Beit Shemesh, Israel — Little Naama Margolese brought them together.
On the surface they were an unlikely pair: Dov Lipman, an American-born “modern haredi” rabbi-educator who lives in Beit Shemesh, and Mickey Gitzin, the secular Israeli-born head of Yisrael Hofshit (Free Israel), an organization that works toward pluralism and against religious coercion.
But the American Orthodox immigrant and the lefty Sabra rallied behind Naama, the 8-year-old Modern Orthodox schoolgirl who was spit and cursed at by ultra-Orthodox zealots as she walked to school in this religiously divided town between Jersualem and Tel Aviv — for the crime of dressing “immodestly,” though Naama was wearing the kind of long skirt that typifies the dress of Modern Orthodox girls.
And together, Lipman and Gitzin helped diffuse a situation that garnered worldwide headlines and came to symbolize the growing extremism of Israel’s haredi community and the widening gulf that exists between the religious and secular (and even between the Modern and ultra-Orthodox) in the country.
The story of how the two calmed tensions in Beit Shemesh began last summer, when Lipman, who immigrated to Israel eight years ago, heard that haredi extremists were determined to prevent a new school (located between Modern Orthodox and haredi neighborhoods here) from opening. It didn’t sit well with him. And when he learned that the city’s mayor had caved into the extremists’ threats, he decided to take action.
Realizing the mayor would keep the school shuttered, Lipman and a small group of residents approached the minister of education, who decided the school would open. That unleashed the extremists’ wrath: every time the girls from the Orot Banot school headed to and from their new building, haredi men spit, threw objects and screamed at the frightened 6- to 11-year-olds, who are themselves Modern Orthodox.
“They would stand and scream ‘shiksa’ and ‘pritza’ [whore],” one of the girls’ mothers told me. “Some of the kids were having nightmares.”
Several Beit Shemesh residents, including those who, like Lipman, didn’t have children enrolled in the school, accompanied the girls and photographed and videotaped the attackers.
Behind the scenes the activists approached the police, Knesset members, the minister of public security, and even some of the haredi rabbis to stop the attacks.
“Nothing worked, at least not permanently,” Lipman said.
While the extremists (a sect of haredim knows as the Sikrikim) actually took a short hiatus, they returned with a vengeance in December 2011. The grassroots activists, who at the time were fighting the planned building of 30,000 housing units in Beit Shemesh intended solely for haredim, met with a consultant, who said it was time to share the Orot Banot girls’ plight with the media.
The turning point was a segment on the attacks that aired on a popular Israeli TV show.
The Friday-night broadcast, which focused on terrified Naama Margolese as she suffered abuse on her way to school, elicited a huge response from viewers, who flooded the Facebook page of Yisrael Hofshit, which has organized many protests and facilitates community building.
At the time, the organization was fighting against the segregation and exclusion of women in the public sphere.
“We actually started planning a demonstration that Friday night,” a full day before religious activists had a chance to see the broadcast, Gitzin said. “We realized we couldn’t remain silent.”
When Shabbat ended, Gitzin started looking for local Beit Shemesh activists to contact “because although we were coming with the organizing experience, we must communicate with people on the ground.”
When Lipman turned on his computer Saturday night and went to Facebook, he learned that thousands of Israelis from all over the country were planning to descend on Beit Shemesh to express their solidarity with the Orot Banot girls.
That worried him.
“We didn’t want a civil war,” he related.
When the two men from totally different worlds met, they were struck by their common values. “We understood each other very quickly. We spoke the same language,” Gitzin said, referring neither to Hebrew or English. “We speak Israeli.”
Gitzin told Lipman that he was touched to his core “by the plight of a Jewish child so terrified to go to school she was crying.” He said, “I’m a secular Israeli and you’re Orthodox. Let’s work together.”
Lipman said that until that moment, it had never occurred to him that he and the other religious residents would join forces with what in his mind was “this secular left-wing anti-religious group.”
But when Lipman took the time to really speak to the secular activists, he “discovered the most wonderful, well-meaning people in the world.”
When Lipman warned Gitzin that even non-Orthodox residents of Beit Shemesh are traditional, and that none of the rally’s speakers should say anything negative about religion, Gitzin told him not to worry.
“He told me that the average chiloni [secular] Israeli completely accepts that religion is part of life in Israel and isn’t anti-religious. All they ask is that others don’t coerce them.”
Gitzin has only superlatives to describe Lipman. “Dov respects my way of living as a secular Jew, just as I respect his way of living. He really understands that being haredi doesn’t make him a better Jew than I am, just a different kind of Jew.”
Lipman calls the eighth night of Chanukah 2011 the proudest moment in his life. Thousands of religious, secular and traditional Israelis came from all over the country to stand up for tolerance.
“Standing side by side, it sent a message that although there are things we disagree about, we were also saying we are anti-coercion and anti-extremist,” Lipman said.
The extremists backed down.
“The seemingly surprising collaboration [between Lipman and Gitzin] is just a beginning of what we will see a lot more of,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, president of Hiddush, an organization that promotes pluralism and works against religious coercion. “The rapidly growing extremism and triumphalism within the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel is generating greater awareness and resentment among the general public. It proves to be a threat to both Modern Orthodoxy and the budding moderate ultra-Orthodox, who wish to integrate fervent religious life-style with gainful employment, general studies and active participation in society.
“This praiseworthy and effective ad-hoc alliance,” Rabbi Regev continued, “will hopefully be an example for the future, in the rapidly changing Israeli social dynamic.”
Despite the fact that many immigrants feel ill-equipped to become activists, either due to the language barrier or to a different mentality, Gitzin said it was no surprise that American immigrants led the battle in Beit Shemesh.
“Americans understood before we [native Israelis] did the importance of Jewish pluralism.”
The night after the Chanukah night demonstration, Lipman said, he took his wife out for dinner, where a secular waiter recognized him and came over to their table.
“The waiter said, ‘Seeing you on that screen wearing your black velvet kipa, standing on a stage saying you love all Jews, including secular Jews, and that you believe we can all work together to make a great country, made me proud to be a Jew for the first time in my life.”
“To him, an Orthodox Jew looks and talks a certain way,” Lipman said. “Here was someone who didn’t represent that negative image, and I’m glad.”
After the demonstration, Naama and her friends could walk to school in peace. The spitting and the cursing, and their nightmare, was over.
“It makes me feel we can really change the country,” Lipman said, adding that the day after the rally, police arrested an extremist who cursed a woman on a Jerusalem bus. “We really accomplished something.”
But perhaps the partnership between the American-born rabbi and the left-wing Sabra activist isn’t over. “I’m in touch with Mickey regularly,” Lipman said, the two ever-vigilant against religious extremism. “We’re working together on the efforts to save Beit Shemesh.