Emanuel and Beyond

by Doron Beckerman

Yoav Lalloum is no newcomer to the anti-discrimination scene. His Noar Kahalachah organization was established in 2002 in order to eradicate the ongoing rejection and humiliation of Sefardi applicants to Ashkenazi-run schools, ostensibly on religious grounds.

There is no question that, as the various writers here have acknowledged, racially motivated discrimination can be found in Ashkenazi Charedi society, and that some school principals refuse to follow guidelines, sometimes even directives, from Charedi Torah leaders to increase their Sefardic student body. Yoav Lalloum, in claiming racial prejudice, undoubtedly has a leg to stand on.

But is that what happened in Emanuel? As in most cases, there is probably some truth on both sides of the debate, but I am convinced that the underlying issue was never ethnic prejudice. A reasoned analysis of the facts yields that there is indeed a significant number of Sefardi families who are, or can be, a negative influence. The Sefardi mother who exhaled a plume a cigarette smoke into the TV camera, claiming her daughter was not accepted solely because of ethnic prejudice, is an image burnished into the collective mind of many observers. There are also many Sefardi families who do not want their kids with the other Sefardim, but both types of families want their kids in the Beis Yaakov. The Sefardi Bnei Torah lacked the funds, or the initiative, so they remained with the status quo of a single track.

The Slonimers all did not want their kids with the negative influence ones, and had no reason to remain with them, so they decided to open up their own Beis Yaakov track, which was approved by the Education Ministry, and designate it Beis Yaakov Chassidi. The Sefardi Bnei Torah saw an option of stricter standards and separation from the other families without intra-Sefardi strife, and, as individual families, they started applying to the Slonimer track.

Question 1: How many families that applied to Chassidi were rejected? Some reports say that none were, others have individual accounts of rejection. Which is true? I suspect that nobody was rejected on the basis of accepting the regulations, but there were families of Sefardi Bnei Torah who would have loved to attend but found the regulations anti-Sefardi and would not accede. They demanded a relaxation of the regulations, were rebuffed, and claimed racism.

Question 2: What did the Supreme Court want – a dismantling of the Beis Yaakov Chassidi or a relaxing of the regulations? It seems clear that they were pushing for the first option, and that is why the Sefardi Bnei Torah went to jail. They preferred following the regulations to sending their daughters to an environment they considered unsuitable. Claiming that these Sefardim are mindless, token Uncle Toms, is blatantly prejudiced and downright insulting. The Supreme Court seriously overplayed their hand and lent credence to the claim that they themselves are not interested in ending the discrimination, but demanding that no higher standards be implemented, and interfering with parents’ rights to educate their kids as they see fit. Once Justice Levy framed the issue as the superiority of the Supreme Court over Rabbis’ decisions, the die was cast.

Question 3 – Do the Slonimers have a right to set standards to the track/school that they started that would enable them to maintain their Chinuch Chassidi? Were they to completely do away with any uniquely Askenazi, or Chassidic, elements in their regulations, they might be 70% or 80% Sefardi, and they would not be able to educate their daughters with a Chassidic flavor. Is this racism, elitism, or running an institution you started and not allowing it to lose its identity? I think Slonim overplayed their hand here in narrowly sectioning off the publicly funded Beis Yaakov, but, on the other hand, the Sefardi Bnei Torah put themselves in a situation of being reliant on the Ashkenazim to provide them with the education they wanted. The institution of higher standards was begging to be established, was there for the grabbing, and Slonim grabbed it. I honestly don’t think they were being racist, just wanting to maintain their Chassidei Slonim track. They’d get swallowed up if they defanged the regulations.

What vexes many observers, though, is why there is any cap at all, official or unspoken, on Sefardi enrollment, anywhere. Why is there a 30% numerus clausus in so many institutions? Especially to the American observer, this issue is begging to be resolved.

One of the fora where this matter is aired is the Knesset Education Committee. The minutes from an October 2006 meeting introduce a wide array of people involved in Charedi Chinuch, including the appropriate personnel from the Education Ministry, Chinuch Atzmai, assorted MKs, and Yoav Lalloum. Some interesting points emerging from that meeting bear noting, but I want to focus on the statements of two MKs – Chaim Amsalem of Shas, and Moshe Gafni of Yahadut Hatorah.

Amsalem: “I know this problem exists, alive and breathing. It is not always because the girl is Sefardi or from a Sefardi family… but I understand and feel… that they’re looking for the “prestigious” families by the Sefardim, and they are accepted easily, and the families that are less “prestigious”, and they have it more difficult, unless they activate pressure and connections… Harav Lalloum said earlier that he points an accusatory finger toward a political party that sits in this house, he meant Shas, because what is there to say? The heads of Shas and their Rabbanim, send their children only to Ashkenazi institutions, because it is important. Because afterward the Shidduch will be easier, because it is has more esteem to it. That’s the truth… those who are to blame are the Sefardim… I think the greatest, most important Mitzvah that the Ashkenazi institutions could do, obviously by directive from the Gedolim, would be to say – our Sefardi colleagues, just as by the Chassidim, Belz have Belz, Gur has Gur, the Sefardim have the Sefardim and we’ll end the problems. Work it out amongst yourselves.”

Chairman Melchior: “Do you really want it that way, Rabbi Amsalem?”

Amsalem: “Yes… we have a wonderful, important heritage, a different path than that which has been imparted, and is imparted, by the institutions identified with our Ashkenazi brethren… The problem begins with the Sefardim themselves, they have an aspiration, a desire, to be elitist, to send their sons and daughters to Ashkenazi institutions. So continue this, Sefardim, and this is what you will look like.”

Simply stated, the Sefardim want a ‘separate but equal’ arrangement. Why? Why not just fully integrate the schools?

Now let’s hand the mike (to the extent they are necessary as an amplifying mouthpiece in an Israeli Knesset committee discussion) to MK Gafni:

“There are three primary components that comprise Charedi Jewry, the Chassidic, the Lithuanian, and the Sefardic. Why is this even a topic of discussion in Charedi Chinuch? Because Charedi Chinuch, as opposed to the Mamlacht-Dati (government-backed religious) and Mamlachti (secular), is very much built on tradition, customs, prayers, and all of these things are no small component of educating the children. That is the reality… when the Charedi community was small, there was no problem at all, because everyone got along. Once the Charedi community grew and there was no room… everyone created their own institutions. The Chassidim made their own institutions, rightfully so, they have enough sons and daughters to make institutions based on their parents’ tradition. The Sefardi community created their own party, and after it created a party for itself, it created its own educational framework. An educational framework recognized by law…

What happened is, that while the Chassidic schools developed, and every Chassid sends to his own Chassidic sect’s school, based on their parents’ tradition, the heads and leaders and Rabbis etc., of the Sefardim who are represented by 12 MKs, while the Lithuanians are barely represented by two, send their sons and daughters to Chinuch Atzmai institutions.

And then the problem arose, a problem that I do not see a solution to at present… there is no room for another class. In Elad there is a Maayan Chinuch Torani (Shas) school, a school based on Sefadi traditions, which is a recognized unofficial institution (like Chinuch Atzmai)… but the Ashkenazim have no other solution. You cannot tell an Ashkenazi – go to Maayan Chinuch Torani. The Sefardim…. Why do you not send to Maayan Chinuch Torani?

MK Melchior: Maybe because they think the school is better.

Gafni: Better, but there is no room… If they would listen to me… the Charedi schools would be zonal, but then there would be a problem, because if there will be zonal schools and everyone accepts everyone, there won’t be any justification for the existence of Shas. Why? Because what basis will the party have? Fighting over Shabbos? We’re the same. If the basis is the war regarding a Charedi weltanschauung, we and Shas are the same thing. The justification for the existence of Shas is opening educational institutions, where the schools are aligned with the Sefardi public… In my assessment, there are those who would disrupt this approach, which would be a true solution for me. There is no ethnic discrimination, there is a problem of technical distributions of schools, and there are many who will not allow (changing) that.”

The issue is, then, that there is a fully legal ‘separate but equal’ school distribution built in to the political system. There isn’t unlimited space in the government funded schools, far from it. The Charedi schools are underfunded relative to the official schools. One can accept students, in a color-blind policy, based on merit. But that would leave weaker students with no place to go. The only fair solution is to determine who has another place to go, and who does not. The Ashkenazim cannot attend the Maayan Chinuch Torani schools. The regulations for these schools include – Sefardi prayer and pronunciation (sounds familiar?), Sefardi Halachic decisions, and a paid subscription to the Shas mouthpiece, Yom L’yom. So it might even be justified to accept no Sefardi students until all Ashkenazi applicants are accounted for. But that would certainly pass no smell test, so it is capped at 30%, which is about the highest number you can have without creating a school within the school.

Creating unaffiliated Charedi schools might sound like a great solution, but there are too many people who stand to lose – those Ashkenazi principals who enjoy their fiefdoms and do not follow the directives of the Gedolim; Shas, because they lose their raison d’etre; and the Chassidim, who want their own schools for each sect. They would have to move into completely cloistered enclaves. 100% private funding of all Charedi institutions is not viable.

There are no easy solutions here.

[Rabbi Doron Beckerman, a mechanech in Israel, frequently appears on Cross-Currents as a guest columnist.]

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16 comments to Emanuel and Beyond

  • L. Oberstein

    Very interesting and thought provoking. In short the problem is that the Sephardim want to go to Ashkenazi schools because it is socially more prestigious. In teh same way that dew blacks want to go to historically black colleges rather than Harvard. The Sephardim envy the Ashkenazim and want to emulate their mode of dress.All rabbanim in Israel wear the same uniform, straight out of Eastern Europe. Only the Chief Rabbi of the Sephrdim dresses with a turban,etc.
    Could someone explain why in Baltimore, we have absorbed hundreds of Iranian families and their children are fully integrated yet maintain pride in their heritage.There are Iranian talmidei chachamim on the faclties of the schools at the highest levels teaching all the students, not just the Iranians. Is there something different between here and Israel that makes it possible here but not there. The Sephardi elite are now the problem according to this article, they should stop trying to integrate and be like the Gerrer Chassidim who have their own schools and don’t want to integrate. Is this really a Sephardi self respect problem or the result of an unequal social status. Why can’t Emanuel be Baltimore?

  • Kenneth Levy

    “Simply stated, the Sefardim want a ’separate but equal’ arrangement.”

    Interesting. One man makes a statement, and you somehow translate that into the universally held opinion of the entire Sephardic community.

  • Kenneth Levy

    “The Sefardi mother who exhaled a plume a cigarette smoke into the TV camera, claiming her daughter was not accepted solely because of ethnic prejudice, is an image burnished into the collective mind of many observers.”

    A) Assuming that your point is that smoking is an obvious sign of a family not being appropriate for the Beis Yaakov Chassidi, are you indicating that none of the Chassidishe parents are smokers? Or is it because this is a female smoker, and somehow we’ve determined that smoking is acceptable for men but clearly not for women?

    B) How do “many observers” know what was bradcast, when TV is forbidden? Unless you are refering to non-Orthodox observers, in which case, why do you think that this image would be patricularly relevant to them?

  • Bob Miller

    If Group A separates itself in some fashion from Group B to avoid absorbing “bad influences” from Group B, that is part of the picture. Possibly, another part of this picture is that Group B isn’t really all that “bad” now, but Group A’s self-isolation would have a negative effect on Group B by removing potential role models from Group B’s world.

    Ideally, the rabbonim and other communal leaders in all Orthodox groups in Israel would stay in touch with each other to maintain the best possible intergroup relations within the total Orthodox population, while respecting all differences in approach.

  • Ori

    Are Charedi schools primarily about education, or are they a status symbol, similar in function to Ivy League colleges?

    Also, what is the problem with Ashkenazi kids in Sepharadic schools? That the schools are more lenient Halachically, which would cause problems (for example, kitniyot during Passover)?

  • Doron Beckerman

    I thought I put a “should” in there, as in “should want…”. My apologies.

  • Chareidi Leumi

    >“Simply stated, the Sefardim want a ’separate but equal’ arrangement.”

    This is an issue of hot debate in Shas and R’ Amsalam is considered to be somewhat of the odd-man-out on this issue in their party.

    Most in shas see el-HaMaayan (just like they see shas) as a reaction to discrimination, not as an ideal situation that should always have existed. This situation is a test regarding what is more important – some particular minhagim and havarot or true Achdut and ahavat Yisrael. To some of us it is clear what should win out and I have even heard statements by Hareidi gedolim regarding what should be done, but the Hareidi Tzibbur does not seem to accept such a ladder of values.

  • Tal S. Benschar

    1.What does Gafni mean by “zonal?”

    2. Kenneth, R. Amsalem is not just “one man.” He is an MK from Shas, which purports to represent Sephardic Charedim. He does not speak for all Sephardim, but he does speak for a large group of Sephardic Charedim, at least those who voted for his party. That is a large portion of the people who have a stake in this debate.

  • cvmay

    L’kvod Rav Beckerman,

    These minutes are from year 2006, in the last four years a mini yet major change has occurred in the Israeli Charedie world.

    The influx of American Yeshivish olim families & those who remain in Israel after their many years of post Beis Medresh learning have joined the Charedei circle. Additionally, children of baali tshuva (arachim, post Ohr Sameach/Aish, Amnon Yitzchak followers) and proud ‘Mixed-Marriages'(Ashkenize & Sefardic) have influenced and colored the three distinct Charedei groups. And BTW these number are continuously & constantly on the rise. Nuances of demands, standards, religious observances have shifted slightly to the disdain and frustration of original Israeli Charedeim. Many of the newest innovations are diverse educational instructions, accommodations for different learning styles and a more gentle rebbe-talmid interaction (IOW put away the rod and buy more carrots). Parental intervention/advice/opinions are thrown into the Chinuch Atzmai potpourri. Principals, Veteran Mechanechim and other educators are not overjoyed with this newest phoneme.
    For instance, ‘What shall we do with the American Beis Yakov girls (& their parents)? with the Baali tshuva and the proud mixed marriages (if the mother is Sefardi-it doesn’t show up externally) children? These groups are not automatically toeing the line or buying the product without questions. Schools are incorporating a 30% quota for these families also.

    RE: R. Gafni’s attitude on why/how/what the Shas party represents and supports is off base. In its former years the party was a major draw for traditional Jews of the Sefardic heritage who were distancing themselves from the Likud party. There was & is a diverse and strong social agenda of community help available for Sefardim of any observance level in place. Currently, it is hard to see that SHAS & UTJ are mirror images representing only different clientele, Shas constituents are more absorbed within Israeli society in the work, education and business realms. Their voters live in mixed neighborhoods, are right wing in political viewpoint and have a deeper/accurate insight into the mind and workings of the Arab society. IOWs NIGHT & DAY…..

  • Jacob T

    >Also, what is the problem with Ashkenazi kids in Sepharadic schools? That the schools are more lenient Halachically, which would cause problems (for example, kitniyot during Passover)?

    This sort of attitude is part of the problem. There is nothing more lenient about eating kitniyot on pesach, or more machmir about refraining from them; all agree that they are not chametz. Th community of ashkenaz developed over time a mesorah that we do not eat them, while the community of sepharad, with different communal food storage customs and different rebbeim, do not have such a mesorah.

    Certainly in the name of achdut all Jew can respect the minhagim of our brothers, however different they may be from our own.

  • Ori

    Jacob T, I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. I didn’t use “lenient” as being deficient, but in the sense of allowing more things. It is not a problem for a Sepharadi kid to eat in an Ashkenazi school on Passover. It is a problem for an Ashkenazi kid to eat in a Sepharadi school during that time. Unless the Ashkenazi parents decide it is OK for their kid to eat kitniyot, this is a problem for an Ashkenazi kid in a Sepharadi school.

  • Chareidi Leumi

    >It is a problem for an Ashkenazi kid to eat in a Sepharadi school during that time

    Why? the kid can just avoid the kitniyot!

  • rachel w

    I don’t know of any schools that are open on Pesach (except for Boarding schools, which cater to all kids) so why would eating present a problem?

  • Jacob T

    In what other instances, though, would you suggest that the Sephardi mesorah is more “lenient halachically”?

  • Ori

    Jacob T, I am not Orthodox, so I don’t know any other cases. I was asking if that is a reason for not putting Ashkenazi kids in a Sepharadi school because you never hear that it – it’s always the opposite, Sepharadi kids in an Ashkenazi school.

    Chareidi Leumi, telling kids not to eat kitniyot would work from a certain age. However, it means having to cook special non-kitniyot dishes, etc.

  • Zadok

    I agree that there is an unwillingness to accept too many Sephardim in Askenazi schools in EY.But I would appreciate if someone who lived in EY could explain to me without getting emotional (1)why is that morally wrong in a case where the school administration and parents feel that cultural differences do not allow for many Sephardim (2)Why does the onus of accepting Sphardim into Askenazi seem to be placed exclusively on Askenazim?Why aren’t the Sphardim also held accountable for the reasons the Askenazi schools have unofficial quotas?If on is being honest and accepting that there is discrimination one must also accept the underlying cause for it.Shouldn’t the Sephardim consider why their own ‘elite’ doesn’t want to go to Sephardi schools?Is that also due to Askenzi discrimination and snobbery?As a well know, universally respected Odom Godal from the past generation allegedly once told a Sephrdic applicant to his Yeshiva.”If you despite being a Sephardi are unwilling to learn in a predominately Sephardi school, why am I required to allow my school to turn into one?”