Orthodox girls harassed, attacked by charedi
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Orthodox girls harassed, attacked by charedi

School battle underscores deeper religious tensions in Jerusalem suburb

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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

BEIT SHEMESH, Israel – They cried “Sluts!” and “Shiksas!” and threw eggs and bags of excrement.

Their target: young girls who attend a recently opened Modern Orthodox elementary school in this Jerusalem suburb.

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

It was the latest battle in the clash between charedi 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 six years old 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 charedi neighborhood.

The charedim who have moved from the crowded streets of Jerusalem’s charedi 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 charedi 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 charedi 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 Holy Days approached, is just the latest clash between Modern Orthodox Jews and extremists from Beit Shemesh’s charedi 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 attacked other charedim who 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.

Shmuel Pappenheim, a charedi 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 charedi 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 charedi community’s strict mores, but he insists that the charedi community is seeking ways to conduct a peaceful dialogue with the mayor and Beit Shemesh’s non-charedi residents.

Mayor Moshe Abutbul had been involved until recently in trying to bring the two sides together to find a solution. 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.

JTA Wire Service

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