Many people are quick to post articles that depict the negative aspects of a particular group. It is apparently 100% factual, newsworthy information or, as I like to call it, juicy gossip. This is why one never sees headlines such as the one I wrote above. What group doesn’t have members that make a lot of noise and give it a bad name? Should every American be judged by the fact that a few dozen members of its 300 million+ citizens make America the leader in school shootings?
I refer in specifically now to the Haredi movement – those whose members are considered to be the most ultra-observant Jews in the world. Stereotypical stories abound about how they disrespect women and incite violence towards those that are different than they are. How many of the people that are quick to proliferate such information have taken time to interact directly with these people and hear their side of the story?
I spent Shabbat with a friend I haven’t seen in over twelve years, who is now Haredi. I met his wife, who never wiped a warm, welcoming smile off of her face, and their four beautiful children. They live in the all-Haredi city known as Modi’in Illit.
In the local synagogue, I was the only adult male in the room without a beard, payot (long sideburns), big black hat, tie and suit jacket. Was I greeted with disdainful looks for clearly not being one of their own? No! Every person I passed welcomed me with a warm greeting.
Far too many outsiders believe that they, as well as other Orthodox Jews, treat their women as second-class citizens. The common assumption is that these women are brainwashed into believing that this is their lot in life. I’ve asked so many of these women for their opinions on this. For the record, most of them were either not raised in a religious home, or at one point experimented with a non-religious lifestyle. All of them are intelligent, educated women who, on their own, eventually chose this observant way of life.
It’s not their role in Judaism that bothers them – they understand that a chair is a chair and a table is a table (neither one is more important than the other but each serves a different purpose). What bothers them is that people influenced by Western culture, from which Judaism does not originate from, try to convince them that their role is not as important as their husbands’. This, and not the loving, caring men in their lives, diminishes their roles in their own society.
Throughout Shabbat, my friend told me about what an exhausting week he had. After lunch, his wife asked which of them should watch the children first. Without hesitation, my friend volunteered. His priority was that his wife be happy and comfortable.
I saw many other examples of this warmth, kindness and respect throughout Shabbat. My hosts made it clear that they enhanced the quality of the Shabbat food in my honor. I was practically forbidden from getting up from the table to help clean up. I went to visit another friend in the same neighborhood who had a newborn son. Neighbors, some of whom were only acquaintances, came over to bring them food and help out around the house.
Yes, there were cultural differences that I was unaccustomed to. Newsflash: That’s what happens anytime you step out of your own society, culture or religion. It’s naïve to think that your own beliefs are 100% accurate and without flaws. Different doesn’t mean worse – it’s just a matter of finding the common denominators that you share.
These days, one of the most commonly reported clashes between the Haredi and other groups is between them and the Women of the Wall – a group advocating for women’s prayer services at the Western Wall.
The media makes it sound as if all Haredi viciously oppose such a change; to the point where they incite violence against this group and others like it. I asked my friend his thoughts on groups such as this. His reply – he’s never heard about this group, which has been around for several years, until a few weeks ago when he saw a sign requesting people attend a peaceful, non-violent protest. He didn’t attend since this topic, which only recently came to his attention, really didn’t bother him that much.
Before believing that the negative sides of a culture are the predominant ones, take some time to get to know the people associated with that group first. If you spread information that propagates a certain stereotype, then you’re not part of the solution – you’re part of the problem. Whether you are male or female, there are many Haredi families that would welcome you into their home with open arms and show you the wonderful values that guide their true way of life.
DANIEL STIEGLITZ (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Providence native, made aliyah in 2007. He holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Bar Ilan University and lives and works in Jerusalem. His short story “Haven” was recently published in FictionMagazines.com’s online magazine, eFiction.