“It’s a confrontation with a kind of evil that frankly I’ve never experienced,” said Esther Boylan Wolfson.
Wolfson, who grew up in Englewood where she attended the Moriah School, has lived in Beit Shemesh for 14 years. Her youngest daughter, Ronit, is a fourth-grade student at the Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh, and has been harassed by charedi protesters since school began last month in a new building that the charedi community wanted for its own.
“Grown adults screaming at little girls,” said Wolfson, “For me, it was mind boggling.”
Luckily, the full import of the Yiddish epithets hurled by the charedim – shiksa and prutza (slut) – are missed by Ronit and her schoolmates, who do not speak Yiddish.
|Esther Boylan Wolfson, right, with her daughter Ronit.|
“The kids thought they were screaming shnitzel and pizza. I explained to them what ‘shiksa’ was and said ‘prutza’ was not a nice word,” she said.
Before the school year began, Wolfson assumed that with the new building being located near her home, Ronit would be able to walk to and from school by herself. “It’s generally safe for a nine-year-old to walk by herself in Beit Shemesh,” said Wolfson.
By the time school opened, however, Wolfson realized that her daughter would need accompaniment.
Even before school opened, the charedim already threatened violence against the children, said Wolfson.
“About a week before school started, the mayor of Beit Shemesh came to the Parents Teachers Organization and said, ‘I’ve received threats of violence against the students and because I’m scared of these threats of violence and my first need is to protect the girls, I’m not going to allow you to move into the school building. Move out,'” she said.
During its years of construction, a sign in front of the new building indicated that it was designated for the Orot school. Wolfson accused the mayor, a representative of the Sephardic charedi Shas party, of wanting to satisfy his coalition partners, the Ashkenazic charedi Agudath Israel party, by turning the building over to them.
“We waited 14 years for a new school building,” said Wolfson.
“While it may sound nice for the mayor to say that the primary responsibility is safety for students, his responsibility is to protect students. It’s pretty much a given in America that if someone is threatening violence against you, the way to deal with it is not to say, ‘you guys get what you want.’
“In a democracy, a group cannot come and threaten children and get what they want,” she said.
On the first day of school, she said, the school was saturated with so much police presence that she was reminded of the federal integration of Mississippi schools in the 1950s.
There was no violence that day.
On the second day, there was no police. That is when the harassment began. It lasted for weeks and not only included hurling nasty epithets at the students, but the throwing of bags of excrement and other detritus at the school building.
“One of the things that’s most disturbing to us as a community is that while, yes, it’s a small percentage of people, 30 or 40 people doing this, there’s a lot of silence. The rabbinical leaders of the ultra-Orthodox seemed to have nothing to say about people throwing excrement. They’re all silent. We tried to get a charedi rabbi to say that this behavior is forbidden, and we couldn’t,” she said.
Instead, the charedi community held a rally to oppose the school “because the way our girls are dressed is so horrifying that they can’t have them near them. To understand the degree of ridiculousness, Orot girls have to wear skirts below the knees and three-quarters sleeves. Not that violence is okay if they’re wearing shorts,” she said.