I Accompanied the Women of Emanuel to Court Today

by Rivka Gedalia

Eight o’clock in the morning, Tuesday June 22, a cool breeze blew over the Shomron hills as the mothers of the Beis Yaakov Chasidi gathered at the chartered bus headed to the Supreme Court. This was their third summons – the first on April 29, the second, last Tuesday June 15. On both occasions, not one of the parents were put on the stand or asked any questions, not one was cross examined.

“What are you being subpoenaed for?” I asked innocently.

“We don’t know,” said Sarah, “we only found out yesterday that we have to be in court today. Last week in court, we were not allowed to speak. In April, only two men spoke, no one else.”

It was at that hearing on April 29 that the representatives of the Beis Yaakov Chasidi were ordered to come to a compromise with those who initiated the lawsuit. And since coming to an agreement on religious education is unlikely when working with anti-religious activists, Judge Levy ordered: have your separate tracks, but do it my way: Ashkenazim and Sephardim will be separate for prayer and classes on Jewish law. For the rest of the classes, put the girls together.

But there never were separate Sephardi and Ashkenazi tracks, the girls always learned the entire gamut of Jewish law as well as prayed together. How could he invent his own form of discrimination when this suit was supposedly against discrimination?

Judge Levy was setting a precedent in Supreme Court involvement in religious education. And in matters of religion and education, the women of this community believe that their Rabbanim decide, not any secular court. The parents defied the ruling, and so the Judge ordered the girls of the Beis Yaakov Chasidi to attend the original, more lenient Beis Yaakov.

Ordering someone to attend a school that is not in line with her religious philosophy is telling her to compromise her religion. It is akin to ordering one to break her religion. It is coercion. And they defied this ruling too. Upon this defiance, the parents were ordered to jail for two weeks. I still do not know what law they broke.

Back to the morning gathering at the bus – this trip to court would be harder of course – with their husbands in jail since Thursday June17, their children at home were needier. Tova, usually an upbeat woman who hugs you with her smile, let the tears fall as she said, “my four and a half year old would not eat this morning. He holds my skirt all the time. He is so close to his father, what will be if I must leave him now too?” Hugs were offered, but no one could ease the tension and uncertainty these women have been coping with since the lawsuits began, intensified since their husbands entered the jail on Thursday, and with a two week sentence hanging over their heads. And still, no school in sight for their daughters. They refuse to bend to the involvement of the Supreme Court in the religious education of their children.

I noticed the Rabbi’s wife was not there.

We settled on the bus for the hour and a half trip. Dalia was holding her one year old daughter. “My older daughters are taking this okay, but my younger ones are very confused. I am also overwhelmed, and when I see the people who caused this, I just cannot understand how they could do it.” She brushed her hands over her eyes and continued, “we expect the worst – when Judge Levi ordered us to jail, he said it in such anger.” She shook her head sadly. I tried to uplift her mood. “How is your faith holding?” “I just feel confused and overwhelmed, I cannot pray, and that pains me very much.”

Sara noted, “The psychological abuse is staggering. Postponements, more calls to court – it is the end of June and we do not know if we will have a school next year, since the Supreme Court has not ruled on it, and we can plan nothing since we do not know if we will be jailed or when. But we must stop the Supreme Court from dictating our education.” As to how this is affecting her family, “My four year old is whining all the time, my two year old is back in diapers.”

I could not keep asking the women how they felt about their husbands in jail, about their altered family life. One said simply, “I am not eating and I am not sleeping”, as she held her baby in her lap.

I changed the subject. I asked Yudit, who is Sephardic, why she chose Beis Yaakov Chasidi. “Before my daughter began school, my feelings were not so strong, but now that my daughter has tasted Chassidic education, I would fight for this with all my passion. The girls learn such honorable characteristics – they express their feelings in a measured way, communicate respectfully, no loudness or silliness. Yet the values of restrained behavior do not contradict the incredible warmth tht they feel there. They become strong, honorable young women, and I will fight for that.”

I jokingly said to Hannah, “you look Sephardic!” She said proudly, “not just Sephardic, Yemenite!” and we laughed, breaking the tension at least for a moment. As to why she chose the Chasidic School: “what builds a child – her home and her environment. Children must be surrounded by others with discipline and good values. My high school girls attend the strongly Sephardic Elkayam seminary in Bnei Brak.” No need to ask what accent her girls use for prayer; she speaks with her guttural Ayins and Chets.

This painfully brings to mind an article on The Forward web site, dated April 12 2010, which states: “According to Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush, of United Torah Judaism, any Sephardic girl who wants to be in the “hassidic” track can get in, as long as she agrees to speak Hebrew with an Ashkenazi accent and give up Sephardic customs at home.”

But if you follow the link that she provides in the above paragraph to the actual article in the Jerusalem Post, it says, “(The Chasidi school is) for girls who were prepared to obey rigorous religious strictures and, among other things, speak Hebrew only with an Ashkenazi accent.”

There is no mention of anyone giving up any customs in this article. And this statement is utterly untrue.

On accents, my daughter told me, “The teacher instructs one accent for prayer. In the original Beis Yaakov, we were instructed in the Sephardi accent. In the Chassidic Beis Yaakov, they teach the Ashkenazi accent. But no girl is ever corrected if they use their accent from home, never. Yemenites pronounce thier Chet’s and Ayin’s in their gutteral way, and have a special lilt to the HaMotzi blessing.” Those who wish to use the Galicianer accent, which is not taught in either of the Beis Yaakovs, may do so.

So much for the accusation of racism. As attorney Mordechai Bass stated in his report to the Ministry of Education, 27% of the girls in the Chasidic School are Sephardic, and 23% of the girls in the original Beis Yaakov are Ashkenazi. He also states: “The division was not ethnic, it was religious. I am convinced that there is no ethnic discrimination.”

I decided to give the women a break from my probing questions, and gazed upon the views of the Shomron valley we were driving through – a harvested field, its wheat sacked in neat white bags, olive tree branches swaying in the wind, square stone houses at different angles that characterize the local Arab villages, a huge swath of blue sky above it all. With so much open land and sky, there should be room for everybody, with all our variety.

The sister of the Slonimer Rebbe graciously came to Emanuel and was accompanying the women. She encouraged us, “there is no need to speak negatively about those who did this lawsuit. We pray they will repent, we speak only positively, HaShem will help.” A noble message, considering the real agony these women are in. She also noted, “People actually say, ‘what is the big deal, it is only two weeks, don’t you go on vacation and leave your kids for that long?’ No we certainly do not! That is not our way!” Another woman joins in, “We build our lives around our home and families, we do not take vacations away from our children, and we are happy with that.” Most people would find a day in court stressful; for these women, a day in court and being separate from their husbands and children is both stressful and deeply foreign, as was the predatory greeting in the court by flashing bulbs and microphones pointed near their faces. They ignored the media except for one mother who stood proudly in front of the cameras and denounced what was happening to them before quickly retreating to the courtroom, which was closed to visitors this time.

The rest of us stood outside reading tehillim, and praying fervently for a good verdict. Click click, I had already started praying the Amida, click click, went the cameras. “Even praying they cannot let us do in peace.” One commented afterwards.

A mere half hour, maybe forty five minutes later they emerged. It was a huge trip for such a short amount of time. We ran to them offering hugs and a human barrier against some of the media.

Three judges were in session, including Admon Levy. First, representatives of the Ministry of Education, Social Services, and Legal Affairs had requested that the women not be jailed due to the needs of their children. The judges did not answer this request. There were three representatives from Chinuch Atzmai, and one judge said, “There are too many men here.” Only one representative from Chinuch Atzmai, Rav Lazerson, was allowed to stay, the two others were orderd out, again, for no discernible reason.

“Will they have a school next year?” Attorney Mordechai Green had asked.

“As long as the parents do not comply with my ruling (of putting the girls in the original Beit Yaakov), no other subject will be discussed,” answered Admon Levy. “They can put the girls in that school even for just one week, then we can talk about the other issues.”

“He actually looked pressured,” said Sara, “he was almost pleading. He will not bend, and he sees that we won’t either. Incredibly, Judge Levi said to attorney Green, “after one hundred and twenty years, the parents will have to answer for not abiding by the Supreme Court!”

He really said that, invoking the traditional euphemism for the after life, threatening heavenly judgement. Shoshana added, “if only he would understand, that is the reverse of how we feel. We must answer in one hundred and twenty if we would not stand up to a dictatorial court. Education is of utmost importance for a religious family.”

He also reiterated that there will be another day in court for the men this Sunday, giving no explanation. “It is emotional abuse. He gives no explanations, no reason why we are even called to court, since we just sit like dolls, totally ignored.”

The reporters hovered, Aliza bravely addressed the initiator of the suit in front of a television camera, displaying her Yemenite features – another proof that his accusation of racism is fatuous – and most probably declaring that she is newly religious, as she often and proudly does. Good for you, Aliza!

As we boarded the bus on the way back home, the Slonimer Rebbe was in contact. The Gabbai gravely told the women, “The Rebbe states that should any woman decide to comply with the judge’s ruling in order to avoid incarceration, and sign to the original Beis Yaakov, she may do so. This is each individual’s choice.” Not one woman relented. Later, another announcement, “The Rebbe has just announced, and said you may tell this to the media, that he is considering a hunger strike!”

We gasped – no, he cannot, he is too old, we cannot let him, let us go on the hunger strike instead of him! Thus did the Rebbe show his love for his followers – and his love for all – and the women showed their love for him. “We will do it instead!” they declared.

At 2:30 it was announced – except for the six women who are exempt for health reasons, the rest of the women will serve two weeks in prison after their husband’s return and after another day in court. Will that be another day that the parents sit mutely, yet again?

Yafa has a thirteen year old daughter who had severe cerebral palsy and needs constant care. “I will bring her with me if I must, let them see who they are jailing.” Another mother, “I could be exempt because of my health problems, but I refuse the Supreme Court to tell us how to run our schools. If we do not stop its involvement now, it won’t stop with us. The Sephardim are building wonderful schools all over Israel, will the Supreme Court hound them for accepting mostly Sephardim?”

Then the sad news came. “How far along was she?” “What hospital is she in?” A mournful shock descended over the women in the bus as they learned – the Rabbi’s wife suffered a personal loss. The doctor declared it due to the stress she had been under.

So many other pregnant women among the mothers. How long can this go on?

Five pm, update on mothers’ incarceration: All pregnant and nursing women are exempt from the jail sentence. Only nine women are under threat of incarceration, and only after the husbands return home.

But why has the Rabbi not been released to be with his bereaved wife, and mourn his own bereavement in peace? It was not until Wednesday afternoon that the Rabbi was reunited with his wife.

How long can this go on? The accusation of racism – a media lie disproved by attorney Bass two years ago. Judge Levy’s handling of the case – another writer said – like a bull in a china shop. Did he not know that Haredim have large families, that ordering them to frequent and frivolous court cases where they are not even allowed to speak can seriously disrupt their families, their health? Did he not know that many of the women were likely to be pregnant or nursing?

The uncertainty remains, there is still no school, another hearing for the men on Sunday, for what reason no one knows.

But one thing will remain firm, despite it all: in matters of religion and education, it is our Rabbanim who decide, and not a secular court.

Rivka Gedalia

The author, who lives in Emanuel, has created a site where she plans to post documents related to this case. Please see http://beisyaakovemanuel.blogspot.com/

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