Banishing the Zealots From Our Midst
by Yakov Horowitz
[Editor’s Note: Once again, Rabbi Yakov dares to publish what others won’t even say aloud. He reviews the harm caused by kane’im/zealots, and calls for help in ousting them from the community, any way possible. Those who wish to take advantage of the links in the original version can go to his website here.]
While the bulk of the ire and anger from the charedi community over the “Sharing the Burden” initiatives are directed at Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, many of us who work with the teens-at-risk population feel strongly that some of this resentment should be redirected toward the radical kanoim (zealots) who have been contributing to the charedi-secular divide in Eretz Yisroel for decades now. Why? Because over the years, they have employed tactics of intimidation and violence to antagonize our non-observant brothers and sisters, and to disrupt the efforts of our gedolim (sages) in Eretz Yisroel to make the type of changes that are now being forced upon the charedi community. –>
In the late 1990’s the leading gedolim of North America met to discuss the pressing need to find appropriate placements for the dozens of young men who were in no Yeshiva setting and roaming the streets of the Greater New York Area (See Seven, Eight, Nine and Exit Interviews). When a clear consensus emerged that a combination of working, studying for equivalency high school diplomas (GED), and attending nighttime shiurim would be the most productive setting for most of those teenagers, our gedolim encouraged the formation of organizations like Torah Umesorah’s Counterforce, Ohel’s services for at-risk kids, Agudath Israel’s Project YES, MASK, Priority One, and Our Place to bring this to fruition. While it would be foolish to claim that this initiative solved the teens-at-risk problem in America, it most certainly mitigated it significantly.
While this was occurring in the USA, similar meetings of the senior gedolim of Eretz Yisroel were taking place in conjunction with the educators and community activists who were working with their out-of-school kids. Their search for a solution was complicated further by the fact that the American model of work/modified school/shiurim was a “non-starter” because Israeli teens who were not full-time yeshiva students would have been drafted into the army when they reached enlistment age. Consequently, charedi parents would have been understandably reluctant to have their sheltered sons join a program that would result in their conscription into a co-ed, secular army.
Many wonderful people devoted countless man-hours to sift through the complex logistics of various solutions that were suggested both by Israeli activists, as well as those of us who were working with teens-at-risk in America. After years of discussion and research, there emerged a novel idea for the time; namely, creating a segregated army program for ex-yeshiva students which would meet both their cultural and religious needs. With that, Nachal Charedi was established with the full-throated bracha (blessing) and encouragement of Hagaon Rav Ahron Leib Shteinman shlit”a.
It could have been a win-win-win for all involved. The boys who were not cut out for full-day learning would find fulfillment defending their country in a culturally congruent setting, all the while learning skills that would then create a pathway to productive careers after their service. On a communal level, Nachal Charedi would clear the streets of Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak of the gangs of frustrated young men who were not attending Yeshiva. Having significant numbers of charedi young men serving in the army would also help reduce the resentment of the secular majority regarding the matter of the drafting of yeshiva boys.
Unfortunately, this initiative which was created with such misirus nefesh (dedication) and which had such promise, was nearly destroyed by the vicious and often violent campaign of the kanoimwho wanted only to derail it. In the end, it achieved a mere fraction of its original goals. The elderly tzadik and gadol hador, Hagaon Rav Ahron Leib Shteinman shlit”a was harassed mercilessly, threatened and picketed for his support of Nachal Charedi. Likewise, the many families of teens and young adults who enlisted were subjected to the same type of terror that is going on today in full view of the international press.
In fact, Rav Shteinman’s inspiring Trip of Chizuk and his address to the American Torah Umesorah Conference was marred by these demonstrations and according to many reports, his visit to a major city in North America was cancelled due to threats of unruly protests. The campaign of intimidation continues to this very day with thisreprehensibleposter displayed prominently at the recent NYC rally against the draft in Eretz Yisroel.
Besides the detrimental effect that the opposition to Nachal Charedi had on thousands of underachieving Israeli kids whose options were limited, the toll it took on secular-religious relations is incalculable. We pray that it is not irreparable. It is hard to imagine the “Sharing the Burden” initiative gaining the traction it did if Israeli charedi young men had been serving their country with distinction and working in the hi-tech division of the IDF over the past decade.
We who live in the Diaspora cannot claim to understand the nuances and ramifications of the political climate currently facing our charedi brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisroel. Therefore it is not our place to criticize or second guess the decisions being made in response to the reversal of the exemption given to yeshiva students that has been in place for the 65 years of Israel’s existence.
I do feel strongly, however, that we can and must work collectively to eliminate the abuse directed at members of our charedi community in Eretz Yisroel so their leaders can implement practical and much-needed solutions without fear of reprisals from violent radicals who target them. We must use all tools at our disposal to eradicate aggressively the communal abuse perpetrated by a small group of thugs who are destroying our beautiful way of life both from within and without.
It is not only the charedi young men in uniform who are being abused by these radicals; it is our entire kehila who is suffering from their abusive campaigns. It is not only the Nachal Charedi solders who are being humiliated by the kanoim, it is all members of our community worldwide who are being shamed by identification with them.
We are becoming all too aware of the devastating carnage that abuse leaves in its wake, and we are discovering that ignoring problems of this nature causes them to fester and metastasize. Now we need to come to the realization that abuse exists on a communal level as well, and that it also needs to be confronted head-on.
A fundamental characteristic of abusers is that they don’t respect the personal space of others. Well, that’s what radical zealots do – they use threats and force to break down the personal space of people who don’t share their views in order to impose their will on them.
I am writing this message to those who know me and are familiar with our efforts at Project YES to help all of our children reach their fullest potential in a safe and nurturing environment. The goal of this communication, written on the heels of Tisha B’Av, is to explain why this climate of intimidation is so dangerous to the welfare of our children – since it stands in the way of all solutions that can help us solve the problems they face.
I am using the Project YES website and email list to host a long-overdue digital discussion about the perilous problem of ongoing communal abuse, and what we can do to eliminate it completely. We invite community leaders and individuals alike to post comments on this thread and to submit essays on this subject (kindly send to [email protected]) which will be posted on our website and distributed via our worldwide Project YES email list. We are committed to allowing a wide range of opinions including opposing views. All we ask is that the discussions be conducted in a respectful tone with an eye to practical solutions to this most pressing matter.
We hope that this initiative will help generate constructive discourse and ultimate solutions that will provide opportunity for all of our children to live productive lives b’ruchniyus u’vgashmiyus (spiritually and materially).