Religion & Jewish Life

School battle escalates religious clash in Jerusalem suburb

BEIT SHEMESH, Israel (JTA) — This time it started with cries of “Sluts!” and “Shiksas!” and the throwing of eggs and bags of excrement at young girls who attend a recently opened Modern Orthodox elementary school in this Jerusalem suburb.

The assailants: religious extremists from the haredi Orthodox neighborhood across the street.

It was the latest battle in the clash between haredi zealots and Modern Orthodox Jews in Beit Shemesh, a heavily American suburb of 80,000 about 25 minutes from Jerusalem.

The newest flashpoint is the recently opened Banot Orot school.

At dismissal, parents who once let kids as young as 6 walk home alone now rush to the school gates each day to ensure their children’s safety. Police cars with flashing blue lights have become a fixture outside the school in this leafy neighborhood, and groups of volunteers patrol the main thoroughfare separating Banot Orot from the haredi neighborhood.

The haredim who have moved from the crowded streets of Jerusalem’s haredi neighborhoods to the tall apartment blocks across the road from the school hang banners from their balconies calling on the “Daughters of Israel to dress modestly.”

“They are determined to make Beit Shemesh a haredi city,” said Dov Lipman, formerly of Maryland, who in recent months has become a leader in the Modern Orthodox community in the battle over what he says is the future of Beit Shemesh.

It is a microcosm, some say, of the larger religious-secular conflict in Israel.

“What is happening here is a microcosm of what could happen nationwide, and our unwillingness to yield before the violence and threats should serve as a model for the rest of the country,” Lipman said.

“I think in other places they successfully intimidated local residents, but we will not run away,” he said of the haredi extremists. “They want to take control of our town and we will not let them.”

The showdown at the new school, which dissipated somewhat as the High Holidays approached, is just the latest clash between Modern Orthodox Jews and extremists from Beit Shemesh’s haredi community.

In the past few years, religious fundamentalists have assaulted bus passengers who have attempted to sit next to members of the opposite sex, firebombed a pizza shop where the sexes mixed and beaten other haredim who have tried to speak out publicly against religious zealotry in the community.

Lipman, whose own daughters do not attend Banot Orot, shows up outside the school almost daily to ensure that the young girls are not taunted or pelted with refuse. Before Rosh Hashanah he organized a demonstration of a few thousand people — Modern Orthodox and more secular residents of Beit Shemesh — against extremist intimidation.

“In this neighborhood, about 50 percent of us are relatively new immigrants, and I think that makes us more determined to not let them destroy our dream,” Lipman said.

Shmuel Pappenheim, a haredi resident of Beit Shemesh, says the fight is not so much about confronting the Modern Orthodox as it is about sending a message to Beit Shemesh’s haredi mayor, who allowed the school to be built here.

“The land was promised to us for a public building, and now the mayor has given it to them,” Pappenheim said. “What we do not understand is why a Modern Orthodox girls’ school had to be built right next to our community.”

Pappenheim says the girls are not dressed modestly enough for the haredi community’s strict mores, but he insists that the haredi community is seeking ways to conduct a peaceful dialogue with the mayor and Beit Shemesh’s non-haredi residents.

“We have been trying to discuss this issue for a few years but we were not successful, so now we will have to fight it our own way,” he said.

Mayor Moshe Abutbul had been involved until recently in trying to bring the two sides together to find a solution. But after the decision to open Banot Orot was made over his head, by the national Education Ministry, he appears to have taken a step back.

Matitiyahu Rosensweig, a spokesman for the mayor, told JTA that the government’s involvement had served only to disrupt previous gains that had been made to return calm to Beit Shemesh. He declined a request for a full interview.

Lipman says the Modern Orthodox community soon will fight back against gender-segregated buses, which Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled are illegal.

“We will address this issue soon with a counter campaign called Take a Seat,” he said.

After that, he said, the battle will go to City Hall.

“We are preparing ourselves as a unified general population for future issues that could arise and are starting to turn our eyes towards the elections in two years,” Lipman said. “We hope to wrestle the city back from a mayor who pulled a fast one on the voters and is actually under the influence of extremist elements.”

Dov Lipman, left, a Modern Orthodox leader in Beit Shemesh, and a haredi Orthodox man, Moshe Friedman, engage in a shouting match near the Banot Orot school. (Michael Lipkin)