The challenge of defining Charedim

The Iranian nuclear issue and Palestinian peace talks may be dominating the news about Israel nowadays, but if discussions within the Jewish state focused on any social challenge this year, it was the question of how to integrate the Charedi Orthodox population into Israel’s workforce and military.

A new centrist party, Yesh Atid, won 19 Knesset seats in January promising to cut subsidies and draft exemptions for the Charedi community. As the government has pushed legislation cutting Charedi benefits, Charedi leaders have debated how to respond.

But observers assessing trends and responses among Israel’s Charedim first need to ask a crucial question: Whom do we count as Charedi?

This week, the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel came out with a novel way to define the community that departs from previous measures used by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Existing studies define Charedim based on whether they attended advanced yeshivot, and whether they avoided army service or eschewed college. Families with too many college degrees or too many soldiers were placed outside the Charedi box.

This method becomes a problem when you’re trying to measure, say, a rise in Charedi college attendance or army service. The Taub Center’s methodology avoids those pitfalls by choosing metrics that set Charedim apart from other Israelis while avoiding statistics that it’s trying to track (like Charedi presence in the workforce).

Instead, the Taub Center looked at recent electoral maps and identified precincts that voted in high numbers for Charedi political parties — a traditional measure of communal loyalty. The center found that in those districts, 80 percent of families were Charedi.

But how to separate that 20 percent? Answer: TV sets. Surveys of the Charedi community have found that fewer than 10 percent of Charedim watch any television at all, and that those who do watch TV watch very little — perhaps only outside of the home. Taub’s conclusion: If you live in a Charedi-voting district but own a TV, you’re almost definitely not Charedi.

If the political and social forces pushing for Charedi integration succeed, military service, academic degrees and employment will become increasingly less relevant to the task of classifying Charedim as time goes by. But until “The Voice” becomes popular in Me’ah She’arim, the Taub Center’s methodology seems safe.

Haredi rabbi in Israel tells followers to burn iPhones

A prominent haredi Orthodox rabbi in Israel ordered his followers to burn their iPhones.

The call by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, 84, appeared Sunday on the front page of the religious daily newspaper Yated Neeman, according to the Failed Messiah website.

Following the decree by Kanievsky, large posters appeared throughout Jerusalem’s haredi neighborhoods calling iPhones “an abomination 24 hours a day” and urging community members to kick iPhone owners out of religious seminaries, The Associated Press reported. Community members also are warned in the posters to keep their children away from the children of iPhone users.

The warnings come amid a recent push by the haredi Orthodox to keep their community away from the temptations of the outside world, notably the Internet.

Israeli military begins drafting haredi Orthodox

The Israel Defense Forces have begun drafting haredi Orthodox 18-year-olds without encountering significant protests, one week after a new law requiring haredi military service took effect.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on July 31 ordered the IDF to compose guidelines for haredi army service within 30 days, and in the meantime implemented the Military Service Law of 1986 with regard to the haredi Orthodox. The law requires every Jewish Israeli to serve in the IDF, and includes penalties of up to three years in prison for those who do not comply.

A military source with knowledge of the issue told JTA that one week after the law’s implementation, the IDF has yet to encounter any significant problems in putting haredi youth through the draft process.  The 18-year-olds are undergoing competency tests in math, Hebrew and general knowledge, as would any draftee.

Previously, under legislation known as the Tal Law, haredi youth would be able to go to an IDF induction center with a letter from a rabbi exempting them from military service so they could study Jewish texts in a yeshiva. The Israeli Supreme Court invalidated the Tal Law in February.

The court mandated the government to pass new legislation by Aug. 1, but no such legislation has been passed.

New glasses blur women for haredi Orthodox men

Charedi Orthodox men in Israel are buying glasses that will prevent them from seeing the immodest women that threaten their way of life.

The glasses, which are being sold for $32.50, have a special blur-inducing sticker on their lenses that provides clear vision for up to a few yards so as not to impede movement, but anything beyond that becomes blurry — including women.

While it is not known how many have been purchased, the devices have gone on sale recently in Charedi Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem and elsewhere, reported the Times of Israel.

The Charedi Orthodox community’s unofficial “modesty patrol” has developed a range of products to act as a first line of defense against the threat of seeing immodest women, Israeli media reported.

In an effort to maintain their strictly devout lifestyle, the Charedi Orthodox in some neighborhoods have separated the sexes on buses, sidewalks and other public spaces.

Extremist haredi Orthodox protest universal conscription

Thousands of members of a haredi Orthodox sect protested in Jerusalem against a planned universal military service law.

The members of the extremist Eda Haredit sect, which does not recognize secular law, protested Monday evening.

The protest reportedly began with prayer and continued with young children marching chained to each other carrying signs that said “Save me.”

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said earlier Monday that he would extend the Knesset’s current session, and not send lawmakers on summer break, until a conscription law that includes the haredi Orthodox is drafted.

In February, the Israeli Supreme Court declared that the Tal Law, which allowed haredi Orthodox men to defer service indefinitely, to be unconstitutional, and set Aug. 1 as the deadline for a new law to be passed.

Religion vs. Religion

It’s tempting to look at the latest crisis in Israel — over whether the Charedim should serve in the military — as pitting religion against the state. Just look at some of the comments from both sides. On the fervent religious side, Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef has declared a state of emergency. In his weekly sermon on July 7, as reported in Ynet, the rabbi is quoted as saying:

“We’re facing great distress. Unfortunately, there are some who think they can diminish the honor of the Torah, decrease the learning of the Torah, the number of those who study Torah, and the number of those who work for the Torah.”

He added: “We’re surrounded by people who hate us … Iran, Hezbollah and those Palestinians who hate the people of Israel. Who shall save us? The Torah! If the Torah hadn’t existed — the world wouldn’t have been created.”

Yosef has instructed synagogues in Israel and abroad to say the Avinu Malkeinu prayer twice a day until further notice. The prayer, which is recited during the High Holy Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, includes the words “Our father, our king, tear away the evil sentence.”

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Nelly Barak of Arad, whose son, Lt. Hanan Barak, was killed during a June 2005 border incident:

“They [yeshiva students] should not use the Torah as an excuse. That’s unacceptable. Everyone is equal in this country. Why is my son’s blood worth less?” Barak said, as reported in Ynet.

She added: “When our children want to go to the university they first have to serve for three years [in the army]. The yeshiva students can also serve three years and then study Torah for the rest of their lives if they so desire.”

And right in the middle of this mess is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, desperately trying to balance both sides and keep his coalition intact. His new coalition includes partners from Kadima — led by Shaul Mofaz — who are pushing hard to enact a new law requiring the Charedim to serve in the military, while his Charedi partners on the other side are resisting these efforts.

This is an issue that was bound to erupt, ever since Prime Minister David Ben Gurion decided in 1948 to exempt yeshiva students from enlisting in the army. The exemption applied to only a few hundred students then; today, more than 50,000 yeshiva students study Talmud all day while other Israelis risk their lives to protect them.

Who ever thought that such an inequity could last?

Not only do these yeshiva students not serve in the military, they also receive financial aid from the government to sustain their Torah-only lifestyle. There’s something more than a little hypocritical about this. It’s like saying: “We want to learn Torah all day without engaging with the rest of secular society, but we will engage politically with this society to get their financial support.”

You might say it’s a classic case of the state versus religion.

But I think it’s a lot more than that: It’s also religion versus religion. Judaism hurting Judaism.

As one of the great religious Zionist leaders, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, once told me, nothing has created more animosity toward the Jewish religion in Israel than the fact that full-time yeshiva students don’t serve in the military. It’s easy to see why: If the ultimate representatives of Torah don’t do their fair share to defend their country, what does that say about the Torah they study and revere?

That’s why I so admire the religious Zionist movement, which has been able to marry both Torah study and service to their country. They have been the antidote to the isolationist tendencies of the Charedim. A few days ago, many of their leaders expressed support for the movement to introduce the draft to the Charedi world while also reaffirming the importance of Torah study.

Personally, I think the Charedim should see this crisis as an opportunity to honor their religion. They should stand up and say they will willingly serve. This would not just benefit their country; it also would honor the name of God in the eyes of every Israeli.

After all, where is it written in the Torah that defending your country and studying Torah are mutually exclusive?

And shouldn’t honoring your religion in the eyes of other Jews be as valuable as the mitzvah of Torah study?

Of course, because this is such an emotional issue, complicated by decades of ingrained habits and the reality of power politics, moving forward won’t be simple. So, to cut through all the drama, I asked my friend in Jerusalem, author Yossi Klein Halevi, to give me his take on the crisis. Here’s what he e-mailed me:

“We need to move on this issue with both sensitivity and resolve. Sensitivity in the sense of respecting the Charedi community for its extraordinary commitment to Torah, for assuming in many cases a voluntary poverty for the sake of study. And resolve in conveying the simple, non-negotiable message that the Israeli majority can no longer afford to carry, either economically or militarily, a rapidly expanding Charedi population.”

His last words perfectly summarized the crisis: “We simply can’t do it anymore.”

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Hynes’ shift on sex abuse cases puts him on collision course with Agudah

Pressure is growing on the Brooklyn district attorney and the country’s major haredi Orthodox umbrella organization to change the ways they handle allegations of sexual abuse and molestation in the Orthodox community.

A series of recent reports by The New York Jewish Week, the Forward and The New York Times have brought new scrutiny to the special program that Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes established in 2009 to handle sex abuse allegations among haredi Jews in New York.

Under the program, Kol Tzedek, perpetrators’ names were kept confidential and Hynes apparently gave Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox umbrella group, the impression that he sanctioned the practice of rabbis reviewing allegations before they were brought to police.

A firestorm of controversy has surrounded the program in recent weeks, in part due to a pair of front-page stories in The New York Times detailing the communal pressure that alleged victims of sex crimes face in the haredi community.

Hynes now appears to be taking a tougher and more explicit position against the practice of rabbis screening sex abuse allegations. The longtime D.A. told reporters that he will push for New York State to enact a law making it mandatory for rabbis to report sex abuse allegations, and The Jewish Week reported that Hynes will create a new intra-agency task force to deal with haredi sex abuse allegations.

The shift comes as David Zwiebel, Agudah’s executive vice president, reiterated his organization’s position that sex abuse cases should be reviewed by rabbis within the community before they are passed on to the police. It is not unusual in haredi communities for members first to consult rabbis on matters that could involve non-Jewish authorities or have legal implications.

In an interview with the Forward, Hynes reportedly said that he was in “sharp disagreement” with the Agudah’s position, arguing that the rabbis “have no experience or expertise in sex abuse.” The Forward quoted Hynes as saying that he stressed his opposition in a telephone call with Zwiebel last week.

Zwiebel “still thinks they have a responsibility to screen,” Hynes said. “I disagree.”

Meanwhile, Hynes spokesman Jerry Schmetterer told The Jewish Week that Zwiebel “risks having the rabbi prosecuted for obstructing a law enforcement investigation.”

The shift puts Hynes’ office at odds with the haredi Orthodox community—a problem the Kol Tzedek program was supposed to solve.

Cases against haredi sex abusers face a host of unique hurdles. Reporting a suspected sexual predator in the community to the police is seen by many haredim as a hostile act that threatens the community, and as a sin—“mesirah,” turning a fellow Jew over to the secular authorities.

Agudah officials reportedly have said that someone who has personally experienced or witnessed abuse could go directly to the authorities, but other allegations should be evaluated by a rabbi before being passed along to the police. In some cases, alleged perpetrators have enjoyed broad communal support, including community fundraising for their defense, The New York Times reports made clear.

For their part, haredi victims of sex abuse face communal pressure to stay silent. Even if they succeed in putting a perpetrator behind bars, victims may be ostracized or stigmatized, viewed by their community as tainted. They and their children may be shunned as unworthy partners for marriage.

Hynes’ Kol Tzedek program, by working with community rabbis and granting special anonymity to both victims and perpetrators, was meant to circumvent these problems.

In an interview last week with the New York Post, Hynes cited the insularity of Brooklyn’s haredi community and the need to protect sex-abuse victims from intimidation as the reason for not releasing the names of about 100 accused molesters from the community.

“Within days, people within this relentless community would identify the victims,” he told the Post. “Then the intimidation would start.”

Hynes’ office has boasted that the Kol Tzedek program has helped result in convictions in the haredi community while other district attorneys have failed to bring convictions. But an investigation by The Jewish Week showed that many of the 99 prosecutions claimed by Hynes’ office in fact predated the Kol Tzedek program.

Two weeks ago, Hynes said he would chair a new intra-agency task force on haredi sex abuse consisting of his office’s chief investigator and the heads of his Sex Crimes and Rackets divisions, The Jewish Week reported. The task force could involve the New York Police Department and members of the anti-abuse advocacy community, Hynes’ spokesman told the newspaper.

After Zweibel said his group would resist increased public pressure to lift its requirement that parents obtain rabbinic permission before going to the police, Hynes and the haredim appear to be on a collision course.

“We’re not going to compromise our essence and our integrity because we are nervous about a relationship that may be damaged with a government leader,” Zweibel told the Forward.

The response to extremist Judaism lies within Judaism

In an attempt to better understand the problem that arose as a result of the recent events in Beit Shemesh — the one that succeeded to light a fire under so many people — most of us always return to our comfort zone by declaring that the problem lies in the Jewish religion. But the truth is very far from that. The deeper problem stems from the ability of a capricious, domineering and vociferously vocal minority to set a political dynamic into motion. This is exhausting and worrisome to the extent that no politician is capable of standing up to it. When the spirit of compromise is always one-sided, when the rioting and acting-out side always manages to achieve more, and, mainly, when the quiet and tolerant side begins to feel that it always ends up with less, people begin to ask themselves what God meant when he described us as “a light unto the nations” and what the founders of the Zionist movement meant when they wanted to establish an exemplary society? Maybe we are simply not suited to be the “chosen” people.

As always, Israeli society woke up late to the issue, went into panic mode and began waving the first flag they found next to their beds upon waking — the flag of the secular. It’s a comfortable flag to wave, both basic and superficial enough to satisfy anyone who was moved by the tears of Naama Margolese (the little girl who was attacked by the ultra-Orthodox in Beit Shemesh). But in many ways, it is a flag devoid of meaning, one that is not substantive enough to have any real meaning. And so, every time it has been waved in the past, it ends up collapsing after a short while and returns to its place in the dead-storage space of the “State of Tel Aviv.”

The Jewish religion is not just mehadrin bus lines (connecting Charedi communities), separate sidewalks and spitting at women. The fact is that we, the secular public, have grown lazy and have accepted things deterministically. This is not only sad, it also raises serious doubts about our future as a Jewish people that are enlightened, progressive and pluralistic. Our decision, of which we are not even aware, to give up on our Judaism for the sake of a radical and violent group who have decided to use religion and nationality as it sees fit, means we give in not only to them but also to ourselves, and allow a norm to reign whereby “might makes right.”

When Yohanan ben Zakkai felt that the zealots were threatening to put an end to the Jewish people with their persistent support of the Great Revolt and their attempt to claim ownership of the Jewish religion, he could have opted for the easy response — to lose faith and gather himself behind the door of his beliefs. But instead of giving in to the zealots, he fought them with the “weapon of the Jew” itself: He left Jerusalem for a period of time and created an alternative that would allow Jewish life to continue in the spirit of the time and the changing reality. He understood then what too few of us understand today — that Judaism is not religious fanaticism or a cult; it is first and foremost a culture and a value system. This is the legacy of an enlightened Jewish leader 2,000 years ago. But somehow we have a hard time repudiating fanaticism and a Taliban-like identity, and cleaving to the true essence of our nation (and, yes, we are first a nation and then a religion, in case we forgot).

By waving the militant flag of secularism, we accomplish nothing other than creating an equally fanatic backlash (even if secular fanaticism is nicer than religious fanaticism) and strengthening the notions held by the Charedi community that they are the “real” Jews and we are not. We end the battle by scoring a goal — in our own wrong court.

Everyone believes that a fundamental change has to occur — a genuine social and political earthquake. In order to make this happen (without destroying ourselves) we have to make greater efforts, persist in knowing more, engage our brains in independent and innovative thinking and know how to learn from those, like Yohanan ben Zakkai, who stood before exactly the same kind of cultural war and learned what it takes to win. The secular response to Charedi radicalism does not lie in declaring ourselves atheists, or making a point of eating shrimp for ideology’s sake. The answer is written here — in the history of the Jewish people, in our Bible and in what the Jewish religion was meant to be from its inception.

Elisheva Mazya is the CEO of the Ruach Hadasha (New Spirit) organization which works to prevent the negative emigration of secular young adults from Jerusalem by supporting young idealistic and pluralistic communities.

Judaism’s walking billboards

It never occurred to me that I’d have to visit the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail to get a deeper understanding of the Charedi crisis in Israel. I call it a crisis because, in my mind, anything that makes the Jewish religion look really bad is a crisis. If you look like a religious Jew, and you spit on an Orthodox girl because her dress code doesn’t meet your standard of modesty, and the incident is caught on Israeli television and goes viral on YouTube, then you are slandering Judaism and it’s a crisis.

So, here’s my message to religious Jews who publicly and brazenly humiliate women and spit in the face of the Jewish state that feeds them: Don’t slander my religion.

What I witnessed at the county jail on the last night of Chanukah, however, was the opposite of slander. I was there with my 12-year-old son and a small group of local Jews and rabbis — some with long beards and black hats — to light the Chanukah candles with law-enforcement officials, and to bring some holiday comfort to Jewish inmates.

I had been invited by Chaplain Howard Winkler, director of the Orthodox Jewish Chaplaincy Board, who used the occasion to hand out awards. Around long tables serving up kosher doughnuts, drinks and dreidels, people with police badges milled around, listening to a Jew in a yarmulke talk about the inspirational light of Chanukah and the Jewish value of gratitude.

What could have been going through their minds?

Here’s a group of religious Jews coming to their jailhouse to honor these public servants for the difficult work they do — and to thank them for the respect and sensitivity they show to the Jewish community and to Jewish inmates. How could they not respond positively to this “religious” ceremony?

As Winkler handed an award to Sheriff Lee Baca, I reflected on those images we’ve been seeing in the media of enraged Charedim in Israel, and I thought: What a contrast! In Beit Shemesh, a group of religious Jews says “screw you” to the world, while, in a Los Angeles jail, a group of religious Jews says “thank you.”

Can you guess which one better honors the Jewish religion?

Imagine if a group of Charedim had held a public ceremony on the last night of Chanukah, and thanked the Jewish state for the financial support and religious freedom that allows them to gorge themselves on their brand of isolationist, all-you-can-eat Judaism. Could that happen?

But instead of showing gratitude, they have been insulting and abusing other Jews who don’t think like them — and desecrating the image of their own God in the process.

I know, I know, these extremists are only a minority, and they don’t represent the vast majority of the Charedi population. But here’s the problem with that argument: It doesn’t work in the real world, where image is everything. If this vast majority of Charedim keep quiet and don’t take action against their own “bad apples” — while working to create a more positive image for their community — they, too, are responsible for the damage done in their name.

Any Jew who walks around with a yarmulke is a walking billboard for God. And if you’re a Charedi who wears not just a yarmulke but over-the-top regalia of Eastern European ghettos, you might as well be a Jumbotron electronic billboard on Sunset Boulevard. As far as the world goes, you’re a Jew on steroids.

You’re not just representing God, you’re wearing God.

The ultra-Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America responded to recent events by releasing a powerful declaration, saying, “We condemn these acts unconditionally.” But no declaration can undo a horrible media image. If the Charedi leadership in Israel is serious about repairing the damage done in its name to Judaism, instead of playing power politics and victimhood, it ought to do some soul searching about how it might change its ways.

As Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein wrote in the blog Cross-Currents, the proper Jewish way is “one that brings honor to Hashem and honor to the one who follows it.” A lifestyle that brings nothing but contempt upon Torah, he adds, “cannot legitimately be Torah.”

This is the inevitable result of extreme isolation: You lose sight of how your actions play out in the real world. Fear of being spiritually “contaminated” by the outside world can all too easily lead to contamination of your worldview. Like an antibody that turns on itself, you become oblivious to the presence, let alone the value, of God’s other children. And when you reach the point of becoming a source of contempt for what you love most — God and Torah — you know you’ve reached bottom.

But how will the Charedim ever know the impact of their actions in the real world if they shun it so obsessively? Will they invite advertising executives to their yeshivas to give them a course on the dynamics of public image?

Maybe they ought to just look at the most integrated black hats in history — Chabad — and study how these global emissaries have managed to turn their Charedi uniforms into symbols of love, rather than division and isolation. It’s not a coincidence that they live and breathe in the real world.

In this real world, you visit jail wardens to say thank you. And if there are Jews who bother you, you don’t spit on them, you invite them over for Shabbat.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at