American Enclave Stands Up to Extremists

Letter From Beit Shemesh

Stand and Fight: Secular Israelis face off with Jewish fundamentalists in the town of Beit Shemesh.
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Stand and Fight: Secular Israelis face off with Jewish fundamentalists in the town of Beit Shemesh.

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Published December 29, 2011, issue of January 06, 2012.
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As for the fundamentalist ultra-Orthodox community, their rallying cry has been that religious Orot girls like Na’ama are immodest. But the real story, Eisen and her fellow activists say, is about real estate. The ultra-Orthodox wanted the building for themselves, according to members of the Modern Orthodox community. In September, on the eve of the new school year, the city’s ultra-Orthodox mayor came out against the opening of Orot Banot, on grounds that the city could not protect its students against the angry extremists and their violent tactics.

A weaker, more pliable group of parents might have walked away, as secular and Modern Orthodox populations have done in communities such as B’nai Brak and other now solidly Haredi enclaves in Israel.

But Beit Shemesh is different. The effort to “save Beit Shemesh” is spearheaded by teacher and community activist Rabbi Dov Lipman, the son of an administrative judge, originally from Silver Spring, Md., who brings his Beltway savvy to the fight. The community is in constant e-mail communication and has set up a Facebook group “We are All Orot Banot,” with more than 1,100 members.

They have had a patrol at the school every day since September. The moment extremists show up to harass students, phone calls go out to the police and reinforcements are brought in to confront them. Volunteers photograph and film demonstrators, hand their materials over to the police, and post the videos on YouTube. Complaints to the authorities and civil suits over the harassment have been filed, as well as action against the municipality’s plans to build new housing for tens of thousands more ultra-Orthodox residents, which would change the city’s demographic make-up permanently. They’ve also received some $20,000 in donations to their legal fund.

One soldier in the fight is Eisen’s brother, Elie Klein, an account executive at the Jerusalem offices of the public relations firm Ruder Finn, who has lent his expertise to the struggle for Beit Shemesh. He was attracted to the city because it was a diverse community where, until recently, secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews lived together.

Klein said that the Modern Orthodox community has no intention of letting Beit Shemesh become an ultra-Orthodox city. “We love this city, and we will fight for the right to live here,” he said. “Not because we want to fight, but because we have been given no other choice.”

Contact Allison Kaplan Sommer at feedback@forward.com


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