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.”

The Charedi draft: Here we go again

Here we go again, like a broken record, and the sound is dissonant, disappointing, and disgraceful. Israel's Security Service Law, which drafts our sons and daughters into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), compelling them to risk their lives for their country, has been amended again by the Knesset because of changes in the make-up of the coalition government. Made in response to demands by the ultra-Orthodox parties, this amendment is the latest twist in the complex and absurd saga of the ultra-Orthodox draft in Israel.

Drafting the ultra-Orthodox for service in the IDF is both appropriate and doable—without a religious and cultural conflict—if the political system is smart and enables the members of this community to make this historic change at the right pace and under appropriate conditions. Although the new amendment ostensibly achieves this, since it exempts the ultra-Orthodox from military service for an eternity of nine years, the amendment is bad news for several reasons:    

First, Israel's Security Service Law has tremendous symbolic importance. The incessant zig-zagging on this law and its disfigurement through hurried and ill-thought out changes, devised in response to the religious and political desires of an oft fleeting Israeli government, is damaging national security.     

Second, it is very likely that judicial review by the Supreme Court will determine that the amendment is unconstitutional. The biggest problem with the amendment is that it entrusts Haredi conscription to the Defense Minister, who is to use his discretion to define target goals for ultra-Orthodox conscription, as well as the steps that the state will take if the goals are not met. There are no limitations on his discretion and it is wide open to his personal preferences. Thus, in doing this, the Knesset has waived its authority to decide on one of the most important and essential issues on the national agenda and entrusted it to the executive branch—a practice that was deemed unacceptable by the Rubenstein Supreme Court ruling of 1998.    

Third, the Knesset's abdication of responsibility—after years of deliberation on this matter, which was at the heart of the last Knesset election—is a clear example of the problems of the system of government in Israel. The vast majority of Knesset members would oppose this amendment were they allowed to make a straightforward, values-based decision. This was also true of the previous amendment of this law, when the Yesh Atid faction forced the majority of the Knesset to back its position because the coalition hinged on its support. These two episodes indicate the Israeli political system does not enable the will of the majority to determine policy. The Knesset's behavior regarding this law is an expression of its bankruptcy and dysfunction regarding central issues on the national agenda.   

Fourth, the amendment is unconstitutional. Attorney Miri Frenkel-Shor, legal advisor to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, issued a well-reasoned and convincing legal opinion warning of this before the Knesset vote. Knesset members who voted in favor of the amendment thus played into the hands of the Supreme Court, which will ultimately have to rule on this national issue and reject the opinion of the majority of the Knesset.  

Lastly, once the Supreme Court strikes down the amendment, many people will rail against the Court's judicial activism. This objection, however, will be misplaced, since the current amendment is so absurd that the legislators are essentially forcing the Court to intervene. One might even venture that the right-wing's support for this amendment is not only an easy way to preserve the coalition but is also a roundabout way of enabling an additional onslaught against the Supreme Court after the legislation has been shot down.

And what about the Haredi draft? The desired result could have been achieved quietly and efficiently had the Knesset adopted a rational arrangement that would encourage military service through positive and negative economic incentives. The extreme solution adopted by the previous law, which included criminal sanctions that were bound to fail, and the extreme solution adopted by the current law, which grants a de facto exemption from military service for many years, guarantee that this issue will continue to be a bone of contention that leads to hatred between brothers. It will also prevent the realization of a vital national goal: widespread conscription of Israel's ultra-Orthodox men for meaningful military service.

Yedidia Stern is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University. 

Now is the time to support Ultra-Orthodox core-curriculum yeshiva education

Israel’s new political reality—with the two main Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi political parties, the Sephardic-based Shas party and the Ashkenazi-based United Torah Judaism, inside the government won’t help the next generation of Haredi young people—in fact, on the contrary, it will perpetuate a broken system. While Shas and United Torah Judaism have negotiated financial windfalls for their constituencies, as well as a pull-back on the demand that Ultra-Orthodox young men serve in the Israeli Defense Force, this old style of conducting business could be harmful to our community’s young people. That’s because the reality is that education—not political power–is the key to the future for the Haredi community in Israel, especially if the government doesn’t put advancing Haredim through education and employment at the core of the agenda.

“Educate each child according to his own path,” the Book of Proverbs teaches us, “and he will not stray from it, even when he is old.” And yet, when it comes to educating Haredi youth in Israel, we still have much to learn. Quite honestly, there is nothing short of an education crisis in our community. Rather than providing real choices, our leaders have traditionally insisted that Haredi students have only one path: a formal, rote curriculum dominated by intensive Talmud study, with no option for students to take general studies or complete an Israeli matriculation certificate. This is the path that is likely to dominate the agenda right now—and it is not the path that our young people need or deserve.

The reality is that in the absence of a meaningful alternative, nearly a third of Haredi teenage boys will continue to become alienated from both mainstream Israeli society and the traditional ways of their community. Many drop out of school, spend their time on the streets, or are lost to the Haredi community altogether. They are unable to build families and successful lives.

Those yeshivas that do offer secular matriculation (and there are only a handful in the entire country) are far too expensive for most Haredi families to afford.

By creating Hachmey Lev Yeshiva High School, my aim is to do nothing short of transforming the Yeshiva model. We offer teens who are under stimulated in classical Yeshiva settings the opportunity to maximize their social, educational, and cognitive potential all while still maintaining a Haredi lifestyle. We are teaching the boys Gemara at the highest standards, in Hebrew and without compromise, and to live a Haredi lifestyle that will also allow them to earn a good living for themselves and their future families.

I was inspired to create Hachmay Lev based on my own family’s experience when our son reached seventh grade and boredom got the better of him. He showed little interest in his traditional yeshiva schooling. As a product of this schooling myself, I know the value of its rigor, but this model simply is outmoded for today’s young people.

Our students combine study of Talmud (32 hours each week) and general studies (20 hours each week), giving them a broader education than any other Haredi institutions in Israel. They study the core curriculum like English, math, history, Bible, civics, computer science, and Hebrew, while also enjoying music and sports. Students sleep in Jerusalem during the week and return home on weekends. Once the model has been fine-tuned, Hachmey Lev will be replicated in other locations across Israel.

I spent ten years putting Haredim into the workforce and that’s why I know that education is the core issue. After spending a lifetime of activism in the Haredi community on a variety of pressing issues, including making sure that our men serve in the IDF, and find gainful employment, I am convinced that unless and until we transform our educational system, there will simply never be the systemic change that we need.

North American and British donors know the necessity of getting the 20% of Israeli society that is Haredi into the workforce—and are supporting efforts to increase employment opportunities in the Haredi community, so that our young people can have new models to emulate. Philanthropists outside of Israel also know that Israel is the global exception, since nowhere else in the world are young people exempt from learning a broad range of studies or from working. But, money for employment without strengthening and expanding serious alternative educational models won’t create the type of workers for a 21st century workforce that Israel needs.

Philanthropists who want to impact the Israeli economy need to invest in educational models that will recast the pattern of poverty in our community. Now, more than ever, those of us who trying to change Haredi society from within need to show that our model can work for a broader segment of our community. 

Bezalel Cohen, an ultra-Orthodox social activist, is the founding principal of Hachmey Lev, a Jerusalem-based yeshiva boarding school that also includes core curriculum.


How Israel’s cities voted: Likud in Jerusalem, Zionist Union in Tel Aviv

The Likud and haredi Orthodox parties dominated in Jerusalem, while the Zionist Union took the most votes in Tel Aviv in Israel’s national elections.

Nationally, the right-wing Likud Party garnered 23.3 percent of the vote and the center-left Zionist Union coalition garnered 18.7 percent of the vote, followed by the United Arab List with nearly 11 percent of the vote, according to Israel’s Central Elections Committee.

In Jerusalem, Likud finished with 24 percent of the vote and United Torah Judaism won 21 percent. The Sephardic Orthodox Shas party was next with 11 percent, followed by the Zionist Union at 10 percent and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party at 8 percent. The Yachad party, led by former Shas lawmaker Eli Yishai, garnered 7 percent of the vote in the city but failed to meet the minimum number of votes nationally required to enter the Knesset. The Joint Arab List picked up 1.2 percent of the vote in Jerusalem.

In Tel Aviv, the Zionist Union won 34 percent of the vote and Likud had 18 percent. Next were the left-wing Meretz with 13 percent and the centrist Yesh Atid with 11 percent. Both Jewish Home and the Joint Arab List had 3 percent of the city’s vote.

In Sderot, the southern Israeli city that has borne the brunt of rocket attacks from Gaza, 42 percent of ballots went to Likud, 11 percent to Jewish Home, 8 percent to Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and 7.5 percent to the Zionist Union.

Everything you thought you knew about religious Zionists is wrong

For years, Israelis have had a particular idea of what being a “religious Zionist” meant: being modern Orthodox but not haredi; supporting the settlements and opposing territorial compromise; supporting the Chief Rabbinate’s control of Jewish marriage and opposing gay rights.

Well, someone finally asked the religious Zionists. And it turns out we were wrong the whole time.

Most Israelis who identify as religious Zionists aren’t modern Orthodox. Most of them, if it comes down to it, would likely condone territorial compromise. And nearly half support some form of civil marriage while saying gay couples should be welcomed in Orthodox synagogues.

That’s what emerges from a poll of self-identified religious Zionists — or what Israelis call “national-religious” —  conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank and released Wednesday morning. The bottom line: Religious Zionists are a lot more diverse than we thought.

In the past, explains survey author Tamar Hermann, Israelis equated the religious Zionist community with the 10 percent of Israelis who are modern Orthodox — the ones who wear knit kippot and knee-length skirts, who serve in the Israeli army and who work day jobs. In short, the characters on the hit TV show “Srugim.”

But in reality, no less than one-fifth of Israelis call themselves religious Zionists. And while almost half of them are modern Orthodox, the majority are not: instead they range from self-identified haredim (17 percent of religious Zionists) to 3 percent of the group who call themselves secular.

Religious Zionists’ views are also pretty diverse. Politically, it’s often assumed that they agree with the flagship religious Zionist party — the right-wing Jewish Home — which is socially conservative and strongly opposed to any withdrawal from the West Bank.

And though Hermann found that 78 percent of religious Zionists say they’re right wing, most of them, if it comes down to it, would probably condone territorial withdrawal. Sixty-two percent of respondents said Israel maintaining a Jewish majority is more important than Israel holding onto all the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea — what’s known as Greater Israel.

That means that if they had to choose between a Greater Israel with a Palestinian majority or a majority-Jewish Israel sans the West Bank, most would choose the latter. Somebody tell Naftali Bennett.

Lots of religious Zionists also want the Israeli government’s religious status quo to change. While a slight majority, 52 percent, want to keep Orthodox marriage as the only option for Israeli Jews, 45 percent want to allow some form of civil marriage — either for everyone or only for couples that can’t have an Orthodox wedding.

And as for religious people being anti-gay? That one looks like it’s changing too — albeit more slowly. The survey was split as to whether same-sex couples should (45 percent) or should not (48 percent) be welcomed in synagogue. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of gay rights (indeed, a parade of Jewish Home candidates voiced opposition to same-sex marriage earlier this month) but it does show some increased acceptance for same-sex couples in the religious Zionist community.

Of course, there were plenty of signs of social and religious conservatism. Most religious Zionists oppose any public transit on Shabbat and think the decisions of religious Knesset members should be subject to rabbinic authority. Four-fifths think only people who are Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law should be eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship. Half say any territorial compromise should be decided by a national referendum of Jews only. And nearly half say religious Zionists have better values than secular people.

But it’s no shock that many religious Zionists hold traditionalist views. The news here is that so many don’t.

Soul food: Aspiring haredi cooks train for restaurant jobs

Five haredi Orthodox men are standing around a large wooden table crowded with bowls of chopped tomato, garlic, carrots and greens, their ritual fringes poking out from under their aprons. Each is wielding a large chef’s knife.

Their instructor, wearing an embroidered chef’s outfit and grasping a raw chicken thigh, tells his charges to cut the limb along the bone and pull it apart with their hands.

Hunched over their cutting boards, the men get to work.

“I like good and tasty food, and I think I need to get to a higher level,” said Avraham Blau, a haredi father of seven hoping for a career as a cook. “I’m always critical of others’ food. I always have suggestions that bug me with their food.”

Blau and his four classmates are the first students in a six-week culinary arts program run by the Jerusalem Kivun Center, a government-funded initiative launched last year to train haredi Orthodox Israelis for full-time employment. After the program, they hope to become professional chefs in Jerusalem restaurants.

Increasing haredi participation in Israel’s labor force has been a central goal of the Israeli government, which has passed a raft of legislation since 2013 aimed at integrating haredi Israelis into the country’s military and economic ranks. Many haredi men receive stipends to study Torah well into adult life and only 45 percent participate in the labor force, as opposed to 81 percent of all Israeli men.

Most of the 2,500 haredim who have attended Kivun’s classes have trained for desk jobs with minimal physical labor and relatively steady hours. But Kivun director Yehiel Amoyal said the culinary class helps meet Jerusalem’s high demand for chefs and appeals to those who want to work with their hands.

“We want to stream jobs to where there’s employment,” Amoyal said.

In an effort to help the job search, Kivun invited hotel and restaurant managers to watch the students chop vegetables. Managers offered jobs to students pending completion of the course based on, among other things, how fast they chopped, whether they maintained posture and how many chopped carrots fell on the ground.

Though seven of the initial 12 students dropped out of the course, the remaining five are guaranteed jobs in kosher Jerusalem restaurants after they graduate this month.

“Regarding inclination to cook, whoever has the motivation to learn and advance will get where he wants,” said Maor Gross, the manager of Papagaio, a South American restaurant that will be hiring one of the trainee chefs. “I’m looking for good people who want it, who have a work ethic.”

A love of cooking drove some of the students to the course.

Blau, 37, who has managed a print shop and jewelry store, revels in cooking at home and has long dreamed of becoming a chef. But concerns about cooking non-kosher food and working with women kept him from culinary school until he learned of Kivun’s course.

“I have a lot of experience with meat, and I was weak on dairy,” said Blau, who now enjoys making lasagna and quiche and will work at a branch of Cafe Cafe, a chain of upscale dairy restaurants, after the course. “Cooking entrecote, I would do it too well done. Now I do it medium-well and it’s much juicier. That raised my skill level.”

The course, which meets two to three times each week, covers 21 cooking skills, from desserts to pasta, meat and fish. Instructor Itai Farkas calls it a crash course in what can be a demanding profession.

“It’s like basic training — taking people who haven’t worked and making them work 200 hours a week,” Farkas said.

Cooking may prove difficult for haredi men, as restaurants and hotels often demand they work nights, weekends and holidays — times the men are used to spending with their families. But Blau says he’s willing to make that sacrifice to pursue a craft he loves.

“If I have a career and a salary, it’s worth it to take evenings, Saturday nights and minor holidays,” he said. “In a few years I’ll have experience and a salary, and the ability to go far.”


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.

Petition calls on El Al to protect female passengers from haredi harassment

Hundreds have signed an online petition calling on El Al Airlines to protect female passengers from being harassed by haredi Orthodox men.

The petition on was launched Sunday, days after an El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv was delayed in taking off when haredi Orthodox male passengers refused to sit next to women. As of Monday afternoon it had nearly 700 supporters.

Sharon Shapiro of Chicago, who initiated the petition, said she wanted to stop the phenomenon of “passenger shaming.”

“Some men become belligerent if their demands aren’t met, and spend flights bullying and harassing women who refused to change seats,” she wrote.

The petition recommends that El Al “reserve a few rows of separate sex seating on every flight, where for a fee, those passengers who need such seating can pre-book their seats and not annoy or coerce other passengers before take-off to change seats with them — thereby avoiding arguments, bullying, and delayed take-off.”

On the flight spurring the petition, some of the haredi men offered money to other passengers to switch seats.

Haredi passengers who could not switch their seats stood up immediately upon takeoff and remained in place, crowding the aisles and inconveniencing fellow passengers and flight attendants, Ynet reported. The flight crew informed passengers that they were under no obligation to agree to switches, but the captain also said the flight would not take off with people standing.

The flight arrived in Israel on the morning of Rosh Hashanah eve.

Let soldiers and haredim swap roles

Controversy over haredi military service roils Israeli society, but respect for each side’s concerns and values can help resolve it.

Haredim believe Jews of all backgrounds are equally commanded to learn Torah. So Israel could diffuse Torah study by allowing non-religious, non-essential soldiers to choose among several serious beit midrash programs for beginners with different traditional, non-coercive approaches to learning. Topics covered could include military ethics and the holiness of protecting the Jewish people and its land.

For every hour a soldier learns, a yeshiva student would lend his abilities to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for an hour – checking an eruv, say, or helping with kashrut and holiday observance. Some haredi volunteers may prefer to relieve soldiers by repairing equipment, cleaning barracks, preparing meals, and performing clerical tasks. Haredi managers would supervise yeshiva students in all-male settings, with other accommodations when necessary. 

The program could coincide with bein hazmanim, when yeshivas are on break anyway. 

The plan is a win-win.

Yeshiva students will help spread Torah learning, and promote halachic observance on military bases. They will also gain useful experience for entering the work force, and have a ready answer for accusations of refusing to help protect the country.

Non-religious soldiers will get time off after intensive training and duty, and some might find meaning and even inspiration in classical Jewish texts, especially those related to the military. Their morale will improve as responsibility for national defense becomes more equally distributed. 

IDF service and Jewish learning will be maintained or grow, and a wrenching national debate will begin to subside as very different Israelis gain exposure to other lifestyles without compromising their values. Because of mutual wariness, neither community is likely to embrace the proposal right away, but a pilot program involving those most open to adjusting could help work out the details and build trust. 

Accusing haredim of being lazy, unpatriotic ingrates has not facilitated solutions. But reminding haredim that their learning is no more meritorious than that of their less-educated brethren may actually gain their attention.

The Torah praises the arrangement of two Israelite tribes: Issachar, who learned; and Zebulun, who provided for their needs. Halachically, an Issachar-Zebulun partnership offers each side the same heavenly reward. So far, only haredim have been Issachar. If Israelis switched roles on occasion, the entire nation would benefit from the twin virtues of duty and Torah.

David Benkof is a freelance writer living in St. Louis and a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal. He writes the weekly Jerusalem Post Crossword Puzzle, which appears in this newspaper. Follow David Benkof on Facebook, or E-mail him at

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.

Letters to the Editor: Figueres, Cuba, Charedim

With Gratitude

I received such a delightful surprise. I received a copy of your thoughtful article “Figueres” (July 12). I am grateful for your visit to Costa Rica. It is a lesson in itself.  I am grateful that, at a special time of need, you remind us of the truths of the dreams and their realities of Jose Figueres. You can perhaps understand my emotion if I share with you that I am the widow of Jose Figueres. Shalom. 

Karen Olsen de Figueres
Former first lady of Costa Rica

The Wonders of Cuba

What a wonderful article on tracing family roots to Cuba (“Cuba: Land of My Bubbe,” July 26). I was so moved after my first visit to the Jewish community of Cuba that I co-founded CHAI Missions, a nonprofit Jewish organization dedicated to humanitarian effort with a focus on Cuban Jews. We are now excited to be taking a group this coming November to share this amazing experience. Visit for an insight on what a Jewish mission to Cuba looks like.

Randi Glasman Simenhoff


Thank you for such a wonderful piece by Isabel Kaplan on her family history. I recently traveled to Cuba and visited both Jewish cemeteries in Guanabacoa. There is so much more to see and discover about the Jews of Cuba. I just can’t wait till my next trip.

Yael Gadiela Gillette

Charedi Too Powerful

David Suissa grossly understates the problem and seems unaware of the enormous power Charedi leaders crave and have over their beknighted minions (“Charedim Need More Judaism,” July 26). Nothing will change until Charedi women are fed up with their plight and declare enough is enough.

JJ Gross

Gender Equality

I agree that pretending genders do not matter in life has gone too far (“Do Men and Women Matter?” July 19). However, I cannot follow your leap that this is the root of LGBTQs engaging in loving relationships outside of the male-female coupling. LGBTQs are different genders. I believe we should have six gender choices: male, female, gay male, gay female, female-to-male transsexual, male-to-female transsexual. All are different and distinct, and each should be entitled to equal rights and treatments under the law. The writers of the Torah, with their divine influence, had not yet recognized this fact.

Alex Romano

Dennis Prager responds: Mr. Romano writes that “we should have six gender choices.” He has well articulated the progressive ideal that I described in my column.


The war is on to destroy the gender constructs that made our marriage culture possible and the subsequent family unit that it produces, which is the very foundation of a strong and moral society. We are wandering into uncharted territory.

We look to Europe and secular societies in Asia and the trend is the same — people are choosing to forgo marriage and procreation.

Why have a child if it keeps you from pursuing your passions? Why have a child if it keeps you from going out every night with your friends or from traveling the world?

Europe’s demographic collapse is even more severe when you then notice that each passing generation favors smaller and smaller family sizes. These reinforcing mechanisms, compounded by the passing of time, creates a culture that is antithetical to the family unit.

But what happens when, in addition to their secular-inspired, anti-family preference, they then drop gender constructs altogether? It will only escalate both their irrelevancy and their disappearance from humanity as well as the gene pool. We truly are wandering into uncharted territory.

There is a part of me that wants these people to take their dumb ideas with them to the grave. But their collapse will be destructive to our survival, especially when their ideas have also impregnated the minds of many Americans. The vacuum they leave will be the cause of much chaos and cruelty. We are between a rock and a hard place.

Howard Fines

Free Speech Not Free

Well, free speech bit the dust here (“In Orthodox Community, Offensive Billboard Taken Down,” July 26). Between America and Israel, it seems the Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and Charedi have a limited capacity to control themselves and need the secular world’s help. Enough already!

Suzy Lenkowsky Krikorian


An article about BTS Communications (“Second Chances at Beit T’Shuvah’s Creative Company,” July 26), a project of Beit T’Shuvah, incorrectly stated that it had received a $250,000 grant from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. It was from the Jewish Community Foundation as part of its Cutting Edge Grants program, paid out over three years, not four as the article stated.

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.

Israel seals deal ending military exemptions for ultra-Orthodox

Israel clinched a deal on Wednesday to abolish wholesale exemptions from military service for Jewish seminary students, ended a brief crisis that divided the ruling coalition parties.

The issue of “sharing the national burden” is at the heart of heated debate over privileges the ultra-Orthodox minority has enjoyed for decades, and a government-appointed committee had failed to formulate a new conscription law earlier this week.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, had balked at a clause under which criminal charges would be brought against those trying to dodge conscription.

Netanyahu's main coalition partner, the centrist Yesh Atid party, threatened on Monday to quit the government unless the issue was resolved.

In a compromise that paved the way for the deal, the committee agreed on sanctions but delayed imposing them during a four-year interim period in which the military will encourage 18-year-old Bible scholars to enlist, political officials said.

Under the proposed law, which still faces ratification in the cabinet and parliament, the number of seminary students exempted from the military each year will be limited to 1,800 of the estimated 8,000 required to register for the draft annually.

Welcoming the agreement on the proposed law, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid told a news conference: “The government proved it can make a change, even on the most explosive issues.”

Yesh Atid came second to Likud in the January general election on a pledge to reduce state benefits for Israel's fast-growing ultra-Orthodox minority and end military service exemptions for the community.

For the first time in a decade, Israel's government has no ultra-Orthodox members, and main coalition partners had pressed Netanyahu to break with political tradition and enact reforms under a slogan of “sharing the national burden”.

Most Israeli men and women are called up for military service for up to three years when they turn 18. However, exceptions have been made for most Arab citizens of Israel, as well as ultra-Orthodox men and women.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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.”

Brooklyn man indicted for throwing bleach in rabbi’s face

A Brooklyn fishmonger was indicted for allegedly throwing a cup of bleach in the face of a Chasidic rabbi who had accused the man's father of being a sexual predator.

Meilech Schnitzler, 36, of Williamsburg, a member of the Satmar Chasidic sect, was charged Wednesday on two counts of attempted assault, two counts of assault and criminal possession of a weapon. He could face up to 15 years in prison.

Schnitzler on Dec. 11 allegedly threw a cup of bleach in the face of Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, who advocates for victims of sexual abuse in the haredi Orthodox community.

Rosenberg, 62, also of the Williamsburg neighborhood, was treated for burns on his face, around his eyes and in his left eye. The rabbi runs a website and blog for sex-abuse victims, as well as a telephone hot line, and made the accusations against Schnitzler's father on the blog.

Rosenberg reportedly had recognized his assailant.

The incident came a day after Nechemya Weberman, a Satmar leader, was convicted on 59 counts of sexual abuse of a now-18-year-old woman when she was between the ages of 12 and 15 and went to Weberman for counseling. Rosenberg supported and assisted the victim throughout the judicial process.

E. Jerusalem Arabs arrested for attacking Jewish man

Three Arab teenagers from eastern Jerusalem were arrested on suspicion that they attacked a haredi Orthodox Jewish man.

The teens, all 16, told police after they were arrested Thursday that they attacked the Jewish man because they had been attacked previously by Jews, according to Israel Radio.

They are accused of injuring the 20-year-old man on Wednesday evening as he walked through the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem.

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.

Lawsuit filed against haredi radio station for excluding women

The religious women’s organization Kolech filed a class-action lawsuit against a haredi Orthodox radio station for excluding women.

The nearly $26 million lawsuit filed Tuesday in Jerusalem District Court against Kol Berama alleges that the station does not hire women as interviewers or invite women to be interviewed.

“From the start, the station adhered to a patently illegal policy, and women’s voices were completely silenced,” the suit says. “At all hours, only men are heard in the station’s programs. A woman who wishes to be interviewed is refused, and is requested to send a fax to the station, which is read by the presenter.”

The station went on the air in 2009; the Reform movement had asked the Israeli Supreme Court to prevent its launch.

Earlier this year, Israel’s Second Authority for Television & Radio ordered Kol Berama to interview women in official positions or who are experts in their fields. It also called on the station to allow women to speak on the air for four hours a week, Haaretz reported.

The station claims to have hundreds of faxes from female listeners that are satisfied with the station’s format.

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.