Please forgive the provocative title and bear with me for a few moments. The fear is not actually mine, but rather was that of my 9-year-old son.
I love raising my four kids in Israel. I love that they are growing up in the national homeland of the Jewish people. I love that their everyday lives are imbued with Judaism. I thought that I was doing a great job of raising them to respect and appreciate people from all walks of life regardless of religious beliefs, nationality, gender, etc. Until recently. Then, through speaking to my 11 and 9 year old kids, I realized that somehow we missed the boat – the exposure I have given my kids to people “different” from themselves is not so wide. So I set out to rectify the issue.
We live in Modi’in, which is known for being fairly homogeneous socio-economically. Although there is a significant religious population in the city, the religious community represents a fairly narrow range on the religious spectrum. There is a very small identifiably Haredi population, but the majority of Haredim that my kids see come from the nearby town of Modi’in Ilit, who visit Modi’in to use local amenities.
My 9 year old recently made that comment to me about how he is scared of Haredim. I asked him why, and he couldn’t really answer other than to say how different they are.
Of course, I was plagued by so many questions. Why would he be afraid of an entire group of people? Where did this fear come from? Did someone outwardly make judgemental comments? Is he receiving subtle messages from school, the community or even us – his family – about the “other”? Is he specifically afraid of Haredim, or is he merely afraid of any group of people who he perceives as different from himself?
I asked him if he’d like to visit Modi’in Ilit to see “real Haredim and where they live.” He told me very gravely that he was too scared to go. I was shocked. How could it be that my typically very social and very curious son was too scared to go and visit other people, who I know mean him no harm? How was he too scared to drive 10 minutes away to see a community different from our own? How was he too scared to see there are alternative ways to live a happy and fulfilling life? After some coaxing (and the promise of a treat) he agreed to come with me.
So we drove to Modi’in Ilit and parked in the main shopping center. We went for a walk. The kids observed the similarities and differences between the stores, the people, and the town in general. After the promised treat (my nine year old was thrilled at how cheap he found a rugelach and a slushy to be) we got back in the car and drove around the town.
I pointed out the various yeshivot and explained the differences between them. I asked my son to enter one with me, but he was too nervous. His sister was annoyed when I said she probably wouldn’t be welcome. That, of course, gave rise to yet another fascinating conversation about the Haredi lifestyle. She asked me if Haredim have less respect for women. I tried to explain that their perspective on gender roles are very different from what she is accustomed to. They pointed out that the Haredi women all have the same hairstyle. Imagine their shock when I explained what a sheitl is (a wig worn mostly by Haredi women to cover their hair) and why people wear them. Incidentally, many of their teachers, and friends of ours, cover their hair with hats or scarves. I quickly learned that my kids had never even noticed!
All in all we had a fabulous time together, learning, questioning and discussing. It was an amazing experience to see how their young minds slowly opened up to the fact that there really is no reason to be afraid of people just because we have different beliefs and cultures. My son’s reflection on our outing was two fold. Firstly, he thought that apricot is a great flavor for a slushy. Next he declared he wasn’t scared of Haredim anymore. It was not my intention to convince him to be scared or to not be scared. Instead, I wanted to show him a reality to which he had closed himself. In that sense, our trip to Modi’in Ilit was truly a learning adventure!!