Ari Z. Zivotofsky
Ari Z. Zivotofsky

A Yeshiva left Homeless in City vs. Yeshiva Feud

A small, high-caliber yeshiva has been studying in a synagogue building for over a decade. Several years ago, a small group within the city decided that they do not want a yeshiva in their midst, and thus, under the pretext that a synagogue is for prayer and not study, initiated legal efforts to evict them from the building.

In a desire to minimize the protracted legal battle and try to bring peace, when the post-Pesach yeshiva term started in April the yeshiva voluntarily left the synagogue building in which they had studied (and symbiotically helped the synagogue make a daily minyan for prayer services, reading the Torah, etc) for years, .

At the time, the corona pandemic was waning in Israel, and most of the schools, universities and yeshivot returned to their campuses. My son, who has been in this yeshiva for several years, along with his fellow students, did not return to the familiar building. They self-exiled and took up their studies in a rented house. That was not good enough for the anti-yeshiva movement, and it was “made clear” to all homeowners that they should not be renting to the yeshiva. So when the students returned to their studies for the new fall session in early August, it was to a cramped basement.

It is hard to imagine: in order to continue their studies, a yeshiva in Israel is limited to meeting in a cramped basement! This story of Jewish students told not to study Torah in a synagogue and having to “hide in a basement” to study is not from 16th-century Spain under the Inquisition, nor 20th-century Soviet Union. This is a story from Ramat Hasharon, just north of Tel Aviv, in the State of Israel in the 21st century. They have been exiled from the synagogue building because of radical secularist elements within the Ramat Hasharon city government who want to remove all religious Jews and vestige of Judaism from their city.

The background: in 2007, a Torah-learning group was established in the “Bar Yochai Synagogue” in the older part of Ramat Hasharon. The yeshiva has since flourished, and although relatively small, it includes a hesder program in which the students serve in combat units in the IDF, and an advanced post-graduate program in which ordained rabbis train for the rigorous dayanut (rabbinical court judge) exams of the chief rabbinate.

The yeshiva students have also been assets to the local community, known for volunteering in MDA, assisting members of the neighborhood with organizing britot and bar mitzvah celebrations, as well as helping neighbors in need.

The mere presence of these yeshiva boys, however, seems to have upset some of the hardcore secularists in the town, and with their instigation, the municipality filed a lawsuit demanding that the synagogue and the yeshiva terminate their relationship. Their argument was that a synagogue was not a place for Torah study! The regional court in Tel Aviv-Yaffo initially ruled that Torah study is indeed permitted, as long as no offices, dorms, etc. are set up in the synagogue building. The court then required the city and yeshiva to draw up an agreement that would protect the rights of both sides, and guarantee peace and quiet in the neighborhood. It was drawn up, the court ratified it, and the yeshiva and synagogue adhered to the terms. The city never signed it.

Two local political parties – Ramat Hasharon Hofshit (“a free Ramat Hasharon”) and Shomrim al Habayit (“watching over the house”) – launched a vitriolic campaign of hate. In 2018 Ramat Hasharon Hofshit made evicting the yeshiva the chief plank in their campaign, and made it a cornerstone in the subsequent coalition agreement. This convinced the mayor to again try to evict the yeshiva from the synagogue premises despite the court ruling.

Many of the residents of the area, who don’t mind or even are happy to have the yeshiva in their midst, describe a deep-seated hatred – yes, using the word hatred – to describe the feelings of those who are looking to expel the yeshiva. Ramat Hasharon Hofshit devotes a sizable percentage of their Facebook posting to attacking the yeshiva, its students, and their families.

The legal battle against the yeshiva was waged on several fronts. For example, when realizing the yeshiva was not actually violating any law, the anti-yeshiva forces went after Shlomo Levi, the man behind building and running the synagogue for the last 40 years, personally. In February 2019, the city council passed a resolution to wrest control of the building from Levi, have the city assume control, and then…. well, if it then sits unused most of the time that was not important, as long as the yeshiva doesn’t use it. The courts have so far backed the city’s right to separate Levi from the synagogue.

Realizing that the fight was leading to increased hostility, including nasty demonstrations in front of the yeshiva, and that it might cause harm to Levi, the yeshiva chose to voluntarily leave their home of 14 years. On April 13, it moved out of the Bar Yochai Synagogue to temporary quarters elsewhere in the city. Ramat Hasharon Hofshit, despite their name, seems to want unencumbered living only for those who share their lifestyle and values.

What is taking place in Ramat Hasharon may have unfortunately descended to the level of the wicked city of Sodom. The secularists are not interested in using the synagogue, they simply don’t want the yeshiva there. Preventing a person from deriving benefit from something (the yeshiva using the synagogue) when that benefit does not harm the preventer (the anti-yeshiva folks will in any event not use the synagogue) is defined by the 15th-century commentator (and oleh to Israel) Rav Rabbi Ovadia Bartenura (Avot 5:10) as the trait of the evil city of Sodom.

It unfortunately seems that some of the enlightened residents of Ramat Hasharon have reached that level. Sadly, this is not a localized situation. Many of the enlightened, liberal elements in 21st-century Israel are tolerant of their own and xenophobic toward all others. This expulsion of a yeshiva and the animosity behind it calls for a response from political and educational leaders on a national level.

The anti-Jewish element gained what will hopefully be a temporary victory when on Sept 1, Levi was essentially forced to sign an agreement banning a yeshiva from studying in the shul and removing him from his position in two years.

In announcing this “victory,” Ramat Hasharon Hofshit wrote a hate-filled post on Facebook. It is strange that they (unjustifiably) attack the yeshiva for their objection to a gay lifestyle, yet their antagonism to a religious lifestyle seems not only to be acceptable, but led them to spend a fortune of the city’s money to hire top-notch lawyers in order to evict the yeshiva. They claim they fear that the yeshiva will change the nature of the city. Really. A yeshiva of 100 students will have that outsized influence of almost 50,000!

How sad that in 21st-century Israel, the modern Jewish state, a yeshiva is forced out of a synagogue building because the sight of its students sends some anti-religious Jews into an apoplectic fit. We can only hope that the city council and Mayor Avi Gruber understand that this is not a model of an open and free city, nor a way to “watch over the house.” This is heavy-handed discrimination. Ramat Hasharon Hofshit continually promotes the rights of, for example, gay residents. The rights of religious residents should be equally sacred. All residents should be permitted to have their beliefs and live according to them (as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others), including maintaining a peaceful yeshiva.

 

About the Author
Ari Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar Ilan University. Also trained as a rabbi and shochet, he has a masters degree in Jewish history. He has written extensively on topics of Jewish history, culture, and traditions, in particular in Mishpacha magazine and in his regular column (now running 20+ years) in the OU magazine Jewish Action.
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