Fighting Yesterday’s Battle – A View from the Beit Shemesh Front Lines
by Dov Krulwich
On September 6 I became an activist.
Parents at the Orot school in Beit Shemesh were complaining about Chareidi zealots demonstrating against the school, and commenting that their kids were afraid. My response was one of disbelief. I knew people living in the buildings near Orot, and I davened and learned often in Batei Midrash in nearby Chareidi neighborhoods. It simply couldn’t be, I said, that the situation warranted schoolkids being afraid for their well-being. We’re talking about religious girls with skirts and elbow-length sleeves! The response was simple: If you don’t believe it, come and see. I went the next day, and was shocked at the kanayus that I saw – cursing, yelling, spitting, shoving, intimidating – all with looks of sheer hatred.
In the months that followed, I spent time virtually every day trying to confront the kanayim, document the kanayus in order to have it dealt with by Rabbonim and by the police, and protect the kids from the 10-15 kanayim that waged a steady war against the school. My videos of kanayim with hatred in their eyes were viewed tens of thousands of times, I became well-known by the kanayim and their neighbors, and I personally once received blows from the fiercer of the kanayim.
I also spent time talking with everyone, including kanayim, quiet supporters of the kanayim’s agenda, and the much bigger numbers of Chassidim in the area that are against the kanayus. I spoke with Rabbonim ranging from a Dayan of the Eida Chareidis, children of well-respected Admorim, Dayanim, and Poskim, and neighborhood Rabbonim who I hoped would join in condemning the kanayus.
From all of these conversations, I’ve developed an understanding of the situation that I think is important to share. I’ve refrained from talking to the media, despite many opportunities to do so, but I think that this is a forum where the discussion might be productive. I hope that this understanding can lead to solutions, but it also points to a bigger problem than is commonly understood.
In a nutshell: The kanayim, along with a significant portion of the Eida Chareidis, has their mindset stuck firmly in the 1930’s. To them, every non-religious Jew is a mumar le’hach’is, every dati le’umi Jew is keeping Torah minimally and prioritizes Zionism over religion, and most Chareidim are selling their souls by cooperating with the State of Israel. In short, they’re stuck fighting the previous generation’s battles instead of handling this generation’s battles.
I want to first elaborate on what I mean, then discuss why I know this to be the case. After that I’ll touch on what this means for the future.
Just imagine if you looked at every non-religious women wearing jeans or short sleeves and knew without a doubt that this woman understood and appreciated hilchos tzniyus, was deciding deliberately to violate the Torah, and moreover was doing so deliberately to offend religious Jews and to try to impose secularism on religious Jews. Imagine if you were as sure of that as you are that the sky is blue. Imagine if you knew, absolutely knew, the same of every Jew driving a car on Shabbos, every man walking without a kippa, and so on. Can you possibly imagine the perpetual sense of anger and hatred that would fill you as you saw such people throughout your day? After all, so many people are deliberately insulting Hashem, and so many people are doing things in order to make you secular!
The vast majority of religious Jews nowadays, of virtually every affiliation, know that this is not true. But in the 1930’s and 1940’s, in the time of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, it was in fact the case. The early Zionists saw the return to the Land of Israel as a Messianic fulfillment that obviated the need to keep Torah U’Mitzvos. The Shomer HaTza’ir were busy taking the Yaldei Teiman away from their parents and feeding them on Yom Kippur. Most of the chilonim in Israel then had grown up in Yeshivos and were virulently against religion.
At the risk of political incorrectness, let’s postulate that in such a climate, yelling and screaming in defense of Torah U’Mitzvos was the right thing to do. Even if so, that says absolutely nothing about today. Chilonim today know little about religion and care even less about what religious Jews do – they want only to be able to lead their secular lives without religious coercion. And a significant percentage of Dati Leumi Jews in Israel, including most parents of children in the Orot school and most families in the Sheinfeld neighborhood, are medakdek ba’mitzvos and kove’a itim le’Torah.
Religious Jews today know that our mandate is to embody Ahavas Yisrael and to bring Jews closer to G-d through our own proper and inspiring behavior. Not only does nothing good come of kanayus in our generation, but it’s a clear Chillul Hashem.
The story is told that when the Chazon Ish paskened that Chinuch Atzma’i schools should teach in Hebrew, not in Yiddish, he was attacked. Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld dedicated so much to fighting against the secularization of Loshon HaKodesh, how can Chinuch Atzma’i teach in Hebrew? The Chazon Ish reportedly answered that Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld had to fight the battles of his generation, and that we have to fight the battles of our generation.
Many times in recent months I’ve asked kanayim in Beit Shemesh simple questions: How can you act in a way that drives Jews away from Torah? How can you curse at Jewish children, what happened to the halachos involved in nivul peh? Why can’t you let other Jews follow their own psak halacha, and you follow yours? The answers are always the same – there’s nothing to talk about, we’re demonstrating against people who are evil. Conversations about how to bring Jews closer to G-d were non-starters.
It’s important to understand that the kanayim in Beit Shemesh are hated as much by most Chareidim as they are by non-Chareidim. Chassidim in the area have been attacked. Park benches enjoyed by Chassidic mothers have been uprooted when the kanayim saw that a chiloni woman once sat there. Chassidim who interact peacefully with non-Chareidi neighbors have had fish oil and feces thrown at their apartment doors. But many of these same kanayus-haters still justify the kanayus in discussion. “I hate the kanayim and I hate their violence, but how would you feel if people were deliberately enticing you with immodesty.”
I spoke last week with Rav Kopshitz, the Rav of the Eida Chareidis of Beit Shemesh. I asked him what his personal opinion was of the abuse being directed by the kanayim against residents of my neighborhood. He answered “and what do you think about the abuse being directed against Chareidim?” I answered that I completely opposed it, but that I hadn’t heard of much. His reply was striking: “The police are abusing us when they take down our signs asking women not to walk on some sidewalks, because they’re trying to force us to walk immodestly in our own homes.” Now, I happen to oppose making a big deal of a sign that all women, Chareidi or not, have been peacefully ignoring for ten years. But, that said, not a single policeman is trying to make Chareidim walk mixed. Frankly, not a single policeman cares at all how Chareidim walk down the sidewalk. They took down the sign because the sign was insulting to women. But a respected and brilliant Talmid Chacham is convinced that the police were doing it as an attack against Chareidi shmiras ha’mitzvos. And this is called abuse?
In a newspaper article last week, a Chareidi minister of the government was defending the Chareidi insistence on seperate-gender buses with separate gender seats. He closed his comments by saying that “No one should dare to tell me or my friends that I should transgress Jewish law… tomorrow they will tell me to shake hands [with women].” Even a government Minister didn’t realize that opponents of separate buses don’t care whether Chareidim sit separately, as long as they don’t force this separation on others.
Pashkevilim spread through Beit Shemesh discussing the imprisonment of some kanayim, saying that “the antisemitic attack against religion and its followers is spreading and getting stronger… attacking the houses of the faithful at late hours, brutally imprisoning Jewish activists….” The people arrested were people that I saw myself engaged in violence, that were actually arrested for violence committed in Jerusalem as well. Whether they are guilty is a matter for the courts to decide, but their arrest is in no way a broad attack against religion.
In short, a significant number of Eida Chareidis affiliated Chareidim see the world as if we were still in the 1930’s. Even those that oppose the kanayim’s tactics oppose only the tactics, but not the perspective that all others have evil and anti-religious intentions.
What does this mean for the future? On the one hand, it means that the challenge is bigger than kanayus, it’s a broader attitude of viewing people for how they are, and interacting with them accordingly, instead of projecting onto them a view from 60 years ago. Changing a mindset is much harder than changing actions. On the other hand, I believe that a significant amount of the tensions in Israel in recent months will be solvable if everyone can learn to see each other how they are today, if the kanayim and the Eida Chareidis can understand what the Chazon Ish and almost all gedolim since understood.
When groups within the Orthodox umbrella move in directions or take on philosophies that endanger Yiddishkeit, the Orthodox world responds. A large and significant group being stuck in the 1930’s, viewing and acting towards other Jews in ways that are not consistent with the current reality or with the psak of all modern-day Gedolim, and acting in ways that are a tremendous Chillul Hashem, requires a response from the entire range of the Orthodox world.
For people in Chutz La’Aretz, it’s critical to take this into account when you read and pass on the news. All the major frum news sources have reported that the Chareidi world in Israel is under attack. But is it really? Is there significant talk about cutting Yeshiva funding, or child subsidies, or even army exemptions? No, there is no more talk of these things than there is any month. What’s increased recently is only anger against kefiya datit, policies or signs or other actions that coerce non-Chareidi bus-riders, sidewalk-walkers, advertisers, store owners, or others, to adhere to religious standards against their will. What’s also increased is the police doing their job to stop violent and abusive kanayus. By any objective standard neither of these are abuse of Chareidim, they’re self-defense of Chilonim. The Chilonim are defending their right to freedom of religion, but are not attacking Chareidi religious observance at all.
Yes, there is talk in the media about the effect on the country’s economy of Chareidim not being in the work force. And there is talk about feelings of unfairness in whose children risk their lives to protect the country. These are perpetual issues that are already being quietly addressed, and need to be addressed, particularly as the economy world-wide is getting worse and the security situation is concerning. But these issues are not being raised any more now then they are perpetually.
The point of fact is that the Chareidi world has won the battle for Chareidi continuation. Nearly 80 years to the day after Rav Sonnenfeld’s petira, Torah learning and religious observance in Israel is unparalleled, more than any other place or any other time. But the whole Jewish world, particularly the Chareidi world, now needs to face today’s challenges, and not to continue fighting yesterday’s. Fighting yesterday’s battles is resulting in tremendous Chillul Hashem, along with an atmosphere of attack that doesn’t actually exist.
If, however, the Jewish world can stop fighting yesterday’s battles, can stop feeling attacked where the attacks don’t exist, can stop coercing others and realize that the others are not coercing us, and can stop the Chillul Hashem that comes from violent kanayus, then maybe we can achieve the kind of shevet achim gam yachad that Hashem wants from us.
Dov Krulwich made aliya from Chicago 15 years ago, first to Har Nof and then to Beit Shemesh. He and his family live in the Sheinfeld neighborhood of Beit Shemesh, where he works as a mobile technology analyst.