The municipality of Bnei Brak doesn’t provide them with education? I say, very simply, as long as we are not exempt from paying taxes like anyone else, there is no reason we shouldn’t obtain our rights, especially in regard to education. We pay improvement tax, we pay property tax, so we also are entitled to have schools.”
Some 198,000 children (five-18 years old), which represents 64% of the students in the city, are in the haredi school system.
One-third of them, especially the boys, don’t study the curriculum, and they graduate without any knowledge of math, English or civics, not to mention their very low level of Hebrew and total ignorance of contemporary Hebrew literature.
Dr. Ehud Spiegel of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, who recently concluded extensive research on the haredi education system for boys, says that the combination of a closed society and the lack of secular education could spark nationalistic and non-democratic elements within this community.
But for Pindrus and his peers, the most important point is how to preserve this very particular way of life, which has survived over the centuries against all odds – be it modernity, secularism or Zionism. The Litvak way of life is regarded as a mission, something one has to be ready to take upon himself with all the consequences.
“When it’s time for a shidduch for a haredi girl,” says Pindrus, “the first thing she’s asked – if she wants a yeshiva student – is if she understands what that involves: the abject poverty, the life she will have married to a ‘shpitz’ [a genius in Torah study] who will be at the yeshiva all day long, while she will have to work and raise the children almost alone. And the fact is, believe it or not, that this fate is still the most desired despite all the hardships, so why should we bother about the curriculum?” he says.
Mentioning the education issue leads into the infamous situation of the Sephardi haredi girls who, year after year, are not accepted into the prestigious institutions of Beit Ya’acov, an issue that has already been taken to court and has still not been resolved. According to the municipality’s official figures, only two girls are not registered in any institution for the coming year.
But city council member Shmuel Yitzhaki, who has become the local champion of those girls and their families, says that the number is much higher.
“To my knowledge, there are 22 girls who have not been accepted or registered in the institutions they asked for this year,” he says. “As far as next year is concerned, there are dozens of girls who had to concede and to go to a lower-quality school that is far from where they live because they were not accepted to a better school near them purely on the basis of their being Sephardi. This disgraceful situation has been going on for years and nobody, not even the High Court of Justice, has succeeded in bringing it to an end,” says Yitzhaki.
“I am determined to prevent any case of racism or discrimination on the basis of origin,” says Pindrus. “This is unacceptable and against the law. As the holder of the haredi education portfolio on the city council, I am doing my utmost to solve this problem. However, I want to add, with all the necessary sensitivity and precaution, that fighting discrimination and racism doesn’t mean we should sweep our cultural differences under the carpet. And there are deep and serious cultural differences between the Sephardi way of life and the Litvak haredi one, and that must be said. Sometimes I wonder why Sephardim even want to live like us. After all, from a halachic point of view, they are not obliged to do so. I have no choice, my children have no choice – we were born into that system. But why do the Sephardim bring this on their heads?”
Asked to elaborate on those differences and there being a problem in integrating youth into the Ashkenazi haredi system, Pindrus thinks for a moment and then recounts a story. “As the holder of the haredi education portfolio, I meet parents who are not satisfied with the schools their children are sent to. One day a father, Sephardi, asked me if I could recommend the institution his daughter was sent to, since – so he told me – it was written in Mishpaha [a local magazine] that it was not exactly what he had in mind. I didn’t know what to say. You have to understand that in the Litvak circles, this publication is considered a secular, forbidden magazine – and here comes this father, wearing a black suit and a black kippa, religiously observant, who considers himself haredi in the strict Ashkenazi way, protesting that his daughter is not being accepted at a Beit Ya’acov school, and he doesn’t even realize that he has a magazine at home that is totally banned in these circles.
“And it is the same with the ‘kosher’ cellular phones [which not all Sephardi haredim use], not to mention the total prohibition of Internet, TV and the like. We all know it is not the same in Sephardi families, and not that I’m saying anything about their level of religious observance. So it means that there is a huge gap, which in most cases people [Sephardim] are not even aware of. Now, try to explain that without being considered a racist, a segregationist, etc…” Pindrus adds that, nevertheless, he is very careful not to let any case go by without checking any decisions that might be made as a result of racism. “We have the power, and that requires us to be more cautious. It is a heavy responsibility.”
Asked what he thinks the best solution would be, Pindrus is quick to answer, “More Sephardi haredi institutions, and on a higher level. I see no other choice.”
But wouldn’t that ultimately lead to separate communities, separate neighborhoods, separate education, I ask. “Separate doesn’t mean becoming strangers to each other, but I don’t see any other way to live in peace and respect,” he says.