Pro-choice in Emanuel

I went to observe the 20,000 haredim who demonstrated in Bene Brak on Thurs. 5bTamuz (17June) and read about the 100,000 in Jerusalem who quietly protested against a ruling of the Israel Supreme Court. This led me to ruminate on the Amish sect in Wisconsin and a ruling by the U.S. Supreme. In the 1972 Wisconsin vs. Yoder case, an Amish parent, Jonas Yoder, was fined $5 for not following the state’s compulsory secondary education laws. But the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision, finding that the benefits of universal education do not justify violation of the freedom of religion clause in the First Amendment. In the U.S., the Supreme Court affirmed the parents’ right to educate their children according to their lights. But in Israel the Supreme Court did the opposite: the justices denied this right to parents in the Israeli town of Emanuel, fined them, and began to imprison over sixty mothers and fathers for a fortnight.

One quarter in hasidic track are Sefardim
The Supreme Court and the secular media tried to paint the ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Ashkenazi parents in the Emanuel school as racists bent on segregating their daughters from girls of Sefardi families, Jews originating from Middle Eastesn countries. But this is clearly not a case of racial or ethnic segregation because more than a quarter of the girls in the more stringently religious hasidic track are from Sefardi families, and at least three of the parents arrested are Sefardi. All girls who would accept the stricter religious code in the Slonim hasidic track in the school were accepted. Those Sefardi girls who preferred to abide by a more lenient dress and behavior regimen, chose the less religious track. Thus the Beit Yaakov school had two tracks.

The Court meddled with the two-track arrangement, assuming it knew what was best for the students. The justices in the Supreme Court were so fixated on imposing their own “one size fits all” concept of education that instead of delicately approaching the issue of separate tracks, they ruled against the parents who refused to send their girls back to school when the separate track formulation was compromised. Thus the parents were in contempt of court. But the justices won a pyrrhic victory. Instead of promoting peace, they advanced acrimony.

“Segregation”- a red herring
I met David Rosenberg, 19, on one of the many buses that brought haredim (Ashkenazim and Sefardim) from Kiryat Sanz, Netanya to Bene Brak. He began the interview by stating quietly, “This is a defining moment. The issue is whether our highest authority is the High Court, or the One on High.” He elaborated, “It isn’t that we don’t respect courts less, but that we respect our rabbinical authorities more. The controversy has almost nothing to do with what they call segregation of Sefardim”

Mr. Rosenberg’s observation that one could hardly say the hasidim were segregating their daughters from Sefardim was borne out by what I saw with my own eyes. As the demonstration in Bene Brak got underway, a line of adorable girls clad in white Shabbat blouses stood next to me. These were hasidic and Sefardi girls, from grades one to eight, whose parents were to go to prison . Their pony tails stuck out in back of the cute baseball caps whose visors shaded them from the high-noon sun. I chatted with them, and saw the close camaraderie among the girls from different ethnic groups. Their teacher held a collection of “letters to our parents” that the girls had written. They were soon invited to the porch of a first floor apartment, front row center seats where they could watch the demonstration (of which they were ostensibly the cause).
Mazal, the Bene Brak aunt of one of the Sefardi girls, explained to me that Slonim hasidim were not prejudiced against Sefardim as the media and courts had led people to believe. “My sister, one of the Sefardi parents, chose the hasidic track for her daughter. My sister’s husband himself teaches in a hasidic boys’ school.”

Justices – practice what you preach
Abraham Waks, another young Sanz hasid from Netanya expressed consternation, shading over to bemusement, that the Supreme Court, a bastion of Ashkenazi privilege, was presenting itself as the champion of integration and wielding its power in such a clumsy way. “There is currently one Sefardi out of fifteen on the Supreme Court. Since 1948, there have been dozens and dozens of Ashkenazi justices. How many Sefardim have served on the High Court all told? Maybe four!” Making another point, he asked rhetorically, “Is the secular education system such a model of excellence and integration that they can tell us how to run our schools?” With the World Cup and Elton John’s Israel concert grabbing the headlines that day, it is no wonder that haredim have a hard time feeling true respect for secular education.

Big tent
Each group has its highest priorities and exquisite sensitivities. For one group it is the army, for another group it is the flag. For haredim it is the schools. The justices are sophisticated and intelligent. They should have realized that that you do not use a sledgehammer when a pincer will do.

Some may ask, “What is wrong with girls who are strictly religious mingling with those who are more casual about religion?” There are two legitimate approaches in education: the greenhouse approach, or the open exposure approach. Some parents feel that at an impressionable age they do not want their daughters, who are brought up in a kind of protected greenhouse, to become too friendly with girls from homes where there are televisions, internet, and a less modest standard of dress. That is the outlook of the parents of the hasidic track. Other parents welcome exposure of their children to different, even contradicting, traditions and feel the risk that their children will adopt negative customs is justified by the positive side of the interaction. So two separated tracks were established in the school in order not to coerce girls who do not want to take on the hasidic stringencies and in order to give them their own space (conceptually and architecturally.) Isn’t that multiculturalism? Inclusiveness? Different strokes for different folks?

Exemplary discipline by the crowds
The respect for authority was evident in the exemplary behavior of the 120,000 haredim. Festive music blared, the fathers wore their Shabbat garments, streimels and kapotes. We heard helicopters circling above — the authorities evidently were preparing for action, which never materialized. An easy-going atmosphere prevailed. The police and paramedics were bored and had nothing to do aside from helping an occasional oldsters who fainted from the sun. Neighbors along the demonstration route put out ice water, plastic cups, and garbage receptacles. There were placards in favor of haredi education. The fathers turned themselves over to the police with dignity and good humor, albeit there were some emotional partings with their daughters.

Slonim hasidim – supersensitive about schools

A gigantic a banner stretched overhead quoting the Biblical book of Chronicles, “Al tig’u b’meshichi” which, literally means “Don’t touch my anointed ones” and warns against tampering with the most sacred values one holds. Familiarity with the history of the small Slonim Hasidic court might have helped avoid this brouhaha.

It would have taken the justices just four minutes on the internet to learn that the Slonim hasidim were among the first true Zionists. Their founding Rebbe sent his grandsons to establish a presence in the land of Israel in 1873 – a decade before what is officially called the first aliya, or wave of immigrants. Then another group of Slonim hasidim came with Rabbi Shalom Noah Barzovsky, the father of the current Rebbe. Rabbi Shalom Noah came to live in pre-State Israel in 1935. Thanks to the foresight of these leaders, there was a saving remnant of Slonim in Eretz Israel when the Lithuanian Slonim hasidim were slaughtered during the Holocaust. The group living in Israel formed the nucleus from which the Slonim leaders reconstituted the hasidic court. The main vehicle for their ability to maintain continuity was education, i.e. the boys’ and girls’ schools through which they fostered and passed along their customs and tradition of learning.

Their educational institutions are open to all who agree to abide by their school by-laws. This information about the Slonim hasidim is accessible to all. It’s not rocket science. By doing a little research and treading lightly, the Supreme Court justices might have been able to nudge the girls’ school to a little more openness. But the Court chose the sledgehammer approach on the small and formerly fragile hasidic group. That may account for most of the sympathy other religious Jews felt for the beleaguered parents.

Slonim hasidim live not only in Emanuel, but in Jerusalem, Bene Brak, and many other locations. When my son was in army during Operation Cast Lead he was hosted for a Shabbat when he was stationed guarding moshav Aluma Hazon Yehezkel in the Gaza – Gat area. This was one of the most sparkling Shabbatot he ever experienced, he said. They were outgoing, appreciative, friendly, and welcomed his entire army unit with warm hospitality. It is an injustice that the name Slonim hasidim has been mistakenly associated with “segregation.”.

Court Coercion
No one would deny the fact that the Sefardim have very often gotten the short end of the stick since the founding of the State of Israel, both in the secular sector and the religious sector. But things have been improving, and usually not by government or court fiat. Why did the justices not choose one of the many alternative ways to skin this delicate cat? Why did they charge like bulls into a china shop, imprisoning dozens of parents of young children? Have they thereby improved Sefardi-Ashkenazi relations?

Another group that came from Netanya was led by the Sefardi leader Rabbi Moshe ben Moshe. In explaining to a non-religious interviewer why he opposed the Supreme Court’s order that upset the delicate balance between two school tracks, Rabbi Moshe said,

“Today the Court is interfering in haredi education and forcing the Emanuel parents to send their children to a school not of their liking, where the two-track system was compromised. I am demonstrating so that tomorrow the Court won’t force YOU to send your children to a haredi school or school not of your liking.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Biton, one of the several Sefardi fathers from Emanuel going to prison, addressed the demonstration in Bene Brak. His daughter Dassy was in the hasidic track of the school. He repeated what his young son had said accusingly to Dassy. Rabbi Bitton’s son had complained to his sister,

“It’s all your fault, Dassy, that Daddy is going to prison.”

Rabbi Bitton said that he smiled and corrected the boy.

“It’s not Dassy’s fault. It’s her honor and privilege to be the reason I am going to prison.”

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via

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10 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    All girls who would accept the stricter religious code in the Slonim hasidic track in the school were accepted. Those Sefardi girls who preferred to abide by a more lenient dress and behavior regimen, chose the less religious track.

    Some may ask, “What is wrong with girls who are strictly religious mingling with those who are more casual about religion?” There are two legitimate approaches.

    So are you saying they are both legitimate but one is more religious? One might argue that separating from other “orthodox” Jews (or Jews in general) is a (re)strict(ion) that leads to more casual result.

    Joel Rich

  2. Bob Miller says:

    We have a beracha in the Amida asking to correct this problem in the legal system.

  3. Fred says:

    Were the two tracks accorded equal funding and resources? What of the claim that
    that was not the case, and the only way a family could get a girl into
    the track with more resources was to agree to abandon Sephardi customs, to
    for example daven in Askenazis. Was this a fabrication?

  4. dr. bill says:

    Bob Miller, your comment assumes that our halakhic system of justice would decide differently. perhaps, but not necessarily.

    IMHO, the real issue is not the court. Israel, as any government, can place requirements on funded schools based on its rules. I suspect many consider funding of chareidi education to be subject to only weak oversight. Regardless of the merits of this case, more oversight is now a given. From my biased perspective, if the government decides on some level of educational requirements, any funded school must comply.

    I strongly support a parent’s right to choose an independant, albeit unfunded, educational system. The court, perhaps aggresively, is enforcing rules that need not apply if one chooses to opt out.

    It is odd what issue bring something to the center of attention. This case was hardly ideal from almost anyone’s perspective. the reaction on all sides, let truth be told, relates to where the genie, now out of the box, will turn next.

  5. L. Oberstein says:

    I am reading about the hafgana on the internet and there are certainly two versions of the truth out there. it all depends on what you read and who you talk to. The facts are that it doesn’t matter what the facts are at this point. This has been a victory for the Chareidi sector that it can mobilize hundreds of thousands of people, which the chilonim cannot do .
    I hope that the leaders can negotiate a settlement before the start of next year’s classes. Putting the parents in jail makes them martyrs.

    Unfortunately the State of Israel is beset with enemies and this is just a horrible time all around. Anyone who is aware of what is going on is very concerned about Israel’s diminished legitimacy around the world. This is a time when we need achdus and this whole situation is horrible.

  6. Menachem Lipkin says:

    I think the Chareidi response, the refusal to agree with the court decision, and the protest, while I personally don’t agree with their position, was a fine exercise of democratic rights. It’s very hard to capture the complexity of this case in an essay or newspaper article.

    Contrary to Ms. Schmidt’s assertion, Justice Levy (orthodox) writing for the court takes great pains to affirm the right of special groups to maintain their own unique educational systems. He support the idea of “tracks” within a school, if done properly. He struggles with the tension between these rights, the need for equality, and the government’s responsibility to provide a proper education. Even the case of Brown vs. Board of Education is cited for similarities to this case. In the end he decided that this specific case failed to meet the criteria for equality. Reasonable people could differ, but it was a reasonable decision. (There was even a bonus D’var Torah at the end of the decision by one of the concurring justices!)

    While some, like Ms. Schmidt, see the fact that there were a number of Sfardim in the Slonim track as a “smoking gun” proving that there was no discrimination, others see it as a red herring because the accepted Sfardim were “encouraged” to become more like Ashkenazim by, for example, forcing them to Daven in the Ashkenaz Nusach in school and at home.

    Justice Levy did not willy nilly throw these parents in jail. It happened after many months of contempt toward the court by the parents. Was it the prudent thing to do? Again, reasonable people could differ on that. On the other hand, while the parents where “standing up for their rights”, were their actions in the best interests of their children and community? Again, I think reasonable people could differ on that too.

    From my perspective one thing that these huge yet peaceful protests showed is that the Chareidi leadership, contrary to popular assertions, has control over the violent elements. It also shows, with 20,000 police deployed to keep order, that the police aren’t quite the provocateurs people claim them to be.

    Let’s hope the summer brings resolution to this issue. (A new school has been applied for and is pending.)

    (The complete court decision in English can easily be found online.)

  7. Binyamin says:

    dr. bill,

    You response is typical to many which I saw both on this site and on others.

    This argument is however completely incorrect, as there is not any relevant law here which says funding depends on full integration.
    The only limitation is that segregation may not be on the basis of race, and there was no evidence presented in the case to say that this was violated, aside from the fact the the ashkenazi track was mostly ashkenazi.

    The court failed completely to address the issue of whether or not there was any segregation. It merely asserted that there was, without any evidence and without any discussion of the nature of the schools acceptance policy, and wihtout presenting any family which was not accepted to the school.

    If this was a segregation issue, the court may require integration. What the court instead did was to rule that
    1. parents have only a minimal right to decide where to school their kids, and included in this is that they have only a minimal right to ‘sectarian education’.
    2. the court may decide what evironment is proper for education
    3. The court may tell parents where to send their kids to school, with no regard for the type of school, or the religion or lifestyle of the parents.

    The decision also allows the court to now close down every ashkenazi or religious school in the country (and all the sepahrdi ones also).

    The law requires the court to address the issue at hand. The court did not do this.
    The law requires the court to decide based on law, and not on ‘the values of great importance to the court’
    The law allows parents to send their kids to whatever school they want, the court violated this.

  8. YM says:

    So Dr. Bill, when the Charedim are 50% plus one of the voting public, you will have no problem with anything they decide to do? Remember, the “public” funding comes from the people*, the government doesn’t create any “funds”. *and from the USA

  9. dr. bill says:

    YM (and binyamin), Let me first deal with your theoretical question. Of course, when the chareidim are a majority, they can do as they choose, subject hopefully to halakhic and ethical principles. Well before that time, they will have hopefully read the tshuvah of R dovid (friedman) Karliner ztl (writtem, almost prophetically about 125 years ago) and they will have acknowleged the need for a military, secular education and fiscal reponsibility. I shudder to think what would happen otherwise as i suspect most chareidim do as well. They certainly are aware of the level of government support all their schools now recieve their level of compliance with relevant laws. and in case you are under any illusions, most know the sources of the government’s funding.

    again, i prefer some more rational discussion of issues versus discussion of unrealistic hypotheticals. as chareidi populations increases, the issues of stipends, core curriculum and army service will continue to grow. well before any more significant increase in chareidi populatiopn, we can pray for solutions not rhetoric. IMHO, the speeches of last week will hasten the realization that not just the court but the government’s legislative/executive functions will have to move past short-term deals for support with chareidi parties or be resoundingly turned out in the next election.

    Can you imagine the impact of comparisons made by last week’s speakers to foreign enemies and their assault on Torah on the average Israeli? And this, after looking the other way and providing unprecedented support for Torah study. I suspect the rabbis who decided to close yeshivot for this holy gathering, choosing to use their stipend funding from the government to decry it, will have to live with their decision.

    BTW the first major loser could well be Shas. it has been weakened by its inability to bridge its chareidi and sephardi agendas. I would not be suprised if they realize that they save themselves ONLY by joining a kadima, labor, meretz bloc. They have switched sides before. Over the course of recent history, Sephardi rabbinic leaders have identified with what we americans would call a Modern/centrist position. Among the strongest religious sephardi communities in Israel are the yemenites, who are more reflective of their great leader – Rav Kapach ztl than his political / religious opponents.

    I for one, see the sephardim separating from both the religious and political right. My friends in Israel tell me that some chassidim will move towards compromise as well, leaving the lithuanians ultra-orthodox, the eidah and other more isolationist chassidic groups to fend for themselves. i suspect that their ranks will face the issues they faced in the 20’s/30’s in europe. In case you are unaware, their populaton did not grow for rather unfortunate reasons.

  10. kishke says:

    My understanding is that at this point, the Slonim parents were sending their daughters to a private school in Bnei Berak. I don’t begin to see what right the judge has to demand that they send their children to the school of his choice.

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