Ahavat Yisrael in Bet Shemesh

Homogeneity can be a wonderful thing.  Or not.  When like attracts like, it can begin the unification of the parts of your soul, be it romantic or purely friendly.  But in entire communities, efforts toward sameness can bring discord.  My community of Bet Shemesh is no exception.  The upcoming local elections has brought forth frenzied Facebook posts and flyers, many of which the locals are finding unsettling.  Mudslinging they call it, and it doesn’t feel good.

My family truly embodies the spirit of Ahavat Yisrael.  Let me paint you a picture:  My oldest son is chareidi, his closet filled with black and white variations, and his days spent learning and davening.  My second son is perpetually adorned in t-shirts and jeans, but rarely with a kippah.  This has nothing to do with his relationship with G-d, which he claims is going strong, but rather his frustration when it falls off.  In truth, my two eldest sons have very little in common besides their wardrobe predominance of the color black.  Regardless, they go together like a lulav and etrog, like a sukkah and schach.  Meanwhile, my remaining four children are a healthy mix, mostly sticking to clean cut, mainstream clothing and interests, with regular hours spent in school, prayer, and mall excursions.

I recall a meeting a few years back between myself, my husband and my daughter’s menahelet.  My husband voiced his desire to one day look around his shabbat table and witness Ahavat Yisrael in the round, at our own misbeyach.  Seeing one in a shtrimel, one kippa sruga, and everything in between and beyond would bring him immense nachas, he told the menahelet.  It sounds very nice, she answered, but it’s really not so simple.  And her expression betrayed that her answer was tame compared to her true perspective. Four years later, my husband’s vision is coming to fruition, and we couldn’t be more pleased.  But we are the minority.  We are surprised at times to find that individuality is frowned upon by many in our community, and judging one favorably is made challenging beyond the norm by expectations of conformity in our schools, and in our communities at large.

As the mother of six children, I am accustomed to dissension in the ranks.  Thus, I am puzzled by the postings I see on a regular basis, chanting the old “can’t we all just get along?” mantra.  It is a mentality that plagues our community, which revels in homogeneity, professes desire for unity, but only amongst those that drink the mehadrin Kool-Aid.

Take the chareidi school that my children attended.  When my daughter’s top button came loose one day, it became a lesson in “how many aveiros can one teacher do in under a minute”.  I later pondered which one had devastated my 13-year-old daughter more; from interrupting the girls’ conversations with G-d, literally mid-davening, to naming the girls’ schools that this school definitely was NOT and would never be, to inciting the girls to unfriend and isolate such a girl, whose chutzpah to pop a button in class was akin to idol worship.  Her blacklisting from neighborhood high schools that year came as no big surprise to us, nor to others in the community.  But in a community that preaches pure speech and judging one favorably, it certainly should have.  The denigration of a young girl in the name of conformity did not seem to raise eyebrows, although I am certain that exposing this abuse in the town center surely would have.

In the midst of municipal elections, the protests against postings that inform, educate, and challenge are toeing the “we should be building unity” line.  Let’s protect our children lest they pick up our poor, mudslinging middot, they counter.  But their misdirected fears are a hindrance to progress.  Why the great fear of argument?  We are a family, and families disagree.  We are individuals, with individual preferences.  We have the right to wrestle out issues, to pour out our hearts. The fixation on cookie cutter ideals spawns a narrow frame of reference and challenges healthy growth.  It promotes clinging to the status quo, even at the expense of raising families in a litter-infested, self-esteem squashing environment.  And it blinds intelligent individuals to the direction from which real damage may occur.

Two months before making aliyah, I walked the aisle at a university graduation ceremony to collect my masters diploma, the reward of a three year effort I had squeezed between a pregnancy and the duties of child rearing.  My heartbreak of aliyah was the abrupt end to my dream of an academic future and the oxygen it pumped through my veins.  After spooning strained peas into tiny mouths, year after year, I discovered something remarkable:  I indeed had a brain.  Others were finding my utterances of value, and ultimately in my program, I was a success. University life offered me an outlet for my thoughts and opinions, and sometimes contributions, that I rarely had in my daily life.

My new found interest in politics five years later is not shared by many women in my circles.  A recent situation at a friend’s bar mitzvah kiddush framed my frustration perfectly.  I left the group of women to fetch food, ending up within earshot of a political discussion shared by two men.  Offering up a neutral comment into their conversation, it was met by a reaction resembling deer in headlights. Momentarily stunned by my intrusion, they turned back to each other and pretended I had been a mere mirage, as I was relegated back to the club of women, and subjects of carpool and recipes.  Toto, we are not in university anymore.

In Bet Shemesh, the election buzz is not about who is the best man for the job.  It is not about whether the religious incumbent has cleaned up the city, made it safe for its residents, or has boosted its cultural life during his five years in office.  It isn’t even about whether buses will be running through Bet Shemesh on shabbat, a rumor created by the opposition, which has been repeatedly denounced by the traditional and successful businessman seeking election.  It is about judging a person for what is or isn’t on his head, and not for what is in his heart.  It is about fear of the unknown in a place where too much information causes debate, and debate equals bad.  It terrifies those who, like the simple son of Pesach, do not know how to ask relevant questions, and reach only for the card of religious superiority.

If Eli Cohen should find his passionate efforts to clean up his hometown extinguished by self-proclaimed religious superiors, he will most certainly find empathy in the heart of a 13-year-old girl, whom I know rather well.