Israeli Family That Fought Ultra-Orthodox Radicals Forced To Leave Beit Shemesh

Margoleses Driven Out by Modern Orthodox — Not Haredim

Hadassah Margolese walks her daughter, Na’ama, to school in Beit Shemesh after the girl was harassed by ultra-Orthodox men.
jta
Hadassah Margolese walks her daughter, Na’ama, to school in Beit Shemesh after the girl was harassed by ultra-Orthodox men.

By Ben Sales

Published August 13, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

(JTA) — Two years ago, Hadassa Margolese became a symbol of resistance to haredi Orthodox domination after she allowed her 8-year-old daughter, Na’ama, to tell an Israeli reporter how religious men had spit on her as she walked to school.

The report made headlines around the world and cast Margolese into the spotlight as a defender of the rights and values of the Modern Orthodox community in Beit Shemesh, a city of approximately 75,000 just off the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with a growing haredi population.

Now Margolese has departed Beit Shemesh – driven out not by the haredi Orthodox with whom she once clashed but by members of her own Modern Orthodox community.

In May, Margolese published a column on the website of the Israeli daily Maariv detailing the degrading treatment she had endured during her monthly visits to a public mikvah, or ritual bath, a practice required by religious laws on marital intimacy. But rather than rally around her as it did in 2011, some in the Modern Orthodox community turned on Margolese, subjecting her to a steady stream of online vitriol.

“I was airing our own dirty laundry as opposed to before, when I was airing another community’s dirty laundry,” she said. “I hear from so many women about their negative experiences [at the mikvah]. I thought people would say, ‘Yes, let’s change this.’ ”

Margolese, 32, is something of a reluctant activist. Unlike many Israeli social reformers, who aggressively seek media attention and speak in confident tones, Margolese is quiet and unassuming, cautious of offending friends and guarded when it comes to her personal life.

She assumed the protest mantle two years ago, she says, mainly out of necessity. And from the time that conflict died down until the mikvah column, she largely retreated into private life, visiting Beit Shemesh’s haredi neighborhoods only when necessary.

“I really have very mixed feelings about it because I want to make whatever changes I can possibly make, but on the other hand, being a public figure isn’t so simple,” she said. “Really the only way to change things is by being public. If you’re not public, nobody cares what you have to say.”

Born in Los Angeles, Margolese came to Israel at 2. A self-identified feminist, Margolese says inequalities between men and women in Judaism have bothered her since she was a child, when she began to question why Orthodox men bless God each morning for not making them women.

Now she is living a more tranquil life in a town of secular and Modern Orthodox families she prefers not to name. Margolese plans to continue to be active on the mikvah issue, though in a more circumscribed way, conducting low-key meetings with activists and politicians, and confining her writing to her blog.

“I’d like to be a social activist,” she said. “I don’t think I have a thick enough skin to be a politician.”

In her mikvah column, Margolese described the way mikvah supervisors would question her Jewish observance and stare at her as she entered and left the water naked. An attendant would interrogate her about how thoroughly she cleaned herself and demand that she return to the sink for another wash.

“I’m supposed to feel clean after the mikvah,” Margolese wrote, “but instead I feel degraded and dirty.”

Soon after the column was published, Margolese was at a meeting of the Knesset Caucus for the Advancement of Women. She planned to stay afterward to meet politicians sympathetic to her cause, but shaken by a stream of negative comments being posted to her Facebook wall – some of them by friends – she left early.

“The humiliation I felt from these individuals was worse than all of my negative mikvah experiences all put together,” Margolese wrote on her blog. “I knew about the gossip going on around me. I cried for days. I couldn’t breathe. I stopped leaving my house other than to go to work. I decided that it is time to move.”

Margolese’s departure comes as tensions between the Modern Orthodox and haredi residents in Beit Shemesh continues to flare.

Last month, a group of haredi men reportedly smashed the windows of a bus after a women refused to give up her seat and sit in the back. This week, police arrested 14 haredi rioters who blocked a major street and set trash bins on fire to protest construction at a Beit Shemesh site that once may have been a burial ground.

Such clashes are not the cause of Margolese’s departure, but they have led other families to ditch Beit Shemesh in recent years, according to City Councilman Shalom Lerner.

“I’m sorry she’s leaving, but it’s her right if she feels better elsewhere,” Lerner said. “Hadassa isn’t the first one to leave and is not the only one thinking about leaving. The past five years haven’t been good.”

And they aren’t necessarily going to get better.

Though a number of initiatives aimed at promoting coexistence in Beit Shemesh were launched in the wake of the incident with Margolese’s daughter, the city is still wrestling with its identity. An acrimonious mayoral campaign is underway, pitting the haredi incumbent against a Modern Orthodox opponent.

Activists say the result will determine the city’s future. But whatever the outcome, Margolese will be watching from the sidelines, not the trenches.

“If I still lived in Beit Shemesh, I would still be trying to change things in Beit Shemesh, like the separate sidewalks [for men and women] and the signs saying to dress modestly,” she said. “But I don’t live in Beit Shemesh anymore, and there are not issues like that in the place where I live.”


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!
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • 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.