Hundreds turn out for Israel funeral of ex-Hasid who apparently killed herself


Hundreds of mourners attended the funeral of a formerly haredi Orthodox Israeli woman who was found dead in what is believed to be a suicide.

Esti Weinstein, 50, was buried in Petach Tikvah on Tuesday, the Times of Israel reported.

Weinstein’s body and a suicide note were discovered in her car at a beach in Ashdod on Sunday, a week after she went missing.

“In this city I gave birth to my daughters, in this city I die because of my daughters,” Weinstein wrote.

Six of her seven daughters had refused contact with their mother after she left the Gur sect of Hasidic Judaism eight years ago.

Tami Montag, the daughter who stayed in touch with Weinstein and who also left the haredi Orthodox community, gave a eulogy at the funeral in which she said, “You were everything to me, a friend and mother.”

According to Haaretz, Weinstein wrote a short memoir titled “Doing His Will” about life in the Gur community, her decision to leave it and the pain she felt after her daughters severed their relationships with her.

Weinstein, who married at 17, also wrote about her unhappy marriage in which she was required to follow numerous strict marital guidelines that are unique to the Gur sect. According to her memoir, the guidelines restrict couples to having sexual relations only twice a month.

In the book, Weinstein wrote of her ongoing pain at being cut off from her daughters.

“I thought it was a temporary matter, but the years are passing and time isn’t healing, and the pain doesn’t stop,” she wrote.

Estranged family members also attended and spoke at the funeral, according to the Times of Israel.

“It’s hard for me to speak about you. For me, you will always be like your first 43 years, when you were pure,” said her father, Rabbi Menachem Orenstein, according to Ynet.

Weinstein’s boyfriend also spoke at the funeral, The Times of Israel reported, but did not identify him.

“At the heart of every religion is a kernel of unity, and that’s the source of life. But unfortunately it’s turned into ideology,” he said. “Don’t let any rabbi lead you to hatred and to alienation. The pain from being cut off by your kids is massive.”

Haredim’s refusal to sit next to opposite sex delays Delta flight


A Delta Airlines flight to Israel was delayed after haredi Orthodox men and women deplaned rather than sit next to members of the opposite sex.

The flight Monday night from New York’s Kennedy Airport arrived more than an hour late on Tuesday afternoon due to the incident, Haaretz reported.

After the haredi passengers decided to leave the plane, their baggage had to be removed, causing the delay.

It is not known if the passengers’ fares were refunded.

In September, an El Al flight that landed in Israel on the morning of Rosh Hashanah eve was delayed in New York after haredi Orthodox men assigned to sit next to women attempted to switch their seats.

The haredi passengers who could not switch their seats stood up immediately upon takeoff and remained in place throughout the flight, crowding the aisles and inconveniencing fellow passengers and flight attendants, Ynet reported at the time.

The Israel-Hamas war through Haredi Orthodox eyes


Most Israelis blame the war in Gaza squarely on Hamas, though there are plenty who fault the Israeli government for not pursuing peace more aggressively.

In the haredi Orthodox community, however, where practically everything is ascribed to the omnipresent hand of God in one form or another, the true cause of the conflict is seen as something else: sin, with the war as God’s punishment.

Which sin? Take your pick.

Is a gay pride parade in Tel Aviv to blame for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank? One haredi rabbi thinks so.

Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, a Sephardic rabbinic leader, blamed the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers last month on the gay pride parade that took place the day after they were abducted.

“God brought Hamas because ‘the world has filled with hamas’ now,” he said in a speech last week, according to the haredi blog Vos Iz Neias. The Hebrew word “hamas” means evil or corruption.

Rabbi Aron Teitelbaum, one of the Satmar rebbes and a vocal anti-Zionist, blamed the kidnapped boys’ parents and the “desire for Jews to inhabit the entire State of Israel.”

It “is incumbent upon us to say that these parents are guilty,” he said, addressing his yeshiva in Kiryas Joel, a Satmar community approximately 50 miles north of New York City. The recording aired on Kol Satmar, the sect’s phone-in news service, and was reproduced by Vos Iz Neias. “They caused the deaths of their sons and they must do t’shuva [repent] for their actions,” Teitelbaum said in Yiddish.

While many haredim avoid guessing at the Divine reasons for catastrophe in Israel (at least publicly), there is universal consensus that prayer and the performance of mitzvot (fulfilling the Torah’s commandments) constitute the best ways to ward off further disasters.

In a July 11 statement issued by Agudath Israel, Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote:

We must remember that… it is therefore to Hashem that we must focus our entreaties with special intensity at this critical time.

Our prayers should include entreaties for the wellbeing of our fellow Jews under attack, as well as for those who are risking their lives to defend them and defeat those who wish us harm.

One of the more unusual initiatives to bring peace to Israel through the performance of mitzvot is Chabad’s Project EDEN (Eat ice cream Defend Eretz Yisroel Now), which rewards modestly attired female Chabad campers with ice cream. Organizers believe that having women dress modestly will bring Israel Divine protection.

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.

Charedi men attack after woman refuses to move to back of bus


Haredi Orthodox assailants in Beit Shemesh smashed the windows of a bus after a woman refused to sit apart from men.

The trouble began Wednesday afternoon when a haredi man demanded that a female passenger move to the back of the crowded public bus in Beit Shemesh, a sprawling suburb located near Jerusalem. When she refused, four haredi men blocked the bus, smashed the windshield and broke other windows with a hammer, according to reports.

Haredi assailants later stoned two other public buses driving through Beit Shemesh, smashing their windows as well.

Police detained the man who demanded that the woman move to the back of the bus and a haredi woman who tried to prevent police from detaining him. Two other men were arrested for blocking the bus.

Israel’s Transportation Ministry maintains a voluntary segregation plan for public buses under which riders may sit separately if they desire, but passengers cannot pressure other passengers to sit separately. The plan was approved by Israel’s Supreme Court.

Beit Shemesh gained international notoriety in 2011 when a group of haredi men spit upon and cursed at an 8-year-old Modern Orthodox girl, Naama Margolis, as she walked to school through their neighborhood. The city is currently in the midst of an acrimonious mayoral race, with two Modern Orthodox candidates running to unseat the sitting haredi mayor.

Choosing between love and obligation


“Fill the Void,” which won Israel’s equivalent of the Academy Award last year, is a love story unlike any Hollywood fare and it is set in a Jewish community unfamiliar to most Jews.

The movie is by and about a Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, enclave in the center of Tel Aviv, centuries removed in time and place from the swinging citizenry a few blocks away.

The film’s central character is Shira, at 18 the youngest daughter of the family, about to be married to a promising young man of the same age and background.

Then tragedy strikes. Shira’s 28-year-old sister, Esther, dies while giving birth to her first child, and amid the mourning, Shira’s match is put on hold.

Esther’s husband, Yochai, now a widower responsible for the newborn baby, realizes that he will have to remarry eventually and a matchmaker comes up with a prospect, a devout widow in Belgium.

When Shira’s mother learns that Yochai, and, worse, her only grandchild, may leave the country, she seeks to forestall this calamity by having Shira marry her dead sister’s husband.

While hoping that Shira will marry Yochai, her parents leave the decision up to her, and the conflicted girl must finally make her own choice.

“Fill the Void” is the first feature film for both director-writer-producer Rama Burshtein, and for Hadas Yaron, who portrays the young Shira. During a recent visit to Los Angeles, Yaron and Burshtein sat down for separate interviews with the Journal.

Yaron is 23 and had no problem playing an 18-year-old girl, but she faced another difficulty. Coming from a secular family — no actual Charedi girl would act in the movie — Yaron had to get the feel of living in a closed Chasidic environment.

But once she put on the modest clothing demanded for the role, she said, “I felt very holy and harmonious.”

With only one previous role in a minor film on her resume, Yaron got into her part so convincingly that she won Israel’s best actress award last year and did likewise at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 2012.

Asked how the role affected her, Yaron responded, “I learned that you can’t judge people by how they look or how they are dressed.”

Director Burshtein had the advantage of having lived in both the secular and ultra-Orthodox worlds. Born to an Israeli father and an American mother, she moved from New York to Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv, shortly after her birth.

She returned to New York at 17 and remembered, “I was totally secular and pretty wild … but at the same time, I was always a seeker.”

Once she was introduced to the Charedi community through a friend, “It was an instant conversion … it was like coming home,” she said.

As Burshtein believes, and illustrates in “Fill the Void,” it is a common misconception that in the Chasidic community parents pick husbands for their daughters, regardless of the girl’s wishes. Actually, she argues, while parents may arrange the options for marriage partners, the final decision is up to the daughter.

In any case, she maintains that whatever the differences in outlook among denominations, “being Jewish is all about feelings.”

Given that love and passion are common to all humans, what may be more pronounced among the Charedim is “the power of commitment.” By that, she means the determination to “do the work” needed to make the marriage successful and permanent.

The best time for a girl to embark on such a commitment is when she is around 17, Burshtein counseled.

In her own life, Burshtein, 46, practices what she preaches. She and her husband, a psychotherapist, have three sons and one daughter between the ages of 16 and 11, having had the four kids in the span of five years.

While planning the outline of “Fill the Void,” Burshtein was determined not to get into the religious-secular conflict in Israel, and she cited her reason in a director’s statement accompanying the film.

“I set out on this journey out of a deep sense of pain,” she wrote. “I felt that the ultra-Orthodox community has no voice in the cultural dialogue. You might even say we are mute. … Our political voice is loud — even boisterous — but our artistic and cultural voice remains muffled and faint. I’m not good at agendas and politics … I am good at telling about those things I’m passionate about [and] they are all tied to the ultra-Orthodox world of observance.”

Burshtein has started writing the script for her next project, which will probably be set in New York. She wouldn’t reveal more but pledged that the movie would “always be about my world.”

“Fill the Void” opens at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles on May 24, and at the Playhouse in Pasadena and the Town Center in Encino on May 31. 

Police: Women prohibited from saying Kaddish at Western Wall


Women will be prohibited from saying the Mourner's Kaddish and other prayers at the Western Wall, Jerusalem police told Women of the Wall.

Jerusalem police commissioner Yossi Pariente in a letter sent Thursday to Women of the Wall Chairwoman Anat Hoffman said he would enforce the Justice Ministry's strict interpretation of a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting women from violating the traditional practices at the site, which is overseen by haredi Orthodox officials.

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit prayer shawls, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Wall, saying it disturbed the “public order.” The ruling was legally expanded in 2005 by the Justice Ministry to prohibit women from saying certain prayers in a minyan, or prayer quorum.

Women of the Wall has held a prayer service at the holy site, known as the Kotel in Hebrew, almost every month for the past two decades. The service is held on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new Hebrew month, at the back of the women's section.

The next scheduled prayer service is on April 11, the first day of Iyar. Pariente said in his letter that police would enforce the ban on certain prayers.

Hoffman told Israeli media outlets that the women will say Kaddish, something she said is acceptable throughout the Jewish world, at next week's service. She added that it is particularly significant that the police would choose the month of Iyar, which includes Holocaust Remembrance Day and the country's Memorial Day, to enforce the ruling.

Last month, when three female Knesset members joined the Women of the Wall for the group's monthly prayer service, marked the first time in months that no arrests were made during the Rosh Chodesh gathering. The prior month, Jerusalem police arrested 10 women, including the sister and niece of American comedian Sarah Silverman, for disturbing public order.

London Orthodox, non-Jews face off over planning laws


Non-Jewish residents of the heavily haredi Orthodox-populated London neighborhood of Hackney have launched a campaign to prevent Orthodox Jews from changing city planning regulations.

A group named Hackney Planning Watch recently produced a flyer warning: “Your neighborhood is in danger! Want your neighbor to extend their home to cover the whole of their back garden? Want to wake up and find a school has moved in next door?”

The flyer is part of the group’s fight against the bid of a largely haredi Orthodox rival group named Stamford Hill Neighborhood Forum to receive control over planning in the neighborhood, which is home to a rapidly-growing community of 20,000 Orthodox Jews and to non-Jews as well, according to the British daily newspaper The Guardian.

The two groups, Hackney Planning Watch and Stamford Hill Neighborhood Forum, are vying for control over planning regulations as part of the government's “big society” policy of handing planning control to local communities.

The Stamford Hill Neighborhood Forum – which is led by haredim and some non-Jews – seeks to approve major extensions to lofts and to build over gardens to house a rapidly growing population.

But the Hackney Planning Watch, which reportedly is led by secular academics and trades unionists, is seeking to block such changes. Jane Holgate, a leader of Hackney Planning Watch, said she has been accused of anti-Semitism for her opposition to the plans; a claim she rejects.

A Stamford Hill Neighborhood Forum leaflet accused Hackney Planning Watch of double standards, showing a loft extension built in the street where some of its leaders live. It asked: “Is it one rule for themselves and one rule for the ethnic communities?”

Any planning forum must be approved by the local council of Hackney.

Women of the Wall Megillah reading undisturbed by Israeli police


A women’s Megillah reading at the Western Wall took place on Shushan Purim without incident or arrests.

Approximately 80 women turned out, some donning prayer shawls, others dressed as police and haredi Orthodox worshipers, on Monday morning in Jerusalem, the TImes of Israel reported.

Hallel Silverman, the 17-year-old niece of American comedian Sarah Silverman, who was arrested two weeks ago during rosh chodesh morning services for the Hebrew month of Adar, participated in the Megillah reading dressed in striped prison garb with two of her younger siblings dressed as police officers leading her by handcuffs.

Israeli police have made nearly monthly arrests related to dress code violations since June related to the Women of the Wall's monthly rosh chodesh service.

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit, prayer shawls, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Wall.

Earlier in February, 10 women were arrested for praying with prayer shawls at the Wall as they celebrated the new Jewish month of Adar. Haaretz reported that the arrests took place after the services had concluded, which police had been observing.

Meanwhile, the Israeli nonprofit Learn & Live, established in 2009 to help at-risk youth, ran a Purim patrol on Sunday night assisting young women who were in distress because of drunkenness and brought them to one of two safe places in Jerusalem.

In Antwerp, a Charedi pariah forces school to go coed


With a soft smile and two young boys in tow, a mild-mannered Moshe Aryeh Friedman appeared undeserving of his reputation as the scourge of the local Charedi Orthodox community as he walked his sons to school on Monday.

Until, that is, he led them straight into Benoth Jerusalem, a girls-only public school that was forced by a judge to admit Friedman's boys on the grounds that Belgian schools cannot discriminate on the basis of gender.

In the Charedi community, gender segregation is the norm, and Friedman's push for admission is considered so sensitive that Belgian police assigned an escort, lest the Friedman boys be attacked upon their arrival.

“This is a fascinating development in our society,” Friedman told the 15 or so Belgian journalists who had turned out to see his sons — Jacob, 11, and Josef, 7 — attend their new school. “Finally boys and girls can study together, ending centuries of discrimination.”

Friedman, a 40-year-old Brooklyn native, is an unlikely champion of gender equality in Jewish schools. The Charedi rabbi became a pariah after attending a 2006 conference in Iran questioning the Holocaust and for his friendship with the country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A fierce anti-Zionist, Friedman has befriended the leaders of Hamas and has cast doubt on whether 6 million Jews actually died in the Holocaust.

As a result, Friedman was excommunicated by Jewish communities in Antwerp and Vienna, where he had lived for several years, and his children were denied entry to communal institutions. In 2007, Friedman sued the Viennese Jewish community after three of his daughters were expelled from Talmud Torah, a private school. Friedman said it was because of his trip to Tehran; the school cited unpaid fees.

In 2011, Friedman returned to Antwerp with his wife, Lea Rosenzweig, a Belgian national. When no Charedi schools would admit their sons, Friedman tried to enroll them in schools for girls. That failed, too, so he sued.

“We had very few public schools to choose from,” Friedman told JTA. “The element of collective punishment against my children is well known.”

Friedman says the Jewish community is taking “revenge” on him because of his opinions.

Aron Berger, the father of one of Benoth Jerusalem’s 200 female pupils, acknowledged that Friedman was left with little choice. But he added, “We need to ask why this community and the one in Vienna left him no choice. There’s trouble wherever Friedman goes.”

In a separate and pending case, Friedman has sued a Zionist all-boys yeshiva in Antwerp for denying admission to his daughters.

By involving the Belgian courts, Friedman has violated the Orthodox norm of resolving conflicts internally — a move that is unlikely to improve his standing in the community. Perhaps even more important, he has compromised the Charedi community’s pedagogical autonomy and separation of the sexes — two hyper-sensitive points for a devout group striving to insulate itself from Belgium’s secular and often unsympathetic society.

“It’s a sad day for the community, which has lost a battle which is important to it and its tradition,” said Michael Freilich, who as editor in chief of the Joods Actueel Jewish monthly has been writing about Friedman for years.

At an improvised news conference outside the school, Friedman declined to comment on the Holocaust, his private life, his past and the various accusations made about him. Instead, he confined his remarks to the legal issue at hand, which he presented as a matter of gender equality. Friedman did not respond to further questions by JTA by phone and email.

Friedman has been a thorn in the Jewish side for years. In 2006, The Associated Press reported that he had announced a new “coalition” between himself and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe, after a meeting in Stockholm with Atef Adwan, a senior Hamas figure. Friedman also has been accused of having dealings with Austria's extreme right.

A Jewish umbrella group in Flanders filed a complaint against Friedman for Holocaust denial a few years ago. More recently, a lawyer from Antwerp accused him of not paying off debts in the United States and in Austria. In 2007, Friedman reportedly was attacked by Jewish pilgrims during a visit to Poland.

“Pretty much any Charedi community would shun Moshe Friedman,” said Freilich, who maintains that Friedman's problems are less about his politics than his tendency to “use the law as an instrument of terror, which makes the community afraid of him.”

For now, the Benoth Jerusalem school is struggling to adjust to its sudden fame. The leader of the Belz Chasidim community, to which the school is affiliated, asked community members to let things take their course regardless of their personal feelings. The school sent parents and staff a letter asking the same.

But the community is anything but resigned to the new status quo.

“For 30 years I have managed to do my work in silence and devotion but now, to our detriment, we have been made famous by Moshe Friedman,” said Leibl Mandel, the school's director. “It’s bad for education.”

It may also be bad for Friedman's children, as they may be sucked deeper into the escalating fight. Henri Rosenberg, a lawyer from Antwerp who has compiled a file on Friedman’s business transactions in Vienna and the U.S., last month called for a probe by child welfare services into their domestic circumstances.

“Enrolling them here is child abuse,” Berger said. “They can have no social interaction here, when the girls play among themselves.”

Leading haredi rabbi in Israel: Say no to national service


The senior rabbi of the Lithuanian haredi Orthodox, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, said yeshiva students should not agree to enlist in National Service.

The rabbi's decision, quoted Monday in the haredi daily newspaper Yated Ne'eman, comes a day after Israel's Cabinet approved a temporary law that would allow yeshiva students to perform national service in place of the military.

“We must warn publicly against this serious and dangerous phenomenon, which only aims to destroy the foundations of our existence, against the essence and mission of a yeshiva student to devote his life to studying Torah,” the newspaper quoted Shteinman as saying.

The Cabinet's decisions and similar actions are “harming the foundations of Judaism,” he reportedly said.

Steinman's statements appeared in an article inside the newspaper as opposed to a signed statement on the front page, where his pronouncements are typically placed, The Jerusalem Post reported, showing that the rabbi may be trying to walk a fine line between his own convictions and those of rabbis who have taken an even more hard-line stance.

Shteinman has previously backed the formation of an all-haredi army brigade and the Tal Law that exempted yeshiva students from army service, according to The Jerusalem Post. The Tal Law was found to be unconstitutional.

Shteinman's predecessor as leader of the Lithuanian haredi Orthodox movement, the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, also rejected national service and other programs geared to the haredi community.

In ‘Fill the Void,’ haredi filmmaker Rama Burshtein aims lens inward


On a dark Tel Aviv terrace, a young haredi Orthodox man and a younger haredi woman discuss love and heartbreak. There is tension and animosity, hurt feelings and broken promises. Then, in an emotional crescendo, the man steps toward the woman, stopping inches from her face. His breathing is heavy, their noses nearly touching.

This unusual and powerful scene is one of the climaxes of “Fill the Void,” the award-winning movie debut from Israel’s Rama Burshtein. While the film, Israel’s entry into the 2012 Oscars' foreign language category, tackles death, attraction, love and sex inside a community not known for openly addressing emotion, Burshtein, who is haredi herself, insists she’s not a rabble-rouser or a rule-breaker looking to ruffle feathers inside the cloistered world of the haredim.

“Everyone else is trying to interpret what is going on” in the haredi world, the 45-year-old director told JTA in a recent interview, after “Fill the Void” played to critical acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“I felt it was time to tell a story from within, and say something that comes from really living the life,” Burshtein said. “That’s what I felt was important: to just tell a story that has no connection with the regular subjects that you deal with when you talk about the Orthodox world.”

“Fill the Void” may be the first film about haredi life directed by an insider for a secular audience. Aesthetically daring, softly lit, intimate and flecked with light humor, the film recently earned seven Ophir Awards — known as the Israeli Oscars — including best film and best director. After showings at the Venice Film Festival – where Hadas Yaron won a best actress award for her portrayal of the lovelorn 18-year-old protagonist, Shira – and in Toronto, “Fill the Void” makes its U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 9.

Burshtein, a native New Yorker who grew up in Tel Aviv, became religious at 25, shortly after graduating from Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School. While no shortage of films have depicted the rigid confines of haredi Orthodox life, most, such as Gidi Dar’s “Ushpizin” and Amos Gitai’s sombre “Kadosh,” have been from a secular perspective, focusing on haredi Jews struggling with their identity or looking for escape.

The characters in Burshtein’s frank, fishbowl depiction of a tragedy-stricken haredi Orthodox family struggling to keep itself together live comfortably in a world ruled by faith.

The film probes the fraught relationship between Shira and Yochai, the widowed husband of Shira’s older sister, who died while giving birth. After Yochai hints he will remarry and move to Belgium, taking his newborn son with him, Shira’s grieving and desperate mother, Rivka, encourages her son-in-law to marry her second daughter. The unlikely pair attempt to reconcile the inconceivability of a union with the unexpected reality that they’re falling in love.

That conflict helped Burshtein steer the film toward her central motive: quashing the notion that the seemingly impersonal haredi Orthodox practice of chaste courtship and arranged marriages precludes love or affection. Haredi couples, Burshtein says, simply have their own playbook for expressing emotion.

“We’re somehow portrayed as a bit crippled when it comes to feelings,” she said. But, “the feelings are the same. We just have a different set of rules. It’s about attraction, it’s about sexiness — it’s about all those things that are usually absent when you talk about religion.”

What prompted Burshtein to write “Fill the Void,” she says, was how, just as in the secular world, those rules could be complicated. At a wedding several years ago, she encountered a woman newly engaged to her late sister’s widower. It seemed unlikely, but the story arc excited her immediately. Months of research led her to several other women who married their sisters’ widowers. As common themes of sacrifice, responsibility, family, sense of duty and learned intimacy began to emerge, it seemed less implausible that the couples actually could fall in love.

“At the beginning of the research, it sounded like it was impossible to understand how it works,” Burshtein said. “And then at the end of it, it was like the natural thing to do, to marry within the family.”

With the backing of her rabbi, Burshtein started production in January 2011 in a tiny Tel Aviv apartment not far from the home she shares with her husband and four children.

Questions over whether her identity as a haredi woman stifled her creativity as a filmmaker were never raised, even as she dealt with a largely secular cast and crew, many of whom were male.

“It was just like working with any other director,” producer Assaf Amir told JTA. “Religious, not religious, Orthodox, not Orthodox, first of all, Rama’s a story-teller.”

With “Fill the Void” set to premiere in Israel in early October, Burshtein anticipates some haredi backlash. But the trailblazing filmmaker emphasizes her open-ended, interpretative film was not made for haredi eyes. The art-house film grammar would be confusing, she said, for an audience unacquainted with secular movies.

And yet, despite it all, she hopes that maybe her community will embrace the film. She fully expects some haredi Jews will seek it out.

“The minute the posters come out, we will see what will happen,” she said. “I didn’t try to show something in an inelegant way. I love this world, I chose this world, I believe in this world and in its rules. I hope it’s a voice the Orthodox would like to be heard.”

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.

Foxman: Draft Israeli Arabs, haredim to defend their neighborhoods


Israel should consider drafting its Arab and Haredi population to defend their neighborhoods, according to a prominent American Jewish leader.

Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Times of Israel that the proposal would undercut ideological arguments since draftees would take care of their own neighborhoods.

“You’re going to be protecting your own community, your own home, your own family. There will be some Arabs and some Haredim who will say `no,’ I understand that,” Foxman told the Times of Israel. “But if you don’t care about your family, about your street, then what are you doing there in the first place?”

In February, the Israeli Supreme Court nullified the Tal Law that exempted haredi Orthodox Israelis from military service. Since the expiration of the law on August 1, the Israeli Defense Force said that it has yet to encounter any significant problems in putting haredi men through the draft process.

Israeli Arabs are not required to do military service.

Foxman said that his plan would allow a more equal share in the national burden and provide the needed manpower to upgrade the Home Front Command so it can be better prepared for emergency situations.

“The beauty of that is that Israeli Arabs would begin with their own community,” he reportedly said. “They would take responsibility for the shelters, the communications networks, for the medical preparations, God forbid, of the home front. After that, they would expand to other parts of Israel.”

He added, “The same would be true for the Haredim: they would start with Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim but eventually would work in Petach Tikva and wherever.”

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.

Barak orders haredi Orthodox conscription


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the Israeli Defense Forces to draft haredi Orthodox men as it does other Jewish Israelis.

Barak has allowed a month for officials to formulate regulations on haredi conscription, according to reports.

The order came as the Tal Law, which allowed haredi men to defer army service, expired on Wednesday. Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the law in February.

Israeli law mandates that Jewish Israelis enter the army at age 18. Some Israelis legally defer army service for a year or more to study and prepare for the army. Israeli Arabs are not required to serve in the army.

Since the Tal Law was overturned, the debate over Israel’s mandatory conscription has been at the center of the country’s political discourse. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established a unity government in May with the centrist Kadima, the Knesset’s largest party, to draft new legislation on mandatory service that would address haredi and Arab youth, but Kadima and its leader Shaul Mofaz quit the coalition in July after failing to reach an agreement with Netanyahu.

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.

Cartoon depicts haredi Orthodox Jews praying to Wall Street


A cartoon depicting three stereotypically haredi Orthodox Jews praying in front of the Western Wall, which is labeled Wall Street, won an Iranian cartoon contest.

The cartoon won the first International Wall Street Downfall Cartoon Festival, which was co-sponsored by the semi-official Iranian FARS news service. The cartoons, which were submitted by Arabs in countries around the world, can be viewed on the FARS website.

The Anti-Defamation League in a statement called the winning cartoon “offensive.”

“Once again, Iran takes the prize for promoting anti-Semitism,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.  “The winning cartoon takes the most sacred site in Judaism and perverts it into a shrine of greed.”

Iran held a Holocaust cartoon contest in 2006. The first prize illustration depicted Israel’s security fence as Auschwitz, according to Radio Free Europe.

Netanyahu wants two teams to examine draft alternatives


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Friday that he has ordered the formulation of two teams to examine universal draft alternatives.

One team will be headed by Prime Minister’s Office representatives and the other by ones from Kadima, Ynet reported.

Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz, however, has rejected Netanyahu’s plan to form two new committees.

Netanyahu had said Mofaz had agreed to the move, but the Kadima chairman stressed that any advancement on the issue must be based on recommendations of the Plesner Committee, which was charged with formulating a new law on haredi Orthodox military service.

The Plesner committee released its preliminary findings on Wednesday, despite being dissolved two days earlier by Netanyahu.

The committee’s report calls for universal service for all Israeli citizens, including mandating the draft of haredi Orthodox men and upgrading the National Service program for the Arab sector. It also calls for formulating an effective enforcement system and incentives for serving.

The report calls for individual financial sanctions against draft evaders, as well as sanctions against yeshivas that prevent their students from entering the draft.

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.

Beit Shemesh segregation signs removed


A sign calling for women to avoid using sidewalks in order to avoid contact with men was removed from a neighborhood in Beit Shemesh.

The sign was removed Wednesday night after a complaint from a female city resident, Nili Phillip, who told the Ynet news site that she has been the victim of an attack for not dressing modestly in the past, when a rock was thrown at her head by a haredi Orthodox man.

City inspectors removed the sign in an effort to avoid confrontation. The signs had been removed the previous summer but were replaced, according to reports.

Beit Shemesh, a Jerusalem suburb, has been the site of violence against women by extremist haredi Orthodox men over the past several months.

Netanyahu disbands haredi draft committee


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disbanded the committee charged with formulating a new law on haredi Orthodox military service.

The dissolution of the Plesner Committee comes after the resignation of several of its members, including from the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party.

“Unfortunately, the Plesner Committee did not succeed in reaching an agreed-upon outline and it cannot formulate recommendations that would achieve a majority in the Knesset,” he said, according to Israeli reports.

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

Netanyahu said that if the Knesset does not pass a new law by the deadline, the military would formulate its own solution.

The largest party in the Knesset, Kadima, joined Netanyahu’s governing coalition in May with the stated objective of formulating a new military service law.

Prosecutors drop charges in Brooklyn sex abuse case


Prosecutors dropped all charges against a group of men who were accused of sexually abusing a young Brooklyn haredi Orthodox woman for eight years.

The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office dropped the charges on Tuesday against four Crown Heights men accused of raping and forcing the woman to serve as a prostitute in their neighborhood since she was 13, according to reports.

A Brooklyn judge dismissed the case after questions arose about prosecutors withholding evidence that suggested the men were not guilty.

In addition, the accuser, who has a history of mental illness, apparently retracted her story in April, which caused the case to crumble.

Following the dismissal of the charges, the father of the victim released a statement criticizing the district attorney’s decision.

“Our family has the misfortune of living under the jurisdiction of the Brooklyn District Attorney, who regards the psychological confusion and fear my daughter experienced during her enslavement as proof that she sought out, enjoyed and deserved her victimization,” the father said in a statement, according to the New York television station WPIX.

Four haredi Orthodox men indicted in alleged sex abuse cover-up


Four haredi Orthodox men in Brooklyn were charged with attempting to intimidate and bribe an alleged sexual abuse victim and her boyfriend in a criminal case against a local counselor.

According to the indictment filed June 21, Abraham Rubin, 48, offered the alleged victim and her boyfriend $500,000 to recant testimony against Nechemya Weberman, an unlicensed psychotherapist awaiting trial on charges of sexual abuse. Weberman has been accused of 88 counts of sexual misconduct and allegedly molesting the victim in his home and office when she was aged 12 to 15.

Rubin and brothers Joseph Berger, Jacob Berger and Hertzka Berger pleaded not guilty on charges of bribing a witness, witness tampering, coercion and aggravated harassment at their arraignment in New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn and were released on bail, according to reports. The Bergers are accused of trying to pressure the couple into not testifying by threatening to remove a kosher certificate in a restaurant owned and operated by the boyfriend.

It is the first case resulting from a new task force to address witness intimidation and harassment in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community. The task force was established in May by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes in response to media reports that the community regularly hid cases of child sexual abuse from the authorities.

At a news conference announcing the indictments, Hynes defended his office’s action and said that intimidation of victims and witnesses in sex-abuse cases in the Orthodox community has made prosecuting cases difficult.

“Hopefully these indictments serve as an example that we will not tolerate individuals who try to interfere with the pursuit of justice,” Hynes said.

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.

For haredi Orthodox, Internet threat harkens back to the Enlightenment


To the outside observer, the Charedi Orthodox anti-Internet rally at New York’s Citi Field may have looked uniform: a single mass of black hats, white shirts and brown beards.

But the crowd at the May 20 event was far from homogeneous.

Yiddish speakers sat next to Anglophones. Chasidim from Brooklyn mixed with “yeshivish” Charedim (non-Chasidic) from Lakewood, N.J. Bobov Chasidim cheered along with Satmars. These groups, while similar in many ways, usually stay within their own communities.

But it’s hardly the first time the Charedi community has faced a threat from the outside world.

As speaker after speaker at the rally made clear, the Internet is the latest in a series of threats dating back to the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, which first opened up a path for Jews to leave tradition for the secular world.

“Just as they fought tooth and nail against the Haskalah, they’re fighting again against this,” said Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York who studies Charedi communities. “They live in a singular world. They’ve tried to keep all the doorways locked from the inside, but you can only lock something from the inside if the people are willing to keep it locked.”

Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman and others made clear at the rally that they view the Internet as a profound challenge to the Charedi way of life.

“This issue is the test of the generation that threatens all of us,” Wachsman, a Charedi lecturer, said. “Your strength at this gathering will determine what we look like a few years from now.”

At the same time, the Internet has become a necessity for many, if not most, Charedim: They use it to conduct business, communicate with each other and even to promote Jewish observance.

“In the sense that they have already used the Internet to spread their message far beyond the local community, the Internet has been good for them as well,” Heilman said. “They’re going to use it, going to say that the end justifies the means.”

The late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, famously embraced technology as a means of spreading the faith. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which did not officially participate in the rally, was an early adapter to the Internet age and has used online tools to spread its message.

“Everything God created in this world could be used for good or the opposite,” said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, director of Chabad.org. “It’s our responsibility to channel the enormous powers of technology in a positive manner.”

But the Internet’s dangers — not just pornography and the window it provides into the secular world, but even its potential for distraction — present the Charedi lifestyle with the challenge of how to use it for good while keeping out the bad.

The Charedi community is not alone in this struggle.

Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi who maintains an active Web presence, said the Internet challenges anyone who cares about ethics.

“To some extent, we all need to have the Internet moderated for us,” Miller said. “Beyond modesty, there’s content that I don’t think is healthy or beneficial for individuals to see or read.”

Adrianne Jeffries, a female blogger who sneaked into the rally disguised as a man, wrote that although not Charedi, she found herself agreeing with some of the speakers’ points at the rally.

“There wasn’t much I could quibble with in the speech,” wrote Jeffries, who blogs for BetaBeat, a technology blog associated with The New York Observer. “The Internet is about instant gratification? It’s ‘fleeting and empty’? It causes us to waste productive hours? It threatens the preservation of isolated communities with strong traditions, such as the ultra-Orthodox Jews? Well, yes, but …”

For a community whose survival depends in part on maintaining its isolation, the Internet can be particularly pernicious.

“Jews should separate themselves from the general community,” Rabbi Yechiel Meir Katz, the Dzibo rebbe, said at the rally. “The great rabbis have done so in order to safeguard future generations.”

Even as he delivered his speech — in Yiddish that ran with English subtitles on Citi Field’s JumboTron — many in the crowd could be seen thumbing their BlackBerrys or iPhones.

“The battle against the Haskalah they lost,” Heilman said. “It’s clear that they’ve lost this one already.”

Alan Mittleman, a professor of Jewish thought at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, said that on the contrary, the Charedim are winning the battle against the Internet just as they survived the Haskalah.

“It’s a problem that they’ve already solved,” he said of the Internet. “It’s more powerful and invasive, a new kind of threat, but it’s the same kind of thing.”

Haredim fill N.Y. stadium to decry Internet’s dangers


The sellout crowd that filled the New York Mets’ Citi Field on Sunday night wore black and white, not the Mets’ blue and orange.

And instead of jeering the Philadelphia Phillies or Atlanta Braves, they faced a foe that was, to hear them talk about it, far more formidable: the World Wide Web.

“The internet even with a filter is a minefield of immorality,” said Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, a haredi lecturer. “This issue is the test of the generation. Your strength at this gathering will determine what Judaism will look like a few years from now.”

The rally to caution haredi Orthodox Jews about the dangers of the Internet drew an audience of more than 40,000 men to the stadium, most of them wearing black hats. The group organizing the rally, Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane, or Union of Communities for Purity of the Camp, barred women from attending—consummate with the haredi practice of separating the sexes.

In Yiddish and English speeches, rabbis from haredi communities in the United States, Canada and Israel decried the access that the Internet gives haredim to the world outside the haredi community. Speakers called the Internet “impure,” a threat to modesty and compared it to chametz, or leavened bread, on Passover.

Almost no rabbi addressed pornography directly—which traditional Jewish law prohibits. Several speakers also lamented the Internet’s potential to distract men from learning Torah.

To a man, each of the rabbis who spoke said that Jewish law forbids Jews from browsing the Internet without a filter that blocks inappropriate sites. The speeches in Yiddish were broadcast with English subtitles on the stadium’s JumboTron.

Rabbi Yechiel Meir Katz, known as the Dzibo rav, compared the threat of the Internet to the dangers that Zionism and the European Enlightenment posed in the past to traditional Jewish life.

“A terrible test has been sent to us that has inflicted so much terrible damage” on haredim, Katz said. The Internet poses a greater threat to haredim than secularism did, he said, because “in previous challenges we knew who the enemy was. Today, however, the challenge is disguised and not discernible to the naked eye.”

The crowd ranged in age from small children to senior citizens. One participant, Yitzchak Weinberger, said that although the speakers focused on the problem of the Internet rather than on solutions to that problem, the event was “inspiring.”

“This is a beginning,” said Weinberger, 43. “They’re coming to raise awareness. Every situation is different, everyone requires some filter.”

While haredim must limit their internet access, “you can’t not use it,” he added.

About 50 people protested the event across the street from the stadium. Many of the protesters came from Footsteps, a local organization that helps people who leave haredi Orthodox life to integrate into non-haredi society. In particular, they complained that Ichud HaKehillos invested money in the rally rather than in preventing child molestation in the haredi community.

“Their priorities are messed up,” said Ari Mandel, a former haredi. “Not only do they ignore child molestation, but they intimidate victims. If your house is on fire, you don’t worry about leaking pipes.”

The rally came after a series of reports in the N.Y. Jewish Week, the Forward and The New York Times about haredi intimidation of victims of sexual abuse who have gone to the police to report their haredi tormentors.

Haredim fill N.Y. baseball stadium to decry error of Internet’s ways


The sellout crowd that filled Citi Field on Sunday night wore black and white, not the New York Mets’ blue and orange.

And instead of jeering the Philadelphia Phillies or Atlanta Braves, they faced a foe that was, to hear them talk about it, far more formidable: the World Wide Web.

“The Internet even with a filter is a minefield of immorality,” said Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, a haredi Orthodox lecturer. “This issue is the test of the generation. Your strength at this gathering will determine what Judaism will look like a few years from now.”

The rally to caution haredi Orthodox Jews about the dangers of the Internet drew a crowd of more than 40,000 men to the stadium, most of them wearing black hats. The group organizing the rally, Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane, or Union of Communities for Purity of the Camp, barred women from attending—consummate with the haredi practice of separating the sexes.

In Yiddish and English speeches, rabbis from haredi communities in the United States, Canada and Israel decried the access that the Internet gives haredim to the world outside their community. Speakers called the Internet “impure,” a threat to modesty and compared it to chametz, or leavened bread, on Passover.

Almost no rabbi directly addressed pornography, which is prohibited by traditional Jewish law. Several speakers also lamented the Internet’s potential to distract men from learning Torah.

To a man, each of the rabbis who spoke said that Jewish law forbids Jews from browsing the Internet without a filter that blocks inappropriate sites. The speeches in Yiddish were broadcast with English subtitles on the stadium’s JumboTron.

Rabbi Yechiel Meir Katz, known as the Dzibo rav, compared the threat of the Internet to the dangers that Zionism and the European Enlightenment posed in the past to traditional Jewish life.

“A terrible test has been sent to us that has inflicted so much terrible damage” on haredim, Katz said. The Internet poses a greater threat to haredim than secularism did, he said, because “in previous challenges we knew who the enemy was. Today, however, the challenge is disguised and not discernible to the naked eye.”

The crowd ranged in age from small children to senior citizens. One participant, Yitzchak Weinberger, said that although the speakers focused on the Internet problem rather than solutions, the event was “inspiring.”

“This is a beginning,” said Weinberger, 43. “They’re coming to raise awareness. Every situation is different, everyone requires some filter.”

While haredim must limit their internet access, “many people do need to use it,” he added.

Before the rally began, about 50 people protested the event across the street from the stadium. Later, the counter-demonstration reportedly grew to some 300 people. Many of the protesters came from Footsteps, a local organization that helps those who leave haredi Orthodox life integrate into non-haredi society. In particular, they complained that Ichud HaKehillos invested money in the rally rather than in preventing child molestation in the haredi community.

“Their priorities are messed up,” said Ari Mandel, a former haredi. “Not only do they ignore child molestation, but they intimidate victims. If your house is on fire, you don’t worry about leaking pipes.”

The rally came after a series of reports in The New York Jewish Week, the Forward and The New York Times about haredi intimidation of victims of sexual abuse who have gone to the police to report their haredi tormentors.

Haredi Orthodox burn Israeli flag in Antwerp


Dozens of haredi Orthodox schoolchildren participated in a Lag b’Omer bonfire in Antwerp that featured the burning of an Israeli flag.

An eyewitness who photographed the event on May 10 said the boys attended a cheder of the Satmar community—an anti-Zionist Chasidic stream of approximately 150,000 adherents worldwide.

The picture, taken in an interior courtyard, shows a middle-aged man burning a handmade Israeli flag as some 30 boys watch.

“This is one of the first times we have seen this sort of thing in recent years,” Michael Freilich, editor in chief of Belgium’s leading Jewish publication, Joods Actueel, told JTA.

According to Freilich, the flag-burning ceremony provoked “a lot of anger” within Antwerp’s haredi Orthodox community. Followers of the Chasidic schools of Lubavitch and Belz spoke out against the burning, Freilich said, but the Satmar leadership in Antwerp remains unrepentant.

The last organized instance of flag burning by Belgian Jews was in the 1980s during a few demonstrations outside the Israeli Embassy.

The Satmar movement opposes Zionism because it believes the establishment of a Jewish state should only come after the arrival of the Jewish Messiah.

“Regardless of the complexities of attitudes to Israel in the ultra-Orthodox world,” Freilich said, “many feel that the political act of burning a flag is wholly inappropriate during a Jewish holiday like Lag b’Omer, which is meant to unite, not divide.”

For new Israeli coalition, haredi army exemptions issue is front and center


Israel’s new unity government may not alter Jerusalem’s strategy for curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons program or do much to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But it could dramatically change something at home about which a huge number of Israelis care deeply: haredi Orthodox exemptions from military service.

For years, haredi issues have been something of a third rail in Israeli politics. Nearly every government in recent years has needed the haredi parties to cobble together a governing coalition, rendering haredi entitlement programs like the military exemption politically untouchable.

This long has irritated Israelis who serve in the army and resent that the haredim, by and large, do not serve yet draw all sorts of entitlement payments from the state.

But with Shaul Mofaz’s decision to bring Kadima and its 28 seats into the ruling coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no longer needs the haredi parties to keep his government in power. They could pull out, and it would make no real difference—at least, until the next elections, scheduled for October 2013.

The question now is how far Netanyahu will go in taking advantage of a historic opportunity to end this special treatment afforded to haredi Israelis.

The question is likely to hinge on political considerations.

There already is movement on putting together an alternative to the Tal Law, which granted haredi Israeli men military exemptions but was struck down several months ago by Israel’s Supreme Court. The court ordered that an alternative to the law be put into place by Aug. 1.

Crafting an alternative to the Tal Law is one of the top four priorities set forth by the new government coalition. The other three are passing a comprehensive budget, reforming the structure of government and making progress toward peace. The budget issue is expected to be resolved one way or the other, as budgets generally are, but there is something pie-in-the-sky about the other two priorities.

That leaves the Tal Law alternative as the potential historical legacy of this 18-month alliance between Netanyahu and Mofaz.

On Tuesday, that alternative began to take shape.

The Jerusalem Post reported that, under the Mofaz-Netanyahu deal, haredi exemptions from the army would be replaced by a Basic Law—the Israeli equivalent to a constitutional amendment—requiring all citizens to perform military or civilian service.

Last month, Kadima proposed instituting a universal military draft within five years. Under the Kadima plan, all Israelis either would serve in the military or do national service in one of a variety of fields, among them education, health and domestic security. Those who fail to comply would be barred from receiving any state funding.

The question is whether such a plan—which would radically alter the relationship between the state and its rapidly growing haredi Orthodox population—could survive opposition from Israel’s haredi Orthodox parties.

On the one hand, Netanyahu doesn’t need them to survive in office until the next elections. Indeed, if he were to push through such legislation, it could earn his Likud party much broader support, including from secular and more centrist voters, the next time Israel goes to the polls.

On the other hand, it could cost Netanyahu in October 2013 if his Likud party wins the election, Kadima fares poorly and Netanyahu needs the haredi parties to form a coalition.

Those considerations, say political analysts, will mitigate whatever changes are made to haredi exemptions.

There are some other factors at play.

For one thing, while in principle most Israelis would like haredim to be subject to the same requirements of service demanded of all other Israelis, in practice the army does not want a sudden flood of tens of thousands of new haredi recruits. The Israel Defense Forces lacks the infrastructure to absorb them, both in numbers and operationally. What would the army do with 10,000 new recruits who are religiously opposed to significant interaction with female instructors?

For another thing, a sudden, dramatic transformation of the relationship between haredim and the state would run up against opposition not only from haredi parties in the Knesset, but from haredi citizens. They would see the sudden change as a broadside against their way of life, and mass demonstrations and even riots likely would ensue. It would make the haredi riots against parking lots opening on the Sabbath and a Modern Orthodox girls’ school in Beit Shemesh seem like child’s play.

The reality is that Israel doesn’t want all these haredim in the army; what Israel wants is more haredi men working, paying taxes and integrated into Israeli society.

Under the current system, haredi men must stay in yeshiva until their 30s to keep their military exemption (religious women are currently granted exemptions from army service upon request). That has helped bankrupt the haredi community and nurture a black market economy in which many haredi men work surreptitiously and do not pay taxes.

Changing the rule would help drive haredim into the workforce and into better-paying jobs. That would help Israel’s tax rolls, reduce haredi dependency on welfare and help integrate haredim into Israeli society.

There is great debate within the haredi community about whether or not to welcome these changes. Some haredim see it as key to the economic and social survival of their community. But other haredi leaders see it as opening up a slipperly slope away from the yeshiva and Jewish observance and toward the dangerous temptations of modern, secular Israel.

Ultimately, whatever change comes to the haredi community is likely to come gradually.

Kadima has proposed exempting 1,000 haredi yeshiva students from the military draft and allowing others to defer military service on a year-by-year basis while they are studying in yeshiva. According to a report in The Jerusalem Post, Likud is likely to propose an alternative that instead would establish a minimum number of haredi participants in national service programs that would increase every year, without a cap on those claiming yeshiva-related exemptions from service.

For now, the haredi parties appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

“There can’t be a situation in Israel in 2012 where someone who wants to study Torah will not be able to do so,” Yakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party told the Post. “But as long as the principle of ‘torato Omunato’ [Torah is one’s work] is preserved, UTJ will remain in the coalition.”

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