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Unorthodox encounters with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community

Sharon Offenberger
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Published: 3 December 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

SHARON OFFENBERGER: One size does not fit all but one thing is certain: the impact of Haredi integration in mainstream Israel is inevitable

IN THE 1990S, as a tourist, I remember Jerusalem as quintessentially Israeli, but over the years the secular population seems to have moved on and the Haredim moved in. As a teenager, I had a brief and impressionable romance with the notion of religious life, predictably influenced by Mt Scopus Counterpoint camp.

But once living in Israel, my view of the ultra-Orthodox largely developed through the car window, as I drove through the streets of Jerusalem. Heavy European garb in summer, plastic bags protecting hats in winter. Bright yellow “Moshiach” (Messiah) billboards dotted along major roads.

I was living in Israel in 2013 when Haredi spiritual leader and Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (z”l) passed away. It was coined “the largest funeral in Israel history” – some 800,000 followers shuffling through the streets of Jerusalem, all dressed in traditional black jackets, white shirts and black hats so as to compose quite a historic photo as well.

I paid a bereavement visit to the Rabbi Yosef’s family in their apartment in Har Nof, an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem. At the time, I was managing a peacebuilding program for the EU. Always looking for new allies, I was surprised to find them in the Haredi world and even more so, in Rav Ovadia Yosef’s family.

His daughter Adina Bar Shalom was a trailblazer in her community, working to give a voice to Haredi women on political and security issues affecting Israel. Unfortunately, Israeli politics can be cruel to newcomers, and she was thwarted in her attempts to circumvent the ban against women in Haredi political parties by reaching the Knesset independently.

Through these contacts, I also met and befriended Rabbi Menashe, who was involved in interreligious dialogue. I became so casual with Rabbi Menashe that instead of answering the phone with the traditional greeting “Kavod Harav” (loosely, Honourable Rabbi) I would open the conversation with a friendly “maaaaatttteee!”. Well, not exactly, but that was the sentiment.

Always looking for new allies, I was surprised to find them in the Haredi world and even more so, in Rav Ovadia Yosef’s family.

He volunteered to officiate at a wedding to purify my status, as I was never married under Jewish law with my Israeli partner of many years and father of my children. “All you need are two witnesses and a bottle of good wine,” he’d say.

Sometimes I forgot he was Haredi and acted too familiar, triggering embarrassing incidents like grabbing his arm affectionately in the presence of other rabbis (breaking the strict code of not touching the opposite sex) and introducing him to my boss with a clumsily worded, “Rabbi Menashe wants to marry me”. Did I mention that his wife was there too?

From my side, I would joke that my appointments with the Haredim suspiciously involved meeting at kosher hotels. The joke fell flat. I would prepare for such meetings by dressing instead of undressing. As I travelled from sweaty Tel Aviv to my religious destinations, I would magically pull out long-sleeved jackets, stockings (never wear pants, only skirts below the knee) and a scarf to cover exposed skin from my bag.

Haredi woman in Ramat Beit Shemesh (Emil Salman)
Haredi woman in Ramat Beit Shemesh (Emil Salman)

I would meet with Haredi men and women separately, only occasionally together and at one such event I even discovered relatives of my husband. It’s not always obvious from the outside but there is great diversity within the Haredi world, starting with the Ashkenazi/Sephardi divide. Separate political parties, two Chief Rabbis. Separate school systems, synagogues, even media.

I had both worlds covered with a bissel Yiddish to charm the Ashkenazim and the story of my husband’s family who  immigrated from Morocco to Ottoman-ruled Palestine in the early 1800s to wow the Sephardim.

But it goes far beyond that, with very deconcentrated pockets of power determined by the size of a particular rabbi’s following and without a single unifying leader of the calibre that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef once was.

I met Haredi women who were uber-successful in their professions and saw the pride that they brought to their families as the breadwinner. I heard quiet criticism of the expectation that all men study Torah since “not every man will be a good scholar”.

Haredi women caught in violent homes needed more appropriate women’s shelters (there was only one for Haredi women) and I heard how gay “conversion therapy” still exists. In some Haredi neighbourhoods, women’s faces were forbidden from appearing on billboards, whilst the mainstream Israeli media gorged on any story that could combine the words “Haredim” and “sex”.

Whilst often charmed by intelligent Haredi conversationalists, as a citizen I objected strongly to the lack of separation of synagogue and state in Israel.

The hit TV show Shtisel set in the Haredi community was wildly successful on Israeli cable before Netflix picked it up, broadcasting it to an even bigger audience that can’t pronounce its title.

Whilst often personally charmed by intelligent Haredi conversationalists, as a citizen I objected strongly to the lack of separation of synagogue and state in Israel, which encouraged sectorial politics. When elected Knesset representatives were acting on behalf of institutions that do not officially recognise the State of Israel, I wondered what Maimonides would have written in his landmark philosophical book Guide to the Perplexed.

I was regularly perplexed myself, trying to reconcile this population of 13% among the competing visions for the country and tried not to take their inconsistencies personally.

Even though I could impress my Haredi acquaintances with a recital of Birkat Hamazon, still ingrained from Jewish day school, I had to wait in the carpark while my (male, non-Jewish) colleagues were given the grand tour of the grand Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak – a visit which I had arranged.

I assisted Haredi journalists (men only) by offering language support at English media briefings. But I was sweating under my modest clothing as I teethed hours of simultaneous translation, silently wishing their schools had prioritised secular subjects like English, and that I hadn’t drunk that glass of wine with lunch.

I gushed to the founders of United Hatzolah, an extraordinary national life-saving volunteer organization conceived within the tight-knitted Haredi community. But I was furious that potentially life-saving transport infrastructure repairs for stressed commuters were forbidden from taking place on Shabbat.

With much higher birth rates than the secular population, the Haredi population is predicted to increase proportionally to 30% of Israel’s population in 20 years. The impact of Haredi integration or non-integration in mainstream Israel is inevitable and whatever happens next will definitely be billboard-worthy. Watch this space.

Photo: Adina Bar Shalom, daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

About the author

Sharon Offenberger

Sharon Offenberger was raised in Melbourne and made aliyah in 2004. She spent over 15 years in various roles for the European Union, including managing the peacebuilding program, communications officer and spokesperson. She moved with her family in 2020 to Bellingen, NSW where she works as a writer and communications consultant.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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