Jewish, Jewish, Everywhere, & not a drop to drink
Thursday, October 06, 2005
Newly Religious Challenge for Religious Establishment
Are separate schools the answer?
By Shahar Ilan
Thu., October 06, 2005 Tishrei 3, 5766

A newly religious journalist stirred up a fierce storm among the ultra-Orthodox public when she asked what was the point of attracting more people to Torah observance if their children would not be accepted to Haredi schools anyway.

In recent years, a new type of discrimination has emerged in Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox educational institutions. In addition to their discrimination against girls from Sephardi backgrounds, children whose parents found religion in adulthood are also being sidelined. For the past month, the Haredi weekly, Mishpacha, has devoted several pages each week to a public discussion of this sensitive issue.

Avigail Meizlik - the paper's cuisine columnist who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh and became religious as an adult herself - kicked off the discussion. She related that the class in which her daughter studied, and which was composed mainly of children from homes like hers, had been closed and that now no other school wanted to accept her daughter.

"There are so many organizations and people devoting their lives to attracting people to a religious lifestyle," wrote Meizlik, "Why bother? Why convince them to make such a difficult, painful change? Why call upon them to come and live a Torah lifestyle if no one has any intention of giving them the opportunity to live such a lifestyle? Perhaps the time has come to stop investing in outreach and to redirect the immense energies of these organizations to the existing newly religious families."

Unlike the Sephardi girls, who encounter difficulties mainly in the high schools and post-secondary institutes, the newly religious run into discrimination already in pre-school and elementary school. Meizlik said that at one school, where the language of instruction is Yiddish, the teachers "set up a parents' committee whose sole purpose is to make sure, Heaven forbid, that no girls from newly religious families attend school with their purebred daughters.

"There are families here who have been religious for 10-15 years already," Meizlik continued. "The husband wears a long black coat and a shtreimel, the children are sweet and have long side curls, are raised to be modest and God-fearing, in homes without newspapers or a computer; good, pure Haredi children - until they reach school age."

Regardless or not of the hullabaloo, the school at which Meizlik's daughter learned decided to reopen her class, but the public debate had already been launched.

The first to pick up the gauntlet was Mishpacha's European correspondent, David Damen, who reported that every year at about this time, as if it were a fixed ritual, heart-rending letters begin pouring into the editor's mailbox, bemoaning tragedies too difficult to bear, that their children are not reaching their potential simply because they do not meet the new criteria that have become entrenched among part of the ultra-Orthodox public - classes of religiosity.

"The newly religious," wrote Damen, "have left everything behind them and made a tremendous personal sacrifice, only to discover that they will remain ostracized, part of a `quota,' along with the Sephardim."

Damen made an impassioned plea to "all those newly observant who are still just finding their way: When you make the transition, which is so difficult, go one small, but decisive, step further - come to us, to the Hasidic circles."

Damen explains that although it is very difficult to gain acceptance into a Hasidic group, once a family has been accepted, the children will always have a place to learn, "without any `quotas' or `selections,' and without religious class distortions." The reason for the equality is that everyone is humbled by the rebbe - the leader of each Hasidic sect.

Is the situation really so much better among the Hasidim?

Rabbi Shmuel Wind of the Tsohar outreach organization told Mishpacha that the newly religious will not find it easy to fit into a Hasidic framework that is not Chabad or Bratslav.

"The offer to `join Chabad' is not a realistic option for me," said Meizlik. "We want to worship God in a way that suits us and to choose how to worship God according to what is taught to the children in school."

One of the fascinating aspects of this debate is the central position held by women - perhaps because the issues are education and family, and perhaps because the ultra-Orthodox public is changing. The following week's article was written by Yael Berg, who came out in defense of the discrimination. The newly observant, explained Berg, tend to meet with their non-religious relatives and the children are exposed to their relatives' culture, "their speech patterns, music, body language and concepts," she wrote.

Yael feels that this encounter with secular culture sometimes causes the children to backslide, and they are liable to negatively affect youths who have been ultra-Orthodox from birth.

"I feel that the pain of the girl who has not been accepted is preferable to the anguish of families whose daughters are affected by a girl who was erroneously accepted," wrote Berg.

Zippora Beit Levi, a teacher at the Beit Yaakov school system, wrote to Mishpacha that she feels the ultra-Orthodox community is having enough trouble with its own rebellious youth "without importing `trouble' from outside."

Two weeks ago, Moshe Grylak, Mishpacha's editor, author of "The Ultra-Orthodox - Who Are We Really?" and one of the first to practice outreach, joined the discussion. Grylak contends that most of the ultra-Orthodox public is afraid of the newly religious, afraid they will cause breaches in the walls of their isolation.

He also agrees that "the rejection unfortunately also stems from elitist arrogance - an evil sickness the causes apathy and hardheartedness toward the suffering of those we reject."

That week, Mishpacha printed the reactions of readers, plus responses by a few of the leaders of outreach programs. Rabbi Wind said he preferred that the newly religious continue to live in a secular environment.

"Anyone who tells a secular person who starts becoming religious, `Leave Rishon Letzion/Holon/Ashkelon and move to Ramat Beit Shemesh/Modi'in Ilit/Beitar,' is making a mistake," said Wind.

One reason is that a newly religious person might feel like a second-class citizen in a ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. Another reason is that the children can study in ultra-Orthodox schools in a secular neighborhood, schools that are geared to newly religious, without any acceptance problems. A third reason is that the newly religious create an ultra-Orthodox community in their locale and influence others to become religious, too.

To illustrate this point, Wind wrote about the secular Carmit neighborhood of Rishon Letzion, from which two busloads of children leave each morning to the religious schools in the city.

One prominent theme among the readers' letters was the hurling of criticism by school representatives and ultra-Orthodox parents against one another - an indication that both sides realize there is a serious problem that must be solved.

"We are not a party to this offensive [phenomenon]," wrote one ultra-Orthodox woman. "Principals, stop distancing the children of the newly religious from us."

One rabbi claimed that the principals were the main guilty party, but that the parents were guilty too, by their silent cooperation with the principals' decisions. A member of the acceptance committee at a prestigious ultra-Orthodox elementary school wrote that he had received threats from parents that they would withdraw their children from the school if children from newly religious families were accepted.

The only practical solution that enjoyed any consensus was the founding of separate schools for the newly religious, even in ultra-Orthodox cities. Ahuva Etzioni, of Beit Shemesh, explained that the radical ultra-Orthodox institutions, which do not offer secular subjects, are not suitable for most newly religious families.

"I would have been happier when I was little if I had gone to a school full of only newly religious girls like myself," wrote a girl from a veteran newly religious family. "That way, all the children would feel they belonged."

A veteran newly religious from overseas wrote that the newly religious are to blame because they do not unite.

Meizlik agreed that schools for the newly religious could be a solution, but criticized the ultra-Orthodox who offer such a solution from "on top of their high horses."
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