Jewish hardliners crack down on fun in Israel

The Independent, UK/August 9, 2010

It is the time of the year when school is out for Israel's ultraorthodox students. But this year, a Jewish morality police is patrolling in force to make sure they do not have too much fun.

Leading rabbis and heads of religious colleges, or the yeshivas, have warned students to continue their studies of the Torah, dress appropriately and avoid "the great danger, spiritually and concretely, of hitchhiking". The ultraorthodox, who make up roughly 10 per cent of all Israelis, live a closeted life. They voluntarily choose not to own a television or radio, and are barred from using the internet.

But Rabbi Mordechai Blau, leader of the group, Guardians of Sanctity and Education, feared that some temptations would simply prove too much, and deployed an army of snoopers to photograph members of the ultra-orthodox community, also known as Haredi, at a mixed-sex pop concert.

Revellers who ignored warnings to shun ultra-orthodox popstars from Brooklyn, New York, now face being slung out of their yeshivas, or having their children barred from attending the religious schools of their choice.

"We have the photos in our possession," Rabbi Blau told Ha'aretz newspaper. "Here and there are Haredim in lovely pictures, with a woman to their right and one on their left. And then they will come and ask why their children are not accepted into particular schools."

Despite Rabbi Blau's strict stance on morality, his is far from a solo crusade. "I think it's sad that they have to send out spies," said Reva Mann, a Jewish author who rebelled against her ultra-orthodox community. "On the other hand, I understand it. To reach that spirituality, you have to separate yourself."

Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood offers a snapshot of another era. Medieval-style buildings overhang the narrow little alleyways through which black-hatted men with sidelocks hurry, heads bowed and books in hand.

Here, the focus is firmly on religious study. Most ultra-orthodox men enter the yeshiva, studying the Torah until well into their 40s. But not only is it a drain on Israel's economy; it puts many young men, some of them less spiritually minded, under tremendous pressure to conform.

Their communities have their own buses, where women are relegated to the back, and they stick closely to rigid rules that govern every aspect of their lives. On the Jewish Shabbat, or Sabbath, they are forbidden from driving, operating a light switch and lighting fires, ruling out any barbeques.

So it is unsurprising that when they leave the confines of their communities, it takes some adjustment. Help is on hand for holidaying ultra-orthodox Jews: hoteliers oblige by removing the televisions from their rooms, and tour operators are now offering gender- segregated kayaking trips down the Jordan river.

Some communities have decided to hold summer camps that will ensure their flock remains where they can see them, and others have cancelled the summer break altogether. But others revel in the short period when they are free of their rabbis and a watchful community.

So it was with a certain disregard for the rules that Haredi Jews converged on recent concerts in Caeserea and Jerusalem, although many watched free of charge from vantage points outside the venue, hidden from cameras.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Blau denied that he was overstepping the boundaries, stressing that his aim was to help the religious community lead the life they have chosen. "We must place stop signs in front of the public in a big way," Rabbi Blau was quoted as saying. "We aren't here to jail anyone. We aren't putting policemen on every corner. The public understands the educational issue, and if they don't they'll get into trouble."

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