Beit Shemesh, Israel's Town of Ultra-Orthodox Hate, Steps Back From Brink

Tenuous Calm Where Haredi Radicals Taunted Schoolgirls

Stepping Back: The Israeli town of Beit Shemesh nearly exploded after ultra-Orthodox men taunted schoolgirls for not dressing ‘modestly’ enough. A year later, calm has returned as the town has taken a step back from conflict.
Stepping Back: The Israeli town of Beit Shemesh nearly exploded after ultra-Orthodox men taunted schoolgirls for not dressing ‘modestly’ enough. A year later, calm has returned as the town has taken a step back from conflict.

By JTA

Published February 15, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Next to the Modern Orthodox Orot Banot girls school in Beit Shemesh, fresh mounds of dirt and a huge hole in the ground indicate the spot where a community center is being built.

Orot Banot was at the center of conflict between local haredi Orthodox extremists and Modern Orthodox residents in late 2011, after a group of haredi men spit upon an 8-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, as she walked to school through their neighborhood. The incident marked a high point of internecine conflict in this city of 80,000 near Jerusalem and made headlines around the world.

Today, Beit Shemesh activists are hoping the community center under construction augurs a more harmonious future in which all Beit Shemesh residents coexist peaceably.

“The reputation that Beit Shemesh got bothered everyone,” said Ilan Geal-Dor, executive director of Gesher, a nonprofit group that fosters secular-religious dialogue. “We’re all going to live here, so let’s see what we can do together,” he said.

A year ago, Beit Shemesh represented a stormy microcosm of the increasingly tense relationship between Israel’s haredi Orthodox community and the state’s Modern Orthodox and secular residents. But 14 months after the city became an international symbol of Israel’s internal strife, Beit Shemesh has retreated from the brink. Though underlying tensions remain, a tenuous calm that has taken hold.

Orot Banot has operated without incident for a year. Construction on the community center, meant to serve the whole city, continues unabated. A host of programs have been launched to help foster mutual respect and coexistence between the city’s various communities.

A roundtable of community leaders, from haredi to secular, now meets every six weeks to try to head off future conflicts and collaborate on issues of shared concern. Several times a month, secular, Modern Orthodox and haredi young men gather to study Torah and celebrate Shabbat together. A mixed group of 16 women has spent a year creating documentary films about Jewish women’s issues. And a larger women’s council spent 2012 encouraging dialogue between Beit Shemesh’s various groups.

“What creates tension is that nobody knows the other,” said Shmuel Pappenheim, a haredi participant in the community roundtable. “When you sit at a table and say what you think, you understand what motivates the other.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.