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June 27th, 2024

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll down)

I have just returned from a week in Israel, where, together with a delegation from our Beverly Hills community, we visited countless places, met diverse people, and absorbed the atmosphere of a nation still reeling from October 7th, acutely aware that the challenges they face are far from over.

This was my fourth visit to Israel since that horrific day, and each time until now, I have been struck by the remarkable resilience and unity of purpose of Israel’s population, even as tensions between various groups simmer below the surface.

But this time was different. While Israelis are still united in their resolve to destroy Hamas and resist external attempts to halt their prosecution of the war, on other matters, they are deeply divided, with tensions on full display.

Protests in Jerusalem near the Prime Minister’s residence are back in full swing, focusing on Bibi’s seeming inability to bring the remaining hostages in Gaza safely home—neither by negotiation nor by military means. But the backstory is more about broad dissatisfaction with Bibi’s leadership.

The setting aside of political differences after October 7th has been abandoned, and conflicts are back on display. Even within Bibi’s coalition, rifts are widening, and the government hasn’t fallen yet only because his coalition partners know a Bibi-led coalition emerging from an election is wishful thinking.

While we were in Israel, in a landmark ruling, Israel’s High Court of Justice unanimously mandated the drafting of Haredi yeshiva students into the military, ending the blanket exemptions that have been in place since 1948. The court declared a June 2023 government decision to delay drafting eligible Haredi men illegal and instructed the government to start conscription, although gradually.

The real bombshell was the judges’ unanimous decision to bar state funding for any yeshiva whose students shun military service.

The court’s decision was widely anticipated. Last Shabbat, in a private gathering for our delegation, we heard a detailed prediction of the outcomes from Professor Yedidia Stern, President and CEO of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI). Despite his Religious Zionist convictions, Professor Stern is sympathetic to Haredi ideals and concerns. As a libertarian, he believes it is not right to impose an integrated Israeli life on those who wish to live purely religious lives, even if they are citizens of Israel.

Nevertheless, he told us, the steady growth of the Haredi sector in Israel—currently 1.2 million out of a population of 10 million, with 7.5 million being Jews—makes the blanket exclusion of Haredim from military service, or any mandated national service, untenable in a country where every other Jew is expected to serve and where national service is a necessity. Unconditionally continuing to fund the Haredi community out of state funds, particularly when many who claim to be in full-time yeshiva study are not, is no longer sustainable.

Public reaction from Haredi leaders has been as expected. This week, Rabbi Dov Lando, the 94-year-old head of Bnei Brak’s Slabodka Yeshiva, visited the United States to urge American Haredim to help save Israel’s Torah institutions, now struggling with a combined $100 million shortfall resulting from the High Court ruling. “The authorities hate Torah scholars, and the situation is dire,” he thundered at a fundraiser, “there are already yeshivas that have closed down!”

Although the campaign organizers claim to have raised the full $100 million, next year’s shortfall will be closer to $300 million according to Professor Stern—and there is no way America’s Haredi community can fund its Israeli counterpart at such levels indefinitely. In any event, the solution doesn’t lie in the United States, it lies in Israel, where the seeds already exist for resolving the issue.

The only thing lacking is bravery. According to one Israeli Haredi insider who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, Haredi leaders “are afraid to express their opinions openly… in their chumashim, the commandment ‘Do not fear any man!’ (Deut. 1:17) has been erased.”

It is an open secret that out of the 12,000 annual exemptions, over half do not meet the standards of full-time Torah study, or even close. The past is the past, but right now, finding some form of military or national service for the thousands of Haredim who are not eligible for exemption is the only way out of the hole which the Haredi community has dug for itself, at least if it wants to remain a viable part of Israel’s present and future.

According to the insider I spoke to, even Rabbi Lando has privately admitted that the current refusal by Haredim to compromise and find a solution is unmaintainable—but he claims not to have the strength to be the one who proposes and pushes for such a dramatic shift. In the meantime, American Haredim are being forced to pay the bill for Israeli Haredim kicking the can down the road.

A future of mutual respect and coexistence was on full display in Kibbutz Be’eri, where our group visited the synagogue, built in a joint effort between Rabbi Shlomo Raanan, a Haredi outreach rabbi who lovingly works with secular Israelis, and Rachel Fricker, a secular Israeli who lived in Be’eri for 33 years before terrorists overran her home on October 7th and utterly destroyed it. Miraculously, she survived the terrorist attack and now lives in a hotel at the Dead Sea until her return to Be’eri, which remains uncertain.

Incredibly, the synagogue was left intact by the terrorists. It is a tiny space, but very warm and homey. In the weeks and months following October 7th, the shul became a haven for IDF soldiers who converged on Be’eri and the surrounding area. Rachel explained how tough it was to get the synagogue built in her secular kibbutz, but that she regularly spoke to God to seek His help as the project progressed.

In 2015, when the idea for a shul in Be’eri was first raised, members of our Beverly Hills community donated money so that it could be built. This was our first visit there, and the experience was overwhelmingly positive.

Rachel Fricker is an inspiration. So is Rabbi Raanan. And when they work together, these two forces of nature are an exponentially greater inspiration. They represent the future for Israel, in which Jews of every stripe and color see themselves as part of one whole, not as exclusive groups existing in isolation alongside each other.

If every Haredi was like Rabbi Raanan, and every secular Israeli was like Rachel Fricker, Israel would become the unconquerable force we all know it could be. There are many who are like them, but right now they remain select individuals. If only these individuals could be the bridgeheads for their respective groups to join forces, no enemy could ever prevail over the united energy of an Israeli society dedicated to the common destiny of Jewish peoplehood.

Bottom line: Israeli Haredim must come up with a workable solution that finally casts the scourge of Haredi separatism to history. This is not the moment to widen the gaps. If October 7th and the Gaza War have revealed anything, it is the importance of finding ways of working together and being united. It can definitely happen. Let’s pray that it does.

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