A Comment on "Terror In Beit Shemesh: Wheelchair Bound Orthodox Kids Harassed By Haredim"
-Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Dec. 30, 2011
The month of December brought some bad news for Jewish day school advocates. According to the Avi Chai Foundation, which tracks these things, day school enrollment saw a "modest decline" of about 1.4% in the 2011-12 school year, compared with the year before.
The sharpest decline was reported among the Solomon Schechter schools of Conservative Judaism, which experienced a 3.8% drop, from 11,786 students nationwide in 2010 to 11,338 this year. They were followed by so-called Community (non-denominational and/or federation-sponsored) schools, which fell 2.5%, and Modern Orthodox schools, which fell 1.6%. Centrist Orthodox schools, which are similar to Modern Orthodox but segregate classes by gender, actually gained 1.7%.
The numbers offer several useful insights. Perhaps the most useful, though hardly the insight the authors intended, is how easily numbers can mislead. Comparing this year with last, we find a slight drop in day school enrollment, presumably due to the economy. When we dig a little deeper, though, we'll find a significant decline in non-Orthodox enrollment, while overall enrollment soars due to an ongoing Orthodox baby boom.
Looking deeper still, we find some eye-popping details. Most dramatic: the calamitous drop in Schechter school enrollment. In 1998, the year Avi Chai first took attendance, Schechter enrollment totaled 17,563 students in 63 schools nationwide. This year, as noted, enrollment is just 11,338 students in 43 schools. That's a 35% decline.
The main reason, several Schechter officials told me, is an exodus of families and whole schools to a network of non-denominational community schools with fewer religious rules. Community-school enrollment rose from 14,849 in 75 schools in 1998 to 19,417 in 91 schools this year. A smaller number may have left for Hebrew charter schools in New York and South Florida.
We'll also find an explosive growth in ultra-Orthodox or Haredi school enrollment, including both Hasidic and non-Hasidic (that is, misnaged or "yeshivish" black hat) schools, reflecting high birthrates. Modern Orthodox schools, by contrast, are essentially holding their own.
Avi Chai compiles its numbers by a census — literally contacting every day school in America and asking for numbers, grade by grade. It's probably the most accurate source of American Jewish demographic information, though limited in range. However, the full census is only conducted every five years. The last one was in 2008.
The figures released this past December are based on a partial census that's conducted annually between full headcounts. The partial tally includes only the five most modern school groupings: the four mentioned above (two Modern Orthodox, two non-Orthodox) plus the much smaller Reform day schools (total enrollment 4,300). Among those not included are the two Haredi groupings, Hasidic and Yeshivish, which account for more than half of all America's Jewish day school students.
Israel has a new and unlikely national heroine. She is a small blond bespectacled Orthodox 8-year-old girl, the daughter of American immigrants who live in Beit Shemesh. Her name is Na'ama Margolese and she was featured in a news broadcast on Israel's Channel 2 about the ongoing Haredi harassment of the girls who attend the Orot Banot School, and about the problem of extreme Haredi control in Beit Shemesh in general.
Naama spoke on camera of her fears while walking the short distance from her home to her school, after numerous occasions when she was cursed at and even once spit on by the Haredi demonstrators. Israeli viewers watched as her mother, Hadassah, holding her hand, tried to convince her to make the short walk as she cried, whined and protested; it's a ritual they go through every school day.
To the residents of Beit Shemesh (and to readers of The Sisterhood) the story of Beit Shemesh and the intimidation of Orot Banot girls is nothing new.
But just as the experiences of one individual young woman who refused to sit in the back of buses, student Tanya Rosenblit, last week galvanized mainstream Israeli public opinion regarding gender segregation on public transportation, the televising of Na'ama's plight woke up the Israeli public. Until now, that public had remained relatively indifferent to the trials the Orot Banot girls and the residents of Beit Shemesh were undergoing. Members of an extremist Haredi group that have settled there over the past several years have been pushing for the creation of gender-segregated bus lines, designating parts of the city where women and men were directed to separate on public streets, and harassing the girls of Orot Banot on the ground that they did not dress modestly enough.
Immediately after the piece was aired on Channel 2, Facebook groups were organized and demonstrations in Beit Shemesh planned by angry citizens who wanted to take action. The power of the press had truly flexed its muscles. (The extremists were clearly aware of the damage done to them by the television coverage, as they demonstrated when they attacked the reporter when he returned to Beit Shemesh on Sunday for a follow-up story.)
Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who clearly sensed where the political winds were blowing, went on a public relations push over the weekend to show he was taking action. Ynet reported that he "asked Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch on Saturday to instruct the police to act firmly against violent attacks targeting women in the public sphere." In the aftermath of the Channel 2 story and the reaction, the ultra-Orthodox mayor of Beit Shemesh ordered workers took down street signs that directed women to cross the street and "not linger" in front of a synagogue. As they did so, Haredim threw rocks and called the municipal workers 'Nazis.'
The fact that the government took action only after the media paid attention to Beit Shemesh is infuriating. The girls of Orot Banot have been under siege since school opened in September, as detailed here and here. They deserved firm action and government protection long ago: Na'ama should never have had to be terrified in the first place.
But the Orot Banot parents will take what they can get. One of them wrote on Facebook that the Channel 2 piece their "Hannukah miracle" and Na'ama's mother said in a television interview that the numerous expressions of support that their family received following the broadcast felt like "a massive hug from the entire country." They are joining together with their new supporters on Facebook for a massive Hannukah candlelighting, rally, and march on Tuesday night designed to drive the forces of darkness out of Beit Shemesh, and bring the city closer to the meaning of its name: The House of the Sun.