Jewish Values vs The Ultra-Orthodox Self

Jewish values are something that are spoken about in every denomination of Judaism, and in each community, they will be perceived as something different. Whether it be the idea of social justice and improving the world, or if it means following the written and oral law down to the last letter, everyone has their own idea of what these values entail. Growing up these values seemed clear to me, I knew what they were, and they defined my Jewish identity. Judaism was about love, about respecting others, keeping your community safe, and loving your neighbour. It was also about the Torah commandments and prohibitions of course, but to me, these things were always one and the same. But in recent years, I’ve seen these values becomes twisted, corrupted, and obscured. I find myself wondering if the way I always saw them, if the way I was raised to see them, was the way it really was, or if we were the exception to the rule? Has the sickness at the core of the community always been here and I just never saw it, or has it been slowly eating away at the Jewish life I once loved until it became unrecognisable?

Nowhere is this corruption of core Jewish values more prominent and more visible than it is in certain Charedi communities, and never has it been more obvious than it has become this past year. Growing up in the Charedi world in London, and now living in Israel when one can never be far from the impact Charedi life has on every corner of existence here, I feel like I have the perspective of both an insider and an outsider, despite being very firmly considered only an outsider these days. This past weekend alone, the news came out about a 400 person Charedi wedding in London, and less than a day later a story broke in Israel about a deal struck between Charedi Yeshivot and the police to ensure that the police wouldn’t enforce COVID restrictions in Charedi institutes of learning. I say deal, I mean threat. The great rabbinical leaders of Bnei B’rak promised that if the police left them alone, they would stop sending youth to violently attack the police. And in a country with a government which sits in the pocket of said rabbinical leaders, this is almost par for the course.

Both of these things are painful to hear about and embarrassing and humiliating to see plastered across news sites, no matter who you are. But when your first thought is “I wonder if I know any of the people involved”, those feelings only increase.

To people on the outside of these communities, the events seem strange, horrific, and unprecedented. But to those of us who know anything about the inner workings of the Charedi world, the saying that may best describe what we’re feeling is “disappointed but not surprised”.

I grew up in a house that spoke about Jewish values and then followed through on what that meant to us, but that seemed to be the exception, not the rule. I grew up in a community that spoke about Jewish values and then did the opposite of whatever they had been speaking about. In my house we learnt that we were both Jewish and British: we follow both Jewish law and British law because they complement, not contradict, and that was the end of that. For example: you eat your kosher sandwiches and cholov yisroel chocolate bar on the bench in the theme park on your biannual Chol Hamoed outing, and then you pick up the plastic wrappers and throw them away. You don’t leave the trash to float away in the wind with the large kosher certificate stamp waving around for all the world to see. You don’t cause a Chillul Hashem, the Torah law which prohibits drawing negative attention to the Jewish community. Well, the last ten months have proven that not everyone grew up learning to balance the two identities, and the proverbial neon orange bissli packet is high in the sky for all the world to see. Civil law has been abandoned to make space for Jewish law, but Jewish law has been twisted and corrupted beyond all recognition to meet the selfish desires of the individual.

When the UK said you can’t gather in large groups inside houses, people continued to meet for large shabbat meals, bar mitzvah celebrations, and weddings, saying they needed these gatherings for their mental health, despite none of them even being prepared to acknowledge mental health issues within their communities before. When they said that gathering in limited numbers for prayer was allowed, with safety measures in place, hundreds crammed into cramped and tiny shuls with masks in their pockets “in case the police come”. And when Israel locked down the whole country, again and again, to try and cut off the rising case numbers, the Charedi communities in Jerusalem, Bnei B’rak, and the rest of the country enjoyed going to school, to the park, and even Uman with little to no consequence.

As is par for the course, more than a few articles have already been written about this subject, but unless they are written by people who know the places they are speaking about, and are able to balance compassion with criticism, they have a tendency to promote bias in one direction or another. I for one, have had enough of seeing Jews from all other denominations engaging in baseless hatred, calling the Charedi world a lost cause, and saying “the rest of us aren’t like that”. We’ve all seen where that leads, and that’s to the 2019 Chanukah attacks against the New York Ultra-Orthodox communities. But I have also had enough of seeing voices from within the Charedi world spreading the narrative of being the constant victim under an oppressive government, a government which is asking them to do the bare minimum and not become a possible accomplice to murder.

But where are the people who are speaking up with balance and insight? Not those of us who have been forced to the outside for doing so in the past, but the ones who are still there, who perhaps until the COVID 19 pandemic, had yet to see the problems with the places they live?

To understand their seeming absence better, one first has to understand the key motto of the Charedi world. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t disturb the peace. Don’t question the status quo. You can disagree with it in private, but the second somebody else knows about your disagreement, it’s game over. You join the ranks of the damned, those who dared say something isn’t right here. And then you try to speak up again but by then “you’re no longer part of the community so who are you to speak about things you know nothing about?” It’s a cycle that repeats again and again and will continue to repeat unless something changes.

If you decide to stop paying membership to a shul that has openly ignored coronavirus regulations, that’s fine, so long as nobody knows that that’s the reason you no longer attend the 8am minyan. If you decide not to let your child play with children whose parents would rather flout the law than keep their child safe and healthy, that’s fine but don’t let us see you telling us why your child isn’t at the park on Shabbos afternoon anymore. The perfect closed loop has been created. Why would anybody risk their space in the community, their jobs, their status at the shul kiddush, their child’s coveted spot on the school waitlist, just to voice concerns that they know nobody will listen to?

I wish I could end this with a solution, with some sort of fix-all, but if people with years of experience haven’t figured out how to tackle this issue, who would I be to pretend I knew the answer? All I can say is that I hope the people inside the communities, the ones doing the right thing, who are too scared to speak about it loudly for fear of repercussions are able to make their voices heard. That community leaders find it in themselves to stop being cruel, and callous, and selfish, and instead return to the real Jewish values, the ones about community, and respect, and honour, not selfish interests. I hope that the rest of the people in your country, be it the UK, be it America or be it Israel, find it in our hearts to forgive you for your reckless behaviour that has cost some of us a year of our lives, and others their lives in their entirety. And more than anything, I hope that someday I’ll be able to look the people I grew up with in the eye and see the friends I once respected, not the strangers I worry will be the reason I don’t see the people I love again.

About the Author
Shira Silkoff is a proud LGBT Olah Chadasha from the UK, who left behind their comfortable London life in 2017 in favour of the promised land. But promised to whom exactly? Their strong left-wing opinions have often left her wondering what Israel means to them, and she hopes to share these discoveries with the world at the same time as she stumbles upon them herself.
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