Monday, March 31, 2008

Loving Your Neighbor

There is a phenomenon happening in Israel now which is simultaneously satisfying and distressful.

For those of us who are observant, it is a wonderful thing when entire neighborhoods become filled with observant Jews. How pleasant it is to be able to take a walk on Shabbos down middle of what is usually a very busy street - and not have to worry about a car running you over. Little children playing freely, running back and forth on a warm Friday night or Shabbos day, couples taking walks after the Shabbos meal - hearing the sounds of Zimiros coming from the open windows as you pass them by. So very nice. So very beautiful.

It's a great feeling. No matter what slice of Torah Jewry one comes from one cannot help but feel connected with all your brothers and sisters in the Torah world. Charedim, Chasidim, Religious Zionists (Yes - there are some in Bnei Brak) - all participating in the Oneg – the pure enjoyment of the Shabbos day in a totally Frum environment.

This was the feeling I came to love when I used to visit my parents who lived there. I considered it my home in Eretz Yisroel. How I loved that town… and still do. Whenever I am in Israel I make it a point to visit Bnei Brak. Leaving aside the important benefits of more diverse neighborhoods, anyone who has ever experienced this can easily understand the emotionally and spiritually satisfying drawing card such a neighborhood can be.

Cities like this - where sabbath observance is king - are spreading. Three cities which immediately come to mind are Kiryat Sefer and Ramat Bet Shemesh, and Ramat Modi'in . The same is true of many neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Areas that were once almost entirely secular have grown over the years to become almost entirely religious. How nice it must be to have a choice to live in so many different neighborhoods whose character is almost entirely religious.

All this is a result of the natural growth of the Orthodox community in Israel. Religious families are generally quite large. A family of six or seven kids is fairly common. And 13 or 14 children is not that unusual either. Add to that the fact that most Aliyah is made by religious Jews who themselves have large families and the demographic changes are not to difficult to understand. Especially when the opposite is true of the secular members of Israeli society. They tend to have far fewer children. The average is 1 ½ children per family, if I recall correctly. There is comparatively little Aliyah made by secular Jews to Israel. And there is a far greater proportion of secular Jews who leave Israel than there are religious Jews who leave. So of course neighborhoods are changing in the direction of being more observant.

But - as is becoming more and more frequently the case - there is a distressful fly in the ointment.

A writer who is obviously very secular describes - what for her - is this unhappy predicament. She laments the fact that neighborhoods in Jerusalem that were once very secular have been turned in to completely religious ones.

Well, to that I say… too bad. It’s all about demographics. In the 60 years since the state was founded several generations of religious families have been produced. They are now the ones filling up cities and neighborhoods.

But in one area, her complaints are more than justified. It is just more of… the same old same old!

There are religious Jews who feel that change isn’t happening fast enough. Or isn’t complete enough. So in order expedite matters they resort to what has become a typical way of handling things they don’t like. We’ve seen some of the more violent forms of it recently in Ramat Bet Shemesh. But that it is less violent here does not make it any more acceptable.

With increasing numbers there seems to be a corresponding increase in Chutzpah by some of its members. Chutzpah that results in disgusting measures to achieve their ends. Thee are certain Charedim and Chasidim who feel empowered to get their way by whatever means necessary.

In this case they have taken it upon themselves to accelerate the exodus of secular Jews, caring not a whit about how observant Jews are perceived by other Jews or non Jews. They are not at all concerned about the welfare of other human beings. They just want to achieve their aims: Secular Jews - Out!

The latest incidence of this is described in an article in Ha’aretz by one of the participants in a conversation between four secular women:

The third told about her 75-year-old mother who has spent the last 60 years in Jerusalem with the feeling that the ultra-Orthodox are always hot on her heels.

The mother lived in Romema when it was still a working-class neighborhood, in the Bukharan neighborhood when it was mostly secular, in Ramot when it was still considered a prestigious area, in Ma'alot Dafna, which is now entirely ultra-Orthodox but was once a bastion of the secular and leftist media. Today she is the last secular person on her street in Ramat Eshkol, a neighborhood that is still considered secular. The presence of a single secular person, even if she is 75 years old and doesn't hold wild parties on Shabbat or a barbecue on the porch on Yom Kippur, still makes a lot of her neighbors uneasy.

For a year now, they have been harassing her in various ways to get her to move. Week after week, they put ads in the paper saying that her apartment is for sale, and when potential buyers show up she has to explain to him that it's a mistake. The phone in her apartment rings at strange hours and when she picks up the receiver, on the other end of the line there is always someone who advises her to leave the neighborhood. They leave garbage on the path in front of her door. On Friday nights they send their kids to stand under her window and yell "Shabbes, Shabbes," even though she, out of fear, is only sitting in her apartment behind closed shutters and watching television with the sound off.

This behavior is disgusting and inexcusable. And it seems to be the standard operating procedure in far too many Charedi or Chasidic enclaves. Instead of showering them with love and understanding, and a live and let live attitude, they shower them with hate filled and venomous acts!

As I often say, the majority of Charedim and Chasidim don’t do these kinds of things and are probably just as upset about it as I am. But that doesn’t make me feel any better about it.

I can’t help noticing the increasing frequency and spread of things like this. Yet, not a word of protest from the rabbinic leadership. Not one poster has been put up in any neighborhood about it. The only posters ever seen are the ones telling us abut the latest ban or Chumra. If they ever do comment, it is in the form of lip service condemnation after the fact.

Shouldn’t the kinds of scenarios described in the excerpt from Ha’aretz be as vigorously opposed by the rabbinic leadership in Israel as are separate seating outdoor concerts? When am I going to see a Kol Korei about these kinds of activities?!

This is yet one more instance that embarrasses me as a religious Jew. And it should embarrass us all! Where are our leaders? Are they not embarrassed too?


Of course there are always the naysayers… those who will say, It’s Ha’aretz. Don’t believe a word those Charedi bashers write. But, here is what Danny Schoemann, a Charedi e-friend of mine who lives in Jerusalem says about that:

We already know that you can't believe every word written in Haaretz, but this isn't another of "those" posts.

I spent Shabbos in a posh part of town (Jerusalem) where only Chareidim live. We davened Motzai Shabbes in the "2nd minyan", i.e. 20 minutes after Motzai Shabbes.

Some Bar Mitzva aged kids were outside - under the supervision of grinning young Avreichim - blocking the road with crates and boulders and making merry. Most of the traffic was from taxis picking up/bringing home frum Yidden who were post-Shabbos. This street is so deep in the neighbourhood that on Shabbos there are no obstructions on

I went outside and loudly reminded them: "Chevra: don't forget to makea brocho!".

Silence! Curious stares.

"Don't forget to say "L'chalel Shem Shomayim B'Rabim!" and I went back inside to finish Ma'ariv.

Updated: 3/31/08 9:10 AM CDT