Belz jingles on

A few final points:

I don’t think the driving ban is a good thing.

I also don’t think that the Belzer Rebbe is very interested in my opinion, nor that of the JC, nor the many other people who have written about it, or now, the Equality and Human Rights Commission. If anything, the uproar will make the Belz community more entrenched in their worldview.

Given that, and given that this formal ban affects only a very few women, (probably fewer than 15) because most of the Belzer women didn’t drive anyway, I still don’t see what was the point in running this as a front page story – was it really the most important or interesting thing that happened in the Jewish world last week?

As well as all the misinformed articles and anti-religious comments, there have also been some very interesting articles, such as this one in Times of Israel.

The topic of self-oppression is discussed here and described as ‘the most insidious form of tyranny and the hardest to root out.’  I wonder about cultural imperialism though – if the women don’t feel oppressed and are happy, what is the difference between imposing outside values on them and them trying to impose their values on others?

I’m very surprised how shocked so many people in the Jewish community were by this story.  Did they really think that Chassidim were just United Synagogue members in quaint clothes?

The question of sexism in the Orthodox world is a huge and complex one.  There certainly isn’t overt ‘crude’ sexism in the #EverydaySexism manner.  Is ‘different but equal’ apologetics or sexism under a different name?  I’m not sure. I’m a well-educated Orthodox woman, who mixes in a number of different circles in the community.  I’ve only experienced overt sexism once in a professional context and it was not in the far right part of the spectrum.

There are amazing, creative and inspiring people in all parts of the Jewish world. Anglo-Jewry is a microcosm of world Jewry and contains a significant number of such people – both women and men and in all parts of the religious spectrum.  Instead of sniping at each other, maybe we should learn to celebrate our differences and our achievements and run more programmes which promote understanding and intra-faith activities? Gesher in Israel is an excellent example of this.

Responsible Journalism?

On Thursday morning, The JC ran a story about Belz in Stamford Hill ‘banning’ women from driving.  To be fair to the JC, they wrote the story in measured tones and praised the Belz education system, commenting that their schools in Stamford Hill are rated ‘good’ by Ofsted. Later in the day, they also included a statement issued by Neshei Belz, in response to the story, quoting the Belz ladies as saying that they felt, “extremely privileged and valued to be part of a community where the highest standards of refinement, morality and dignity are respected. We believe that driving a vehicle is a high pressured activity where our values may be compromised by exposure to selfishness, road-rage, bad language and other inappropriate behaviour.”

This may well be true, but one does wonder why men’s values might not be compromised by those factors? [A reliable source in Stamford Hill has now told me that ‘senior chassidic rabbanim and dayanim [there] do not drive for those very reasons’]

Disclosure – I drive, as do many of the Golders Green rebbetzins, including the wives of the LBD dayanim and rabbanim further to the ‘right’. I consider it an essential life skill and our oldest daughter recently passed her driving test.

However, I would like to ignore the merits, if any, of the ban and focus on one specific point.  Due to the JC’s coverage, which is the front page story in the print edition, by Thursday evening the story had appeared in the Guardian, the Independent, Metro, the Daily Mail and on ITV news.  Not all of these papers had such measured coverage as the JC and unsurprisingly, the comments sections featured the usual ‘intelligent and thoughtful’ responses which appear following any story about religion.

Belz, despite being described in the Guardian as ‘a marginal Hasidic sect’ originating in Ukraine, are a large and well organised chassidus. They run amazing chessed programmes and their medical backup service, Ezra Lemarpeh, is well known and admired throughout the Jewish world. If the Belzer Rebbe feels that it is not appropriate, for whatever reason, for Belz women to drive, it is really an in-house matter.

Jews across the world are beleaguered by anti-Semitism and the spillover of anti-Israel sentiment.  There is widespread assimilation and high levels of religious and communal lethargy.  Why then does the JC feel that it will benefit the community in any way to publicise a story affecting a few hundred people in Stamford Hill, with whom most of its readers will never have any contact?

Yes, OK, as a crank story, it’s a good one. It’s another opportunity to bash perceived religious extremism and roll out the Jewish feminists to decry the ‘patriarchal’ Orthodox community.  But on a communal level – why draw extra unfavourable attention to ourselves?

The JC is loudly protesting the potential neo-Nazi demonstration in Golders Green; it often wonders whether the community has a future or what incentive there is for young Jews to remain within it.

Yet here we have a pleasant, hard-working, law-abiding community, whose schools have been praised by Ofsted as having a ‘very effective British values policy’, being mocked, not just within the Jewish community, but in the wider community  too.   In fact, the headline in the JC’s editorial discussing this story is ‘Ridiculous driving’ and the observation is that ridicule is the stated aim.

There are those who say that the level of communal coercion within Chassidic communities is such that it is only by exposing stories such as this that those people who wish to remain part of the community, but do not want to be restricted in this way, have any chance of living a ‘normal’ life.

However, much as I would like to believe that the JC had a higher motive in mind, I suspect that, sadly, this was not the case, and the only thing on their mind was increasing their readership, whatever the cost to the community.

An authentic Jewish response

Last night I attended a beautiful wedding. Everything was carefully thought through and lovely – flowers, music, food. But the highlight, for me and my husband, was the dancing.

It would have been an emotional occasion anyway – one of the young couple is still in the year of mourning for a parent and family and friends would have made an extra effort to help create a special day for them.

But yesterday of all days, when as this young couple stood under the chuppah with joy and tears, huge crowds were gathering for the funerals of three young men who will never stand under a chuppah, the guests really felt the need to make an extra effort.

I’m sure that many of the guests had cried for Eyal, Gilad and Naftali since the terrible news broke on Monday, but last night, as circles of dancing women of all ages formed and broke and reformed, encompassing the bride and her family, old and new, there were no tears, only smiles. The happiness wasn’t forced or fake – it was genuine rejoicing in the creation of a new Jewish home and, please God, Jewish family.

Many years ago, I heard Lady Jakobovits, a”h, speak about a day when she was in a provincial community and moved from a funeral to a wedding. She described how it was possible to compartmentalise the emotions, and be genuinely sad at the funeral and genuinely happy at the wedding and the time, I didn’t really understand how one could do that. But yesterday, I saw that it was possible and experienced the cathartic effect of the music and dancing as a way of moving on and rebuilding broken worlds.

And just as the smiles were genuine, so too was the way in which everyone joined in as the singer sang, “Hashem malach, Hashem melech, Hashem yimloch le’olam va’ed.”

Rebuilding, re-affirming our belief in God, sharing other people’s pain and happiness – these are authentic Jewish responses to tragedy…

Not in my name

I don’t generally write about overtly political issues and in fact I had something else completely that I was going to post this morning. However, I am so shocked and disgusted by the news coming out of Israel this morning that I felt I had to say something.

Whilst the details are still unclear, the possibility that Jews could have behaved in this way and murdered Muhammed Hussein Abu Khdeir as a revenge attack makes me feel sick. It is both wrong and stupid on so many levels that I find it difficult to believe people would actually do this.

One of the reasons why so much sympathy was generated for the plight of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali was the tremendous nobility and plain “goodness” which shone out of their parents as they waited and prayed for their sons to return home. Revenge attacks of any sort don’t enhance the boys’ memories – they tarnish them and diminish their fate as well as lowering the Jewish people in the eyes of the world.

Yishai Frenkel, uncle of Naftali, Hy”d, summed it up this morning (translation courtesy of Jameel@the Muqata):

“We don’t know exactly what transpired tonight in East Jerusalem and the incident is under investigation by the police. Regardless, if in fact the Arab youth was murdered for a nationalistic reason, then that act is shocking and bloodcurdling. There is no difference between blood. Murder is murder regardless of nationality. There is no justification. No forgiveness and no atonement for murder.”

The Big Iftar

Last night, I had the privilege of attending the launch of The Big Iftar. (An Iftar is the break fast meal which Muslims eat at the end of each day of Ramadan.) The Big Iftar is a project, launched last year, encouraging Muslims on both a personal and communal level to share their Iftar with non-Muslims as a means of building bridges between communities.

Ramadan begins at the weekend, with the new moon, so last night’s event wasn’t actually an Iftar, but it featured food, music, prayer and a tremendous sense of excitement.

I was a bit apprehensive when I arrived, as pretty much the only non-Muslim in the room at that point. The phrase “bacon butty at a vegetarian barmitzvah” came to mind. Maybe “bacon butty at a vegetarian Iftar”? However, I soon found some friends, who introduced me to their friends, and the evening took off.

It was fascinating to “compare and contrast” a Muslim communal event with a Jewish one. My friend told me that often at Muslim charity functions they don’t put out the starter until people have pledged enough money. I wasn’t sure this could be true, but it turned out it was! There were several speeches, a couple of videos and the equivalent of a chazzan’s recital of a section from the Koran, before any food appeared.

Ah – the food. The organisers very kindly promised kosher food – great. However, when the starter appeared, there was no sign of any kosher food. The Muslims started to get rather embarrassed and several people on my table asked the waitresses about it. The delightful older lady sitting next to me was very concerned I wasn’t eating – was I vegetarian? Was it too spicy? But it’s halal – why can’t you eat it? Eventually the kosher food arrived and everyone was happy. Kudos to the waiting staff, who without a table plan, were able to deliver kosher food to the right people! The organisers had even tried to match the menu – who knew Kedassia caterers could come up with a very tasty Tandoori chicken?

More speeches, some awards, a very amusing appeal from a man in traditional Muslim clothing with a broad Scottish accent. Then one of the highlights of the evening – the music. The two singers are very well known in the Muslim community. The style was a cross between Karduner and The Maccabeats, with a touch of Matisyahu thrown in. The little boy on our table was ecstatic to hear them – obviously a bit of Uncle Moishy too. They were excellent and had the whole room swaying along with them. Well, almost the whole room – another similarity – the people who talked all the way through everything!

Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra spoke very beautifully about Ramadan and how it is important not to focus on the food, but on the opportunity to grow through the experience and become closer to God – sounds familiar?

The event even finished with the opportunity for evening prayers, although the call to prayer was somewhat longer than “Maariv in the lobby, gentlemen”.

All in all, a fascinating evening: a chance to meet some interesting people and discover more about their religion and culture and an opportunity to build bridges.

Eyal, Gilad, Naftali

Our 19 year old daughter is in America, in a place with very poor mobile signal. Communications from her have been sparse. Last Friday morning, I received a text from her which began “I am safe and happy.” I jokingly said that it sounded as though she had been kidnapped.

On Friday afternoon, I heard that someone else’s 19 year old son had been kidnapped together with two 16 year olds, the age of our next daughter. Their captors have not allowed them to communicate with their parents, however sparsely. Over a week since Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were last seen, no-one has heard from them at all, or has any definite idea where they are.

Many people will have seen the incredible parents of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, speaking to the media in English or Hebrew. Where they have found the strength to dress, at all, let alone in matching clothes, and to speak powerfully and coherently, even with a smile amidst their tears, I don’t know. The immense emunah which they have shown should be an inspiration to all of us as we continue to daven for the safe and speedy return of

Eyal Yifrah        Eyal ben Iris Teshura

Gilad Shaar        Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim

Naftali Frankel  Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devorah

 

The story of the 200+ Nigerian girls kidnapped a few weeks ago has gradually moved down the list of new stories across the world. #BringBackOurGirls is no longer trending. In the UK, the small amount of  coverage which Eyal, Gilad and Naftali received in the general media has already faded, as attention moved to the World Cup.

As a week of captivity becomes two weeks and the Israelis concede that the operation to bring the boys home may take a long time, please don’t let them move down the list of stories – continue to daven, learn, do mitzvos, send positive thoughts and encouraging letters to the families.

Superman Sam

A little over two years ago, I wrote that one of the highlights of my yomtov season was lighting candles on Shemini Atzeres and not needing to daven for the safe return of Gilad ben Aviva. On Motzaei Shabbos I found out that I could no longer daven for the recovery of Shmuel Asher Uzziel. 

Like many people round the world, I have been following Phyllis and Michael Sommer as they shared their son Sam’s journey on their blog Superman Sam.  Sam was diagnosed with AML aged 6 and immediately began an aggressive chemo treatment.  His mother Phyllis, who also blogs as Ima on the Bima, tried to explain to him, a few days into his hospital stay that hundreds of people across the US (and further afield) were praying for him, so she asked people to send him photos of themselves ideally with a superhero theme, so he would know who they were.  With Phyllis’ engaging personality and social media skills, the project snowballed, as did the use of the nickname “Superman Sam”, and the hospital was soon snowed under with letters and packages for Sam.

Their community and friends rallied round them and they were able to give Sam and his siblings, David, Yael and Solly, good experiences and positive memories even during this incredibly difficult time.

Tragically, despite having bone marrow transplant earlier this year, the leukaemia never completely went away and late on Friday night, Sam died, in his mother’s arms.

The grace, faith, love and honesty which Phyllis and Michael shared on the blog would put many more orthoprax people to shame.

1000 people joined the Sommer family for the levaya and Sam’s death was reported in both national and international press.  A family friend, Rebecca Einstein Schorr, is co-ordinating a fundraising “Shave for the Brave” event with St Baldrick’s Foundation, a non-profit organisation which raises money for research into paediatric cancer. Apparently, in America, only 4% of the money for cancer research is dedicated to paediatric cancer. “As a result, the foundation said, physicians must struggle to apply to children protocols that have been developed for adult patients. Treatment that works for adults can be toxic for children because they are so much smaller.” I don’t know what the research funding situation is like in the UK.

I’ve never met the Sommer family, but I am an avid follower of Superman Sam.  We have an 8 year old son, who shares a name with Shmuel Asher Uzziel and I can’t even begin to imagine what it must feel like to have to tell your child that they are going to die.  Just the fact that Phyllis and Michael were able to do that and to give Sam a peaceful and meaningful last few weeks, in his own home, filled with love, shows what remarkable people they must be.

HaMakom yinachem eschem besoch shaar avelei Tzion v’Yerushalayim.