Unique challenges

How do national-religious families teach children to love Torah and mitzvot when the public face of religion has become so ugly?

haredi women in Beit Shemesh_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
haredi women in Beit Shemesh_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
This is not a challenge I expected to have when we had children, or when we moved to Beit Shemesh more than a decade ago.
As a national-religious family, we are Torah-observant. As part of our Jewish values, we have worked hard to make our home a place of respect for haredi Jews, non-Jews, non-observant Jews and all others. We have included haredi scholars and public figures among the role models for our children, and the message to our children has always been sharp and unmistakable: We do not have a monopoly on morality.
But how to deal with the fact that today, my children associate the word “haredi” (ultra-Orthodox) with the word “evil”? My daughter asked me if she would be killed for walking next to a “haredi” building on the way to her friend’s house. Who would have believed that I would ever hear such a question, or that I could even blink at giving an answer? The honest answer made me even more fearful than the question: I don’t know. I certainly hope not, but I can no longer say for sure.
As the haredi world claims “incitement,” I am reminded of an incident that occurred several months ago.
The same daughter and her friend were walking to visit a third friend who lived in a predominantly haredi neighborhood when a group of haredi boys began to throw rocks at the girls. A group of haredi men watched the attack unfold, but refused to intervene. The girls escaped physically unscathed, but the incident prompted my daughter to ask, “Why didn’t those men stop the boys from hurting us?” I found myself longing for the simpler questions like, “Where do babies come from?” and “What happens to people after they die?” I tried to explain to my children that there is a group of extremists that are a minority subset of the haredim of Beit Shemesh, that most haredim are basically good people who are just afraid to stand up to the extremists. They are scared of the social impact of vocalizing opposition to the behavior of their extremist counterparts for fear of being thought less holy. They fear possible ramifications that opposing the extremists could have on their families, with the result that it is far easier for them to be quiet, far safer to do nothing.
But as I was saying all this, my parents’ voices rang loudly in my head: If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
AS PART of the process of helping our children develop into Torah-observant adults, my husband and I strive to be good examples of what we believe they should be. We point out the good deeds of others, the efforts made by family, friends and neighbors in Torah learning and chesed (kindness). We explain that acts of kindness and charity are not just nice things to do, but are “hatov v’hayeshar be’einei Hashem” – they are the right thing to do in the eyes of God. We work hard to lead by example, to show them that all people are created in the image of God and are worthy of respect.
In recent times, however, I have struggled to answer the question my children have asked on several occasions: “Are all haredim bad?” Instinctively, I answered “No, of course not.” I was about to give an example when she followed up with a stronger question. “Then why don’t the good haredim tell the bad haredim not to be mean to us?” On a different occasion, my son asked why the haredi residents of a particular building hated his friend’s family – the national-religious family of 10 was continually harassed and threatened, their home was broken into and they were eventually forced to leave the area.
“Do the extremists really think God wants them to throw eggs at little girls and yell bad words at women who walk by on the street? Do they have a different God than we do?” he asked.
What could I possibly say? I tried to explain that when people believe in something very strongly, sometimes they get confused about what is okay to do in order to convince others to believe the same way. But when my kids asked if that included hurting other people, again, I was at a loss.
Today, our efforts to mold our children into religious Jews are being undermined by these violent extremists and by the haredim who stand by and do nothing. Instead of being able to present haredim as role models of Torah-observance and learning, we now find ourselves trying to explain to our children why some commit vulgar acts of utter disregard for Torah. Worse, we have to explain how they could possibly act this way in the name of religion.
Children see and hear everything.
They can’t be fooled for long. My children eventually came to the conclusion that some haredim may still be religious, but the extremists are definitely not. My daughter wanted to know why they still dress like they are religious people if they really aren’t. I explained that just because you say that you are religious doesn’t actually make it so.
When our children were born, my husband and I knew we’d eventually have to handle questions about how it is important to be Torah-observant while at the same time respecting all the good people who are not. We never anticipated the need to explain how so-called “observant” people could actually be bad people.
It is my fervent hope that the silent majority of haredim, whom I believe to be both good people and Torahobservant, will find a way to eliminate this extremist group from within their midst so that they will stop giving both haredim and Judaism a bad name.
The writer is an Orthodox resident of Beit Shemesh and the moderator of Digital Eve Israel, Israel's largest women's professional network.