Oy Vey, it's those 'Ultras' again

Oy Vey, its those Ultr

The "ultra-Orthodox": They are having too many kids. They don't like the secular-oriented curriculum in Israeli schools. Their dedication to Jewish scholarship instead of employment undermines Israel's economy . It's a prescription for doom and gloom for Israel, according to Hiddush, the newest group fighting for what they call "religious freedom." The group is a partnership between Uri Regev and major philanthropists in the US. Together they hope to challenge the haredim in Israel. They have a simple strategy: Hire a pollster, pose the right questions and then produce the desired results; next, you besmirch the "ultras" in the press and create a sense of crisis; with some money from America build political support; and then save Israel from this new threat. On the pages of the Los Angeles Times last week, Hiddush's president, Jewish philanthropist Stanley Gold, outlined the grave danger that the "Ultras" pose in Israel. Outsiders see black hats and beards and think there is only one mindset. But the religious community is far from monolithic. Some choose to spend their lives in scholarship; greater numbers are entering the job market. Segments of the community even send their kids to do army service. A yeshiva classmate of mine was killed in the Yom Kippur War. THE HAREDI world has many challenges, primarily ones of too much success. A wide variety of factors have contributed to the haredi world's rapid growth: the extraordinary freedom and opportunity in modem Israel and the West; a remarkable educational system that has created a renaissance of Jewish learning; low numbers of attrition from the religious lifestyle, a high birthrate and growing numbers of Jews finding their way back to observance after a century of assimilation. There is much change going on at the grassroots level. Programs like Nahal Haredi have been an avenue for many to serve in the IDF. The Tal Law is a first step in what could evolve into a true compromise between religious and secular on military service. There is a burst of new haredi colleges offering job-training programs. Attitudes are slowly changing, as more hareidim venture out to the job market. Yet there are also challenges. The debate continues between those arguing for greater insularity and others saying there is a common destiny for all Jews in Israel. My wife got on a bus in Jerusalem last year and was told that the women had to sit in the back. She told the men they could sit there, saying afterwards "I felt like Rosa Parks." While the mainstream media highlights the shrill voices, there are varied opinions debated in a vibrant religious press that is ignored by secular Israel. Hiddush will fail unless it drastically changes its tactics. First, it needs to stop the name-calling. Jews who follow Jewish tradition as it has been for millennia are not "ultra." You never hear "ultra-Reform" or "ultra-Amish." This term is a put-down, used by secular Jews to mean "oh, those guys are just too religious." Using the LA Times as a bully pulpit may bring kudos at the Hillcrest Country Club, but it does not play well in Jerusalem. Claiming there is one black-hatted bearded mass with uniform views borders on bigotry. What would be the reaction if a columnist wrote "Blacks think, "Arabs think" or "Jews think?" IF PHILANTHROPISTS aligned with Regev really care about the engagement of the observant with the broader society and their economic advancement, they should drop the culture wars. They will never get cooperation from the Orthodox if their strategy is to attack their beliefs. Nor will they succeed in their attempt to use the government to impose secular values on them. This will only strengthen the voices of those in the haredi community arguing for greater separation from Israeli society because "they're out to get us." What is needed is an honest conversation. Both sides have much to contribute to each other. Successful entrepreneurs can find ways to create job opportunities and expand educational programs that will absorb more into the job market. A middle ground can be found on the questions of military service and study. Observant Jews can share the richness of Jewish tradition with the rest of the society. After the establishment of the state, much of the haredi world stood apart from the society that grew around it, fearing its secular values . (My community, Chabad, took a dramatically different route, actively sending their sons to the army, engaging society and being part of the workforce). The renaissance of religious life has created a new dynamic. It's time for the haredi community to have more self-confidence and reevaluate its relationship with the rest of Israeli society. But that can never happen if secular groups like Hiddush seek to impose change from the outside or challenge the basic principles of observant Jews. Dialogue and compromise are essential. Partnerships based on mutual respect can and should be forged for the benefit of all. The writer is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County. His email is rabbi@ocjewish.com