Facing possible draft and reduced subsidies, Israel’s haredim respond with prayer

pashkvilim

A wall of pashkvilim, or posters bearing communal announcements, in the Jerusalem haredi neighborhood of Mea Shearim. (Ben Sales)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The large white poster is topped by a screaming headline written in large black letters: “Hell.”

Posted on a wall in Jerusalem’s haredi Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, the sign describes a development that threatens the community with “extinction” and “makes all living hearts tremble.”

Known as a pashkvil in Yiddish, the signs are common in Mea Shearim, most of them announcing upcoming funerals or opportunities for Torah study. But several now predict impending doom if the Israeli government moves ahead with plans to draft haredi men into the military.

One poster, announcing a protest for June 19, describes the battle as an “existential war.”

If there was a war on the streets of Jerusalem that night, nobody noticed.

With the exception of a demonstration in May that drew 30,000 people, there have been no mass haredi demonstrations in Israel similar to what took place in Lower Manhattan in early June. This despite a range of measures under consideration that threaten to strip the haredi community of privileges it has long enjoyed.

In addition to a bill to draft thousands of haredi yeshiva students into the army beginning in 2017, the government is considering various incentives to draw haredim into the workforce and off the public dole. The government’s new austerity budget drastically cuts haredi childcare subsidies. The Education Ministry is mandating math and English in haredi public schools, where such subjects are given little attention, if any.

Haredi Orthodox Jews passing through Shabbat Square, a central intersection between two Jerusalem haredi neighborhoods.(Ben Sales)

Haredi Orthodox Jews passing through Shabbat Square, a central intersection between two Jerusalem haredi neighborhoods.(Ben Sales)

Even at the Western Wall, where haredim have long held sway, Israeli courts  recently determined that women have the right to pray there publicly as they wish.

“We’re in the hands of God,” said Yitzchak, 47, who studies full time in a yeshiva. “You should protest desecrations of God’s name or for keeping the Sabbath, but on economic decrees you look to God.”

Despite the apocalyptic rhetoric, Israel’s haredi community has stayed relatively silent in the face of proposed reforms, a posture due in part to the reticence of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the leading Ashkenazi rabbinic authority. Shteinman declined to support the May protest and instead has advocated a quiet response.

For a man of his influence, Shteinman, who is approximately 100 years old, is reserved. On a recent weekday afternoon, his modest apartment in the haredi stronghold of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, had only one small sign on the door, a note announcing the time for evening prayers. At the appointed hour, men in black hats and coats packed into his living room.

When prayers were over, Shteinman received them individually as they sought his blessings on anything from finding a wife to closing a real estate deal. He responded to each in a brief, hoarse whisper.

Shteinman’s attitude to the proposed reforms has been similarly soft-spoken.

Yisrael Friedman, a follower of Shteinman and the deputy editor of the leading haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman, told JTA that the rabbi’s preferred response is for the haredi community to strengthen itself from within, focusing on Torah study, prayer and repentance. Friedman said haredi yeshivas have seen an uptick in students on weekends.

“When a person prays, he says ‘Master of the universe, I’m weak, help,’ ” Friedman said. “When he goes to the street, he’s saying ‘I’m strong.’ He believes in his own strength to change decrees. Heavenly decrees you don’t change yourself.”

The Sephardic religious leadership has taken a similarly restrained approach.

The Shas party plans to fight the reform legislatively, but so far has not called for protest. Even Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a figure known for his fiery pronouncements, has stopped just short of calling his followers into the streets — though he did have harsh words for proponents of reform, calling on God to “pursue them in anger and destroy them.”

“Pray to God to foil our enemies’ counsel, suppress their thoughts, revisit their plans on their heads,” he urged followers last month.

Not everyone in the haredi community has chosen to place their trust solely in the hands of heaven.

Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim, who in the past represented Eda Haharedit, the haredi organization that backed the May protest, says the quiet is mainly tactical. The draft is four years off and as it draws near, he says, the volume of protest will increase.

“There will be an internal war within the Jewish people,” Pappenheim said. “We’ll create great chaos until the secular Israelis will say let’s go back to the arrangement we had before.”

One place where the haredi rank-and-file has taken a more voluble approach is online.

Last year, Aharon Kravitz launched the website Dossim.com to convey the haredi perspective on Israel’s culture wars. The site, with a name that plays off an Israeli slur for religious Jews, aims both to present haredi society in a positive light and to document anti-haredi articles and physical attacks on haredim.

Haredi leaders are silent because they “don’t have the tools to fight the fire from the media and politicians,” said Kravitz, who says it’s important to have the haredi viewpoint out there even if no one is persuaded.

Friedman agrees that such efforts at dialogue are probably useless because the haredi lifestyle is so misunderstood among secular Israelis. Better, he says, for haredim to focus on upholding their way of life.

“The State of Israel has brought us to a situation where the Jewish nation and the Israeli nation need to separate,” he said. “The State of Israel is lending a hand to the worst and most dangerous thing. They haven’t broken us with this. They won’t break us.”

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