Friday, November 16, 2007

The Beit Shemesh Story

I haven’t been much to Beit Shemesh, the once sleepy town not far from Jerusalem on the road to Tel Aviv, mainly because I haven’t been much to places in Israel outside of Jerusalem. One visit was about a dozen years ago when family members and I went with my friend Rabbi Jay Marcus, then the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Staten Island, to a ceremony in the main shul. Several years previously, Rabbi Marcus had opened in Jerusalem a post-high school seminary called Reishit for boys from the Diaspora. It had quickly earned a fine reputation and was planning to relocate to a not-yet-built campus in Beit Shemesh.

At the event, which was crowded with local Sephardic Jews, the town’s mayor spoke optimistically about the influx of English-speaking families, many of which recently made aliyah, and of the housing being built in Ramat Beit Shemesh, a new neighborhood. Villas and townhouses were available at remarkably low prices and they were situated among an abundance of trees and other greenery. For the newcomers, the proximity to Jerusalem was a plus and they could easily commute there or to Tel Aviv, either to work or for other purposes.

There were problems during the construction stage and even later on, as there was a rash of home burglaries and, as happens nearly everywhere, there was competition between the more affluent Anglos and the older and far poorer veteran residents. In time, relations improved, even as additional sections of Ramat Beit Shemesh were built.

What attracted the English speaking also attracted more native Israelis, notably younger charedi or fervently religiously families who found Jerusalem housing too expensive. There was a new influx, abetted I believe by the familiar tendency to overbuild whenever there is a housing boom, the inevitable consequence being lower prices and efforts to market the real estate to new cohorts of potential buyers. The ensuing religious diversity meant new competition and tension. There were different schools for the several subgroups and also other forms of separation. But if there was little social interaction, there was also little conflict.

This began to change with the arrival of stridently anti-Zionist and militant chassidim who in addition to wanting, even demanding, a higher degree of separation, wanted to impose lifestyle and other changes in Beit Shemesh. Their target was mainly other Orthodox Jews, who are usually identified as Dati-Leumi or religious-nationalists, people of a more modern orientation who are faithful in their religious observance and blessed with a host of admirable qualities, including a strong commitment to Torah study, a modest lifestyle, caring about others and an intense devotion to Israel. Although I do not identify as Dati-Leumi and have reservations about the intense nationalism, I greatly admire these Jews for their sincerity, values and goodness.

There clearly has been an escalation in tension between the Dati-Leumi and some charedim, with the former being on the receiving end of inexcusable behavior. There have been untoward incidents, including the taunting of Dati-Leumi school girls, spitting at them and efforts to disrupt certain events. When minor wrongdoing is not nipped in the bud, usually there is worse to come and it has come in Beit Shemesh in the form of reprehensible incidents on busses. Women have been beaten because they have taken an available seat next to a male chassid and refused to move.

It needs to be acknowledged that the number of perpetrators is small and, according to reports, they are younger people. It is too much, even wrong, to expect rabbis – whether serving in the communities that are involved or prominent outside rabbis – to issue statements condemning each minor act of wrongdoing. Human activity consists of an infinite number of ethical and behavioral lapses. We do not expect public officials to speak out about every minor wrong and it is unreasonable to have a different standard for rabbis.

Where there is violence, there is a higher degree of responsibility and this encompasses but is not limited to the obligation to speak out. Several Beit Shemesh incidents have passed this threshold and this means that rabbinical silence is not acceptable. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, dean of a Monsey yeshiva and director of an Agudath Israel project, put it well in a column last week in the Jewish Press, a newspaper that has much terrific reporting. He wrote that the recent Beit Shemesh incident when five young charedim beat up a woman on the Beit Shemesh bus and then when police arrived, other charedi men attacked them, represents “a colossal desecration [of G-D’s] name, especially since the criminals who committed this despicable act claim that their violent actions represent Torah values. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They disgrace our holy Torah and bring shame to all of us.”

In a companion piece, a religious woman who was beaten on a bus in Jerusalem asked “the men who go about beating women on buses: Do the bruises and humiliation you afflict on others, and the dishonor you bring to our Torah and our people, increase your ruchnius (spirituality)…or does it diminish it?”

It is painful and yet also good to read these words. We in the religious camp must hear from others and though this will mean additional pain, if respected Torah leaders speak out there is at least the possibility that the message will get across that what a small number have done is unacceptable and must not be excused. If there is silence, there will be more incidents and perhaps worse yet, more people will be driven away from Judaism.

The publications that serve the charedi community and which often for good reason are eager to pounce on wrongdoing in other Jewish quarters have a responsibility to report what has happened in Beit Shemesh. So far, this is a responsibility that has not been properly fulfilled