As the girls made their way home from Beit Shemesh’s Orot Banot school late last month, they appeared relaxed and carefree. Among the students was the strikingly blonde second-grader Naama Margolese, heading confidently home accompanied by her friend. For Hadassa Margolese, who waited at home for her daughter to arrive while cuddling her youngest child, Yishai, Naama’s happiness and peace of mind as her school year drew to a close was a hard-won victory.
Only six months earlier, a Channel 2 television newscast showed a frightened, weeping Naama clinging fearfully to Hadassa’s leg on her way to school, the terrified victim of the violent harassment of Orot Banot girls by extreme ultra-Orthodox elements who objected to her school’s presence across the street. The school is located on Herzog Street, a major road that is essentially the seam between a national-religious neighborhood, Givat Sharett, and a Haredi neighborhood, Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, home to Haredi zealots.
Normally, it’s the children who look back at the end of a school year and consider the lessons they’ve learned. But this year, in the secular and national-religious communities of Beit Shemesh, it was the adults who got an education. Watching little girls being screamed at and spit on daily by Haredi extremists while the authorities did nothing, they learned that the struggle for territory and power in their city had reached a tipping point, and if they did not stand up themselves and fight every sign of extremist encroachment, they would lose their city.
When the trouble began, Hadassa Margolese was a young Orthodox mother of three, who had moved to the central part of the city from Ramat Beit Shemesh four years earlier. She had been part of a steady exodus of non-Haredi families, fleeing the growing intolerance of national-religious women. Walking the streets in short sleeves, knee-length skirts or with open-toed shoes resulted in glares, angry remarks and even spitting.
After she moved to more friendly environs, Hadassa recalls vowing never to go back to Ramat Beit Shemesh for her shopping or other errands. “I decided, you know what, I just have to stay in Beit Shemesh. I figured that if I stayed in my environment, around people like me and people who respect each other, that everything would be fine. And I was wrong. I was very wrong.”
The trouble actually came to her neighborhood in August 2011, when the newly built Orot Banot school was threatened by ultra-Orthodox extremists. The extremists said they would not allow it to open, claiming the girls’ immodest dress would offend them. For his part, Moshe Abutbul (Shas ), the Haredi mayor of the city, tried to prevent Orot Banot from opening on the grounds that he couldn’t guarantee the girls’ safety, and because he wanted to find a compromise that would involve moving the school. The parents lobbied the Education Ministry to overrule the mayor, and the school opened its doors over his objections.
On the second day of school, the extremists appeared on the sidewalk in front of the school and began screaming at and spitting on the girls as they walked home. Hadassa remembers that walk clearly.
“I myself was scared to walk by them and Naama was absolutely flipping out,” she recalls. “We came home extremely traumatized, and I thought to myself there was no way that this was going to continue, I was sure the police were going to stop it. I just couldn’t imagine that they wouldn’t. But the second, third, fourth, and every other day was like that: with the yelling, spitting, throwing bricks into the boys’ school [located nearby], throwing human feces, throwing vegetables, eggs.”
A committee of volunteers was quickly organized to protect the girls on a daily basis. Hadassa’s neighbor, Alisa Fox Coleman, read about it on Facebook the first day the Haredi agitators appeared. She could hear the cries from her home and recalls that “there was that split second” where she decided to run down the road to the school to protect the girls - even though none of her four children attended the school. Coleman, a fit, confident personal trainer originally from Great Britain, was there every day physically protecting the girls, ushering them away from the screaming, spitting and various flying objects.
Another neighbor, Dov Krulwich, who moved from New York to Israel 15 years ago, came to the school that first week because he didn’t believe the stories of what was happening. Unlike many of the women in his neighborhood, he feels comfortable in the Haredi community, shops and moves freely in their neighborhoods, and prays in their synagogues when he misses the prayer times at his local synagogue.
When he first heard about the Haredi demonstrations against Orot, he was sure his neighbors were overreacting.
“I thought it couldn’t possibly be as bad as what I heard. And everyone said, ‘If you don’t believe it, come and see. And when I came and saw, I was blown away. I couldn’t believe that religious Jews would do this to each other.
“On instinct, I took out my cell phone and started video taping it,” he adds. “And because I work in the Internet and media professionally, I put it up on YouTube. The world had to see it. Somebody had to make it stop. I was convinced that if the world would see it, then rabbis and political leaders would see it and make it stop.”
Krulwich’s contribution became invaluable to the fight. Every time there was harassment, he left his home office space and headed over to record the violence and the inaction of the police, despite the fact that he himself was harassed, and once even pushed to the ground. With his meticulous documentation of events, they were impossible to deny. Like Coleman, his involvement bore no relation to his own children, who don’t attend the school, but was simply because “it was unacceptable that this was happening in our neighborhood.”
What devastated him was that that no rabbis spoke out against the harassment, he says: “This is a community where a girl walks down the street in the wrong kind of shirt fabric, and there are signs on the wall and proclamations against it. And yet when there were 20 grown men standing here abusing schoolchildren, no one said a word … What brought me there was simply the feeling that it should not be happening. It sounds very noble but I didn’t feel noble, I felt bad. This shouldn’t be happening: this is not how the religious world in Israel or anywhere should be acting.”
The most openly political and highest-profile member of the team that led the battle for Orot Banot was [American-born] Rabbi Dov Lipman. Orot was not Lipman’s first political fight. He has been actively involved in Beit Shemesh politics in the past, and doesn’t exactly keep his political ambitions a secret, maintaining a Facebook page called “Dov Lipman for the Knesset.” However, he claims that “political office is not my ultimate goal. Change is.” Since Orot, Lipman [who calls himself “Modern Haredi”] has become a national public figure and spoke at last Saturday’s massive Tel Aviv rally calling for Haredim to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
Two months after moving to Beit Shemesh, Lipman had his initiation into conflict when he was hit in the leg by a rock near an ultra-Orthodox demonstration. He had been standing next to a policeman, the target of the attack.
Lipman: “I still have that rock on my desk and I tell myself that at any opportunity I have to either heal those rifts or fight against the extremism. Because I came from the yeshiva world, I thought that I was in a position to mediate between the two sides. I tried that approach and realized very quickly that it could not work. The other side was not ready for any kind of discussion, communication or compromise. So my position changed from that of mediator to being one of the leaders in the battle against religious extremism.”
Lipman knew there would be trouble with Orot Banot four years ago when construction began, and a local extremist Haredi, Rabbi Meir Heller, told him that no school with an Israeli flag would be allowed to stand on that spot. The issue was never modesty, Lipman insists; it was always a cover for broader issues of territory and control. When the situation “exploded” during that first week of school, he says he “realized we were facing violent, hateful extremists. I also realized the police weren’t going to do [anything about] it. I just felt a burden on our shoulders to fight against it, to be there every day.”
Behind the scenes Lipman did everything in his power to make it stop, working all his connections with the police and government ministers, sending messages to the Prime Minister’s Office, but “no one would help, no one wanted to deal with the issue. We were very much on our own.”
The tide only turned four long months later when they went to the media, and Hadassa Margolese allowed a film crew from Channel 2 news to record Naama’s terror. She had no desire for fame and notoriety - she only wanted to make it stop.
Naama “was going through so much,” she says, “that I felt it was to her benefit to have her in the story, if going on television meant they would stop coming to the school and she wouldn’t live in fear and anxiety all the time. Obviously I spoke to her and asked her, and she said yes, she would do it.”
With all of the key players being Shabbat observant, none of them saw the piece when it aired on Friday, December 23 or knew what an impact it had made. When Shabbat was out, the world was different. Facebook groups had been created to protect Naama.
“I had no idea in my wildest dreams that it would become such a huge story,” says Hadassa. “All I wanted was for a few people to see it and do something about it. I did not think so many people would care. I feel like, as a result of our story, people are now very sensitive to extremism and are willing to work to stop something when they see it.”
Airing their plight on television had been a last resort, but it succeeded where all other tactics had failed. A major rally was held bringing thousands from around the country, including Knesset members from the major parties. Finally, influential rabbis and Haredi political and religious leaders began denouncing the offensive behavior. And, very quickly, it stopped.
For Lipman, the events at Orot represented a watershed that changed not only his own life, but that of the English-speaking community of Beit Shemesh, the city as a whole and, he hopes, the entire country.
“For English-speaking olim, I think we discovered the power we have as a community, that we do have a voice, that we do have the ability to fight back. We led this fight, and I think it shows we can come out of our cocoons and our shells and be people who stand for something in Israel. In Beit Shemesh, it woke up the broader population. They were asleep for three years as to what was going on and Orot showed them what the end of the road could be like for the city,” Lipman says, adding, “I hope it’s a wake-up call for the future of the country. Because if anybody thinks this was a story just about Beit Shemesh, they are making a very big mistake.”
Lipman contrasts what happened at Orot to last month’s hate graffiti by extremist Haredim on Yad Vashem. When it came to the latter incident, “The prime minister stood up right away and condemned it, ministers stood up and condemned it. That was graffiti on a physical building. But verbal assaults on the souls of little Jewish girls? They didn’t stand up and condemn it the same way.”
He says the episode taught him that in order to counter Haredi power, he needed to ally with those who will help him. When he first met with Naama’s leftist supporters on Facebook, he confesses that he had stereotyped them as “anti-religious, Jew-hating, Israel-hating people,” but when he sat down with them in his living room covered with religious books and pictures of rabbis, “I saw beautiful, wonderful people. People who I disagree with over a lot of things. I said, ‘Why not work together on the things we do agree on? We agree that we are against violence, that we are against religious extremism, against religious coercion.’ I personally grew immensely from that whole experience.”
Krulwich feels differently. He is not comfortable allying with forces on the left he felt were hostile to Orthodox life in general. Even so, he acknowledges that it was the involvement of the media that finally protected the girls.
“You had [Shas spiritual leader] Rav Ovadia Yosef, you had the Belzer Rebbe, you had the Chabad movement, you had Agudat Yisrael coming out against zealotry. And, all of a sudden, it stops,” says Krulwich.
“If they could have spoken up three months earlier, if they could have said something when this was going on from the beginning, then it would have stopped three months earlier. As much as I disagree with the [media and the left] on a lot of things, I have to say thank you.”
And yet, when he looks back at what happened, he is still saddened and angry at the silence of the majority of Haredim and their leaders.
“Unfortunately, the entire series of events has made me more cynical about the religious establishment,” Krulwich says. “I try to follow Torah, what I learn from rabbis, and I try to follow Judaism as I believe in it and I take it very seriously. I’ve lived in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. If you saw me on Shabbat in my suit and black hat, you would not distinguish me from them, for better or for worse. But now, all of a sudden, after this series of events, I’m not sure I want people to look at me on Shabbat and think I look like them any more.
“When I see proclamations from religious leaders,” he continues, “I’m much more cynical about them because they weren’t there when we needed them to be in September [when the school opened]. They were there in December when it was politically expedient for them - all of a sudden, Orthodox causes stopped getting donations in America because people were seeing our videos and it was on the news all over the world. All of a sudden they spoke up, when they didn’t speak up in September. So unfortunately, it has made me a lot more cynical. I don’t like being cynical, but that’s the world as I see it now.”
Hadassa Margolese says her lesson was clear: “I learned that when something bad happens, you have to open your mouth.”
And Margolese, Coleman and other women and men in Beit Shemesh are doing just that. They have created an informal “early warning system” for detecting when signs of extremism encroach on their city or neighborhood, and immediately take action - whether it is protesting on Facebook, complaining to the police and the municipality or threatening demonstrations.
In February, they pressured toy store chains who were bringing circulars to their houses featuring Purim costumes with girls’ faces blurred. In the past, Margolese confesses, they would brush such things off.
“When you ignore girls’ faces being blurred, when you ignore the fact that women don’t appear in magazines, they take it to another level,” Margolese explains. “Then, if no one stops them, they just keep adding more things that are not even Torah-based. They just make these rules up because they can’t handle seeing a woman’s face or a 3-year-old or a 1-year-old girl’s face. And it just turns into these people thinking about women all day long in this perverted way. All they can think about is ‘How can we not see women?’ instead of just living their lives like a regular human being.”
On Independence Day, when the municipality refrained from decorating Herzog Street in Beit Shemesh with Israeli flags so as not to antagonize the extreme Haredim, the national-religious group put up their own flags. More recently, they turned their wrath on a supermarket chain, Osher Ad, which opened a branch in the middle of a secular neighborhood in Beit Shemesh with a sign instructing female shoppers to dress modestly and had guards handing out shawls to women whose dress was not acceptable. After a Facebook and media campaign and plans for a “shop-in” of women dressed as they pleased, the signs and the shawls disappeared.
When a controversial sign on a main street in the Haredi neighborhood telling women not to “linger” in front of a synagogue reappeared last week, action was also swiftly taken, with several women filing police complaints. The media were immediately contacted - and the sign was taken down by the municipality that evening.
“We used to laugh and say it was terrible, but we didn’t do anything,” says Coleman. “And I think we are wiser now and know that you can’t let it go. If you let it go, you get to an Orot situation.”
Lipman says the community is galvanized, convinced that they can only fight extremism through using the press and creating public pressure on the national leadership: “We’ll do this for every single issue that arises and we will force the leadership to deal with our issues and save the city.”
These are only skirmishes, however. The real battle to save the city involves efforts to prevent the mayor from moving forward with projects for additional Haredi neighborhoods and fighting for a long-term demographic balance. Lipman’s strategy is to delay these plans at least until the next municipal elections take place in October 2013. If secular and national-religious voters are able to rally around a suitable mayoral candidate, they can take back City Hall.
Not everyone is so optimistic, though. When Margolese is recognized in the street, she is often told, “Good for you for what you did, but nothing is going to change.” She responds, “Everyone has to do their part. If we do nothing, then nothing is going to change.”
The outcome of their war is far from certain. But among this core group, no one is considering surrender by moving their families out of Beit Shemesh.
“Running away isn’t a solution, better to fix the problem.” Coleman says, pointing out that “it’s happening everywhere. We’re not unique.”
“Naama would be heartbroken if we moved. She has very good friends here and she loves her school,” adds Margolese.
And, most importantly, Naama is no longer afraid. “True, whenever she sees an ultra-Orthodox person, she gets very nervous and asks me if he’s an extremist. But other than that, she’s pretty good,” Margolese says. “This morning I told her that someone was coming to interview me about [what happened at Orot] and I asked her what I should tell them. She said, ‘Tell them that everything is good now!’ I said, ‘Great!’ I was so happy that she felt that way, that she is so innocent and naive that to her everything seems good now. We really want to make it good here for everyone. Hopefully that will happen.”