Not Much of a Hiddush

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Hiddush means something new, but there is nothing new at all in Hiddush, the organization. Even the dramatis personae are just warmed-over stock characters.

Hiddush is the latest in a series of attempts to bring the Orthodox community in Israel to its knees. The only thing different about this attempt seems to be the addition of a website, and a broadening of the agenda. Previously, the issues were Mi Yehudi (defining Jewishness), and participation (i.e. funding) of the non-Orthodox streams in Government-funded activity. For Hiddush, the very existence of a haredi world is now also an issue, as it tries to alter its lifestyle by curtailing government subsidies to large families and military exemptions for yeshiva students.

The new organization is born of an old device: joining an old ineffective Israeli voice to American money.

Uri Regev has a long record of success in saying nasty things about Orthodox Jews, while remaining unsuccessful in getting Israel to further erode its definition of Jewishness to include Reform conversions performed in Israel. Indeed, he must be particularly miffed in the singular lack of success of Reform to draw more adherents in a country that has very strong anti-haredi feelings. For most Israelis, the shul they don’t daven at continues to be Orthodox. Reform in Israel remains a very small phenomenon. If Regev cannot persuade more secular Israelis to find spiritual fulfillment in his brand of Judaism, the least he can do is make life miserable for Judaism’s most enthusiastic adherents.

His new ally is Los Angeles businessman Stanley Gold, who recently warned that Israel’s economic boom is endangered by the rights and privileges of the ultra-Orthodox who don’t work and don’t serve in the army, and therefore suck the life force from the Israeli economy.

Now, reasonable people can differ as to whether there is any merit in his argument. There might be room to air Gold’s view in the proper forum in Israel. But Gold took his case not to the Israeli public, but to the readers of the Los Angeles Times in an op-ed on October 4. What did he hope to accomplish by taking his case to the citizens of Los Angeles, other than to display his contempt for other Jews and see his name in print? It was one of the most egregious instances of bad taste in memory.

His being an outsider does not faze him, despite the obvious difficulty of any outsider to get a clear picture of a situation, especially without checking with insiders. He shows his gall in making halachic pronouncements as well, although non-Orthodox in practice. “There is nothing inherent in ultra-Orthodox religious tenets that keeps believers from working.” He may be correct, but how would he know? Making the statement is as arrogant as my writing to the Pope to drop his opposition to the marriage of priests, since Peter had a wife.

Gold’s rant was counterproductive, as anyone familiar with the haredi community would know. By showing his contempt for haredim, he alienated many American Orthodox voices who might have agreed with some – not all – of his position. It is no secret that there are many haredim in America who do not understand the “system,” and would not be disturbed to see some change. The changes will come from increased educational and vocational opportunity for haredim in Israel, coupled with the growing inability of the system to sustain itself economically, with less support coming from American friends struggling with the global recession.

More and more haredim will enter the work force if conditions permit, but one thing is guaranteed to prevent any change. If haredim feel that there is a campaign from the unobservant to change their life style, they will resist with every ounce of energy. They will see it as sha’as ha-shmad, and devote everything they have to staying put. Nothing could do more harm to the considerable efforts in place to bring haredim into the economic mainstream than for Stanley Gold do declare a holy war against them. Hundreds of people could have told him that, had he asked.

If Gold were really interested in encouraging haredim to produce for the Israeli economy, he would be investing in the schools and training programs that are slowly but surely allowing more haredim to acquire the skills they need. He would work to insure that Israeli employers understood the advantages of hiring those trained, just as similar programs work in the United States to encourage employers to utilize the skills of minorities and handicapped people in the workplace. He would use his influence to insure that the experiences of an Israeli haredi attorney are not repeated.

When I completed my law studies, and my wife, children and parents embraced me proudly, I thought there would be no problem joining one of the leading firms: My grades were high, I was no longer a child, I had extensive connections in the business world and everyone who knew me could warmly recommend me.

But the rejoicing was premature and excessive. In fact, it is hard to imagine the discouragement caused by my encounter with reality. I phoned a well-known law firm, to which some of my acquaintances had sent many recommendations on my behalf.

“Yes, yes, we’d be delighted,” said my interlocutor, a well-known lawyer and partner in the firm. “Definitely. Come in and we’ll talk.”

However, when I entered his office he looked perplexed and surprised. “Ah … look,” he said. “Do you understand that the food here isn’t kosher?”

I nodded.

“And that there aren’t mezuzahs on the doors here?”

I smiled.

“And, well, there are women here and …”

I tried to divert the conversation to the relevant topic: Was I suitable for the job in light of my qualifications and areas of knowledge? I did not get an answer.

“You know that many people in the firm work on the Sabbath, no?” asked my interviewer. “And what about laying tefillin? How many times a day do you lay tefillin?”

When I left, I already knew it was a lost cause.

“What kind of doss [a pejorative term for an observant person] did you send me?” the important lawyer protested the following day to someone who had recommended me. With that he slammed the door on the possibility that I would work at his firm. I tried another two or three places. The reaction was the same.

Israeli society cannot continue dancing at both weddings: It cannot both hate the ultra-Orthodox for their separatism and not allow them to work. Young ultra-Orthodox men are studying very practical professions – law, accounting, computers and paramedical professions – with the fervent hope that they will integrate into workplaces, prove themselves and support their families. If we are not given an opportunity, we will understand once and for all that the fine talk about the academic revolution is just that – fine talk.

Instead, Gold’s animus merely fuels the prejudices and stereotypes that keep haredim from making the very changes he says he would like to see.

Hiddush in our circles also means a novel, creative idea, born of deep thought and analysis. We have a colorful phrase for an idea that would aim to be apposite, but entirely fails. Hiddush the organization is not a hiddush but a boich sevarah.

[Thanks to Dr Saul Newman for the Haaretz cite.]

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11 Responses

  1. Dovid Eliezrie says:

    Some of you may be interested in the response i wrote to Mr. Gold in the Jerusalem Post.

    Oy Vey, it’s those ‘Ultras’ again
    Oct. 13, 2009
    Dovid Eliezrie , THE JERUSALEM POST

    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 [email protected]

  2. Ori says:

    Yehoshua Friedman, you’re right – it is possible that the US will become a second rate power, and that Israel could work with India on military supplies. But it does not appear very likely, at least from the US. I assume it appears more likely if you live in Israel.

    G-d runs the world, and we try to make reasonable guesses and live according to them.

  3. Dr. E says:

    I agree with Rabbi Oberstein here. This is a battle that has been waging for years and surfaces from time to time with various degrees of sophistication. Even then, the emergence from that hole is constantly thwarted by way of the separatist and intolerant attitude of the Chareidi community that continues to be headlines—most recently each Shabbos (of all days of the week).

    The Chareidi lawyer trying to find employment is obviously a victim of guilt by association, and that’s a shame. But, if the Chareidi community had better PR (through talking the talk and walking the walk), he might have found some more open doors by now. And it’s not only the Chiloni community for whom the value of a Chareidi lifestyle has to be sold to; it is other Orthodox circles as well–the ones that send their sons to the IDF and their daughters to Sherut L’eumi, visibly adding tangible value to Israeli society. And many of these sons are more learned and observant than some of their Chareidi counterparts who do not seem to contribute in the same way. Any thinking and sensitive person would understand the cynicism towards many Chareidim that exists in these circles as well.

    As Orthodox Jews, we are keenly aware and appreciate the value of serious study of Torah, not just on an intellectual level, but on a “security” level as well. That if done with fervor and sincerity might very well match the safeguarding of the country, commensurate with those who put their lives on the line for all of the citizens of Israel.

    Whether it is Uri Regev, Stanley Gold, or anyone else, the Chareidi community has dug itself into a hole that will take years to dig out of. And this will only occur when the rhetoric becomes subdued, the violent protests subside, and the paradigms shifts from that of takers to that of givers.

    Back to our lawyer friend. I wonder whether he became trained as a lawyer BECAUSE he is Chareidi, or whether he reached that vocational milestone (albeit with one more significant hurdle to clear) IN SPITE OF it. To me, that is a key nafka mina (difference) in understanding where the sentiments of the leadership lies in this issue.

    So, before we conclude that Hiddush is “ossur min haTorah”, let’s see if there might be a kernel of truth in the sentiments expressed, that might be packaged a bit differently in order to be more on-the-mark.

  4. Mark says:

    Contrarian, I agree what you wrote about Shahar Ilan, but not what you wrote about why there are 2 d’s in “Hiddush”. They are there because there is a dagesh hazak (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dagesh) in the daled. The word “hiddush” is from the piel binyan, which usually has a dagesh hazak in the second letter. This is similar to “Shabbat”, the most common English spelling, though Israel newspapers often write it as “Shabat” in their English translations.

  5. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Ori’s last point no. 2: If US antisemitism became serious enough to force us to flee, it would also affect US aid to Israel, and Israel’s viability.

    Do you remember when France was an ally of Israel and suddenly under De Gaulle it wasn’t? Do you remember the US arms embargo, later replaced by massive military aid?

    I could easily see 1) Obama running the US down to the level of a second-rate world power and 2) Israel further developing its connections with India and China. Could Israel co-produce of top-level fighter-bomber with India? Probably. Do Israel and India have converging interests against the power of the Islamic world. Certainly. G-d runs the world, not us, and certainly not Uncle Sam.

  6. The Contarian says:

    Dear Rbbi Adlerstein,

    I believe you misundersatnd the the thrust of Hiddish’ arguments. They want the Isreali government to institute am Israalization program to force haredim into the “mainstream” much as the Czar tried to force Jews and othe minorities to russify. Their goal is to ruthlessly crush any haredi resistance to such policy not to bring them along into the process.

    Why do I say this. I quote my “favorite” haredi basher Shahar Ilan – the vice president of research and information for Hiddush – in “The Edge of the Abyss” haaretz 11/23/2009

    “The solution is not for the ultra-Orthodox to stop being ultra-Orthodox, but rather for them to start working and serving in the army, to integrate into mainstream society like Haredim in London or New York. But the Haredi leaders lack the necessary vision, fail to understand the scope of the national threat and do everything in their power to maintain the status quo under which the men in the community do not work.

    Since the Haredi community will not change voluntarily, there is no option but to make some tough decisions: The introduction of English, math and science studies must become a condition for receiving state school funding, and quotas must be set for the number of yeshiva students exempted from the draft. The cut in child allowances and other government support a few years ago increased Haredi participation in the workforce, but not sufficiently. For that to happen, assistance to large families must be made conditional on joining the labor market.

    These decisions must be made immediately, for two reasons. First, because if they are delayed for a decade it could be too late to prevent the plunge into the abyss. Second, because the political power of the Haredim is increasing, and any delay will make it harder to legislate these decisions, which are critical for the state and the Haredim themselves.”

  7. Ori says:

    My last comment came off as snarky and rude. Please let me explain myself.

    People who feel a connection with an organization (such as the state of Israel) do more than provide passive support. They try to improve that organization, and to make it more useful for themselves.

    If we’re talking about Heterodox Jews in the US, this means influencing Israel to be more Heterodox. A Jew who goes every Shabbat to a synagogue with mixed sitting is not going to feel comfortable separating from his/her spouse to pray in Israel. Such a Jew won’t feel comfortable not going to a synagogue, the way the Israeli Chiloni society does it, either.

    The second factor is that Israel is likely to become Charedi, or at least Modern Orthodox, within the next few decades. What would such an Israel offer Heterodox Jews from the US? It won’t work as a cultural center, and the old promise of a safe haven to flee to rings hollow:

    1. US antisemitism isn’t big enough to be scary.
    2. If US antisemitism became serious enough to force us to flee, it would also affect US aid to Israel, and Israel’s viability.

  8. DF says:

    Even though I largely agree with Rabbi Adlerstein’s article, I quibble with a few points.

    1) How is Stanely Gold an outsider? He’s a Jew, is he not? And since when does one have to be a member of the club before one can speak about the program? That comes dangerously close to politically correct mindests currently suffocating the country. No one has the courage to say what needs to be said about black ghettos, for example, and what has happened to American cities, because of this same mindset (that only an African-American has standing to speak about other blacks.) We have seen the results of this wrongheadedness. Gold may well be wrong (and the LAT certainly the wrong forum) but he has the right to state his views.

    2) You wrote “It is no secret that there are many haredim in America who do not understand the ‘system’ and would not be disturbed to see some change.” I presume you were being delicate by saying the American haredim do not “understand” the system. But by such delicacy you insult the tends of thousands of orthodx Jews who do fully understand the system quite well, and have chosen not to lead that life. Not because they dont understand it, but precisely because they DO understand it, and want no part of it.

  9. Contarian says:

    Rabbi Alerstein,

    Let’s not forget Shahar Ilan a former editor of Haaretz and Shinui diehard. His job at Haaretz was resident Haredi basher who seemed to spend his time at police stations waiting for Haredim to be brought in. Now he is one of the founders of Hiddush. He still is uses Haaretz as his prime medium of spreading hate. I believe that Haaretz does not open his anti-Haredi screeds up to talkback so he cannot be refuted online,

    A Hiddush factoid. Why is Hiddush spelt with two Dees (dd) not Hidush. I do not believe it has to do with Hebrew grammar. It is because someone else owned the Hidush.com URL an Isreali insurance company,

    Hiddush did not Mechadesh a hidush URL fast enough,

  10. L. Oberstein says:

    You are correct that we get defensive when an outsider criticizes the same things we ourselves criticize among ourselves. At one time it was very hard for a religious Jew to get hired by a law firm,even a mostly Jewish one, now they go into court with a kipah and no one gets upset. Israeli law firms are not used to religious Jews as lawyers and it will take time to break down bariers . Blacks and women faced the same struggle in the US. It will take time for chareidim to demonstrate that the prejudices are not accurate.
    As long as there is a vacuum of leadership willng to endorce change, as long as the Eidah Hachareidis can demonstrate every week in a show of their power and as long as they feel that the future is theirs and it is only a matter of time until they rule Jerusalem, how can you not expect the secular and modern orthodox to feel threatenedm, they are threatened. Would you voluntarily submit to the rigid control that Israeli chareidim demand, it is one of the main reasons great rabbis told many potential olim to stay in chutz laaretz. There is a war going on and it goes back generations and there is no one to put an end to it.

  11. Ori says:

    Would you rather have US Heterodox Jews try to influence Israel to go their way, or consider it irrelevant?