Lukasz holding “Memories” next to a picture of my father Ben Zion Wacholder z”l Several months ago, I wrote about Lukasz Rzepka, the graduate student who, like with my father Ben Zion Wacholder z”l, was born in Ozarow, Poland. After months of ...
On Sunday, the eve of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and my father’s birthday according to a list of residents from the time, Lukasz hosted a standing-room-only ceremony in Ozarow to launch the project. One of his goals was to recreate for the residents, in some small way, the experience of living among Jews. Before the war, almost 70% of Ozarow’s 5000 townspeople were Jews. The event was filmed and I hope to be able to share it soon, along with English and Hebrew subtitles.
In advance of the event, Lukasz visited the two local high schools to talk about the project. He also met with readers from four of Ozarow’s libraries, who regularly get together to discuss books. The schoolteachers and the library-goers both recalled their relatives telling them about their Jewish neighbors.
We are looking forward to meeting Lukasz and his fellow researcher when they visit Israel in December.
I would like to share the letter I wrote for the volume on behalf of my family. It appears there (with minor changes) in both English and Polish.
My father, Ben Zion Wacholder of blessed memory, was a kind and learned man who made important contributions to the world of Jewish scholarship. Born in Ozarow in the early 1920’s, he was the only survivor of the destruction of the Jewish community in October 1942 and the murder of its citizens.
My father writes that he felt his job was to bear witness to the destruction of the Jewish community of Ozarow. In these short chapters now being published in Polish for the first time, Ben Zion Wacholder describes the community’s history, its personalities, the vibrant Jewish religious life and scholarship, the touching relationships with his parents Fayga and Pinchas Shlomo and siblings Sarah Hendel, Aaron and Ruchla Shifra, as well as the moral dilemmas faced by the community during the three years of German occupation. Ozarow was already undergoing enormous social change in the years before the war. His experiences there, along with the Talmudic skills passed down to him from both his father and his maternal grandfather, Mordechai David Lederman, contributed to his ability to analyze ancient Jewish texts including the Talmud, exegetical writings, Judaeo-Greek literature, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
When I began to correspond with Lukasz Rzepka, I was struck by his sincerity and his quest to uncover the knowledge of my father’s family and other members of the community. Both his and my father’s work involve a careful examination of the written record in order to recreate an accurate picture of the thoughts and actions of those who lived long ago.
My father and Lukasz, both scholars born in Ozarow who trained under two different religious traditions, share a love of knowledge and scholarship. We are honored that Lukasz chose to study the lost Jewish community of their common birthplace, and that he saw the value of sharing my father’s writing with the Polish people.
While many in the Jewish and scholarly community have taken an interest in my father over the years, my family never imagined that someone from the mythical town of Ozarow, which we have not yet visited, would suddenly play an important role in our lives. On behalf of my family, especially my sister Nina, my brother David, and my brother Sholom of blessed memory who would have thoroughly supported this project, we thank you. Thank you for nudging us to look through old documents and pictures and for the many discussions your project has sparked among our family and friends. Thank you for persisting when we were slow to respond. Thank you for being a shining representative of the Polish people. Finally, thank you for your part in allowing our father to continue to bear witness on behalf of all of the murdered Jews of Ozarow and Poland.
Four years ago, when my younger daughter was in 6th grade, I looked for an alternative to the standard ulpana (high school for girls in the national religious sector). After enrolling her in a new program in Tel Aviv, I became interested in innovations in other schools. This ultimately led an article that appeared in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post Magazine.
In the article I quote from an interview with Dr. Miri Shlissel, who has held key roles in teaching, administration, teacher training, and supervision within the sector. She lays out the history of the ulpana, and how societal changes in women’s roles have led to divergence from the standard model.
Shlissel describes what she views as two competing outlooks within the national religious community, calling them “religious Zionist” and “modern Orthodox.” The former is prevalent in the Tel Aviv and center of the country, while the latter is more likely to be seen in Jerusalem and Gush Etzion. I tried to imagine two prototypes of schools from the outlook and how they would compare regarding secular and Jewish studies, their attitude toward feminism, In addition, I spoke with educators from various schools, to illustrate how some of these questions play out in real life.
Review: Not at Risk by Menachem Gottesman Ph.D. with Leah Leslie Gottesman, M.A.
I cried while reading Not at Risk: Education as a Work of Heart, the story of the alternative Jerusalem high school Meled. Meled, which stands for Merkaz Lemida Dati (center for religious learning) was founded by the book’s author Dr. Menachem Gottesman, after his own son was expelled from a yeshiva high school. Gottesman soon found that unlike in the secular system, the national religious Jewish education system offered few opportunities struggling students whether for academic, familial, or emotional reasons, or simply because the children did not comply with rigid expectations of religious observance.
I experienced something similar when one of our children was kicked out of yeshiva high school a few days after the start of 11th grade. Many view the long hours of yeshiva high school to be counterproductive not only to Jewish observance and to personal development, but to serious learning of Talmud. Fortunately, in recent years, many yeshiva high schools are offering a less pressured curriculum.
Although that yeshiva would have taken my son back had he agreed to conform, he found a high school that, like Meled, offered a welcoming “home” to large numbers of yeshiva “dropouts.”
In the book, written with his wife Leah Leslie, Dr. Gottesman describes how he based the school’s philosophy on the works of A.S. Neill, author of Summerhill, A Radical Approach to Child Rearing; psychiatrist Milton H. Erickson; and Rabbi J. B. Soloveichik. Enlisting men with protektzia, such as Rabbi Daniel Sperber, who wrote a foreword to the book, and now deceased Knesset Member of the National Religious Party Hanan Porat, Meled received recognition from the Jerusalem municipality and the education ministry. Originally, only boys attended but after a few years of separate programs for boys and girls, it became fully mixed in 1998, with great success.
Gottesman structures the book around stories about the former students, and the accounts of the students themselves via a questionnaire. The school offers a welcoming and nonjudgmental approach, training its staff members to abide by it consistently. In turn, the students internalize the message and relate to each other in similar ways. Many graduates shared the heart-breaking situations that led them to consider Meled, with each one explaining how the staff and students enabled them to began studying again at their own pace, with satisfaction and enjoyment. Most of the students ultimately found a field of study that they enjoyed, whether or not they completed their matriculation exams.
Many students mentioned Meled’s unique intake interview. After rounds of unsuccessful interviews or long periods of absence from school, the children expected a grilling. But instead of asking for excuses and promises, Gottesman focused on listening to the students and explaining what the school can offer them. He assured them that they did not have to attend class or study until they wanted to. The main rules are no drugs and alcohol in class. While Jewish studies are offered, there is no requirement of religious observance. Staff members go out of their way to help the students succeed in their studies, but above all to make them feel valued as individuals.
Gottesman describes the intake interview as follows:
When doing intakes at Meled, I have often been presented with a background of upheaval, of chaotic experiences including school failure, abuse, strife and/or trauma. Therefore, I deliberately marginalize the applicant’s history, avoiding any listing of rejections. the focus, instead, is on relating to the adolescent on the basis of projected success. The message conveyed is that we have never changed a student; the students create their own change with our help. Moreover, others who had faced challenges similar to, or even more difficult, than those faced by any individual interviewee have succeeded in overcoming them. Our interview is about allaying the anxiety of both parent and child and instilling hope.
So why did I cry? I went to a large academic secular high school, which was right for me in many ways. But I felt sad for my younger self that, unlike at Meled, my school offered so little acknowledgment of my emotional needs and difficulties.
In Israel it’s common to say hakol beseder, with means “everything is okay.” But at Meled, staff members respond to that statement saying, “except for what isn’t okay. If something isn’t okay, it can be fixed, but if you don’t know it isn’t okay, you have a problem.” Within families, schools, and ourselves, things can fester because we believe they can’t be fixed. Fortunately there are places like Meled that can help “fix” the children from our community that need it most.
As long-time readers know, my father Ben Zion Wacholder was born in Ozarow, Poland and survived the Holocaust, living in Germany with false papers hiding his Jewish identity.
A few months ago, we received an email from a man named Lukasz Rzepka, who wrote:
I’m a doctoral student of theology at The Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow, Poland. Two years ago I started course ‘Relationships between Christians and Jews’, that was exceptional experience for me. When I was young I was interested in the history of my city, the people who lived there, memories of the past. After my high school I removed to Krakow, that was about 10 years ago. Now, again my youthful passions revived.
Today I have found memories by Ben Zion Wacholder on the website. Again, I wanted to share the history of my city with others. I decided to realize my childhood dream. I would like to prepare a book with memories of the Ozarow Jews. I would like to publish them in Polish with short biographies. Mainly for young residents of Ozarów and students. People there don’t know the history of this city well. I know that because I lived there for 19 years.
I would like to ask at the beginning if it would be possible for you to publish a translation of Ben Zion’s memories in Polish?
When Lukasz and I first began corresponding, he was preparing a talk at a conference on the Jews of the area. I asked to see the link to the conference schedule. Despite the Polish description, I saw the listing for a twenty-minute talk about Ben Zion Wacholder. Lukasz peppered me with questions about my father’s biography, many of which I could not answer easily, and asked me to provide a picture of my father, to which I happily agreed.
Since then, Lukasz has kept me up to date on his research and we connect almost daily. For instance, he has found records regarding my family in both Jewish and secular archives. Below are my paternal father’s birth certificate and residence records of my father and his siblings:
Birth certificate of my paternal grandfather, Pinchas Shlomo Wacholder
Residence record mentioning my grandparents Pinchas Shlomo and Fayga Lederman Wacholder, and their four children: Sara Hendel, Ben Zion, Aaron, and Ruchla Shifra
He has written a proposal for a series of pamphlets on the Jews of the area, to be called BOZnica (synagogue). BOZ stands for “Biblioteka Ozarowa Zydowskiego,” or the Ozarow Jewish Library. The first installment will be a Polish translation of the two chapters of my father’s memoir, “The Night Before the Hurban of Ozarow,” and “Alone.” You can find the original English at the website maintained by my niece Shifra Goldenberg. Unfortunately, the continuation of the memoir lost when my father’s computer was stolen in the 1980’s.
Despite the controversy in Poland over Holocaust research and education, Lukasz has secured funding from both Jewish and non-Jewish sources. Last week my family granted him the translation rights to the memoir, in which my father describes the town during the war, parting from his family, and his escape as the sole survivor of the Nazi liquidation of the Jews of Ozarow.
We are happy to see that BOZnica is getting off the ground. Lukasz has secured the majority of the needed funding from both Jewish and non-Jewish sources, including his university and the Polish Jewish Historical Institute. There clearly exists a significant segment of Poles who wish to acknowledge the history of the Jews in Poland with honesty and integrity, and repair relations between the Jews and the Polish people.
Speaking for my living sister and brother, and I am sure for my brother Sholom of blessed memory who maintained a keen interest in the family history, we are so touched that a non-Jewish stranger from real-life Ozarow would take such an interest in our father and the rest of the Ozarow community. It feels like my father and his family and neighbors are reaching out to us from the past, to tell us and the Polish people about the rich Jewish world that was lost in Poland and in Ozarow.
Update December 4, 2017 from the Chochmat Nashim Facebook page: Supreme Court Judge Hanan Meltzer said, “There is no such thing in the State of Israel as a road that is closed to women, nor will there be. As far as we are concerned, there should be a police presence day and night and any woman who wants to pass should have a police escort.” The judges suggest that the next step is jailtime and tell the city that they have until Sunday to take down the signs and for the police to ensure they don’t go back up.
This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post’s In Jerusalem supplement on November 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Beit Shemesh modesty sign. Photo: Alisa Coleman
Turf battle in Beit Shemesh
As haredim continue to defy legal rulings against modesty signs, many have begun to see the city as ‘the canary in the coal mine’ of Israel’s complex secular-religious conflict
• By HANNAH KATSMAN A large sign with bold black letters hangs on the fifth and highest floor of an apartment building at the street corner near Alisa Coleman’s Beit Shemesh home. Instructing women in “our” neighborhood to appear in modest clothing and signed by “neighborhood residents,” the sign and others like it are part of an ongoing turf war in the increasingly haredi city. When Coleman first moved to the Sheinfeld neighborhood, she occasionally visited stores in the Kirya Haredit (Haredi Quarter), near the Migdal Hamayim (Water Tower) neighborhood. “I had no problems, but that was where the first sign appeared.” The sign proclaimed, “By ruling of the community leader, women are requested to refrain from passing by or loitering on this sidewalk, which is used for those attending the synagogue.” The sign was “donated to the complete repentance of those burning in the furnace of iPhones and the Internet.” Secular-religious conflict has characterized the State of Israel since its inception. With the increase in the haredi population and with it, political power, the conflict has intensified. In recent months, the radical Jerusalem Faction has staged violent protests in the capital against draft registration. The protests, which included burning tires, blocking streets and throwing trash, caused suffering to the vast majority of the haredi population, both economic and because of the injury to the community’s reputation and influence. This may have led to the posters calling for a boycott of businesses whose owners took part, including the owner of the haredi grocery chain Bar-Kol. Altercations between the haredim and other residents of Beit Shemesh have also become violent at times. A development town originally populated by North African immigrants in the 1950s, a group of national-religious yeshiva graduates arrived in the 1980s with the aim of strengthening the local population religiously, while benefiting from cheaper housing. Soon English-speaking immigrants discovered Beit Shemesh as an inexpensive and convenient alternative to Jerusalem and Ra’anana, building a large community with seven or eight national-religious synagogues spanning several neighborhoods. The first haredi neighborhoods were built in the 1990s and haredim now make up about half of the city’s population. According to London-born Coleman, who has lived in Beit Shemesh for 20 years, the trouble began with isolated incidents. “One woman was harassed while running, another hit with a rock while biking. Then the extremists came and pushed into Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, even nearer to where we live.”
The conflict escalated in 2013, when a national-religious elementary school for girls opened on the border of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. The haredim, who largely came from the insular Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She’arim, wanted the facility fortheir own community. Haredi men lined the sidewalks, hissing and sometimes spitting at the girls as they walked to and from school. “The people who bought in that neighborhood said, ‘This is our street,’” explains Coleman. “They felt that they bought the street along with the apartments. The Orot [state religious school] girls go to school with three-quarter-length sleeves, so there is no question of modesty.” Eventually the conflict generated national and international media attention. “After the publicity,” says Coleman, “the country went crazy, and put pressure on the haredim. It looked bad for them.” The school has since remained free from controversy. Another street conflict erupted earlier this year when national-religious youth group counselors walking through Ramat Beit Shemesh on Shabbat afternoons were harassed by haredi teenagers, who spit, yelled and threw objects. “It came to a head at Purim time,” recalls Coleman, “when a mob surrounded two of the girls.”
The national-religious teens and their parents met with city and neighborhood leaders, avoiding the media. As with the Jerusalem Faction riots, shaming, presumably from within the extremists’ own community, ended the harassment. Pashkevilim (posters) went up listing businesses with tax issues and pictures of illegal structures. The posters threatened to pass on damaging information to the authorities. “Suddenly, things changed,” says Coleman. “Parents were told to keep their kids inside when the counselors walked by. The community didn’t want 100 national-religious adults accompanying eight teenagers. Then representatives of the neighborhood came out and said to the parents, ‘We’ll protect you – we’ll make sure the teenagers [responsible for the harassment] don’t come out.’” “They’ve controlled it,” concludes Coleman. “There’s a bit of shouting now, but no throwing.” “We used to believe no one controlled them,” says Coleman.
“We have been walking with the teenagers for three months. The police walked with us while undercover and arrested teens on Shabbat. The system is working better and understands the problem better. Beit Shemesh is the canary in the coal mine. It will happen in other places if not dealt with properly.” Coleman emphasizes the need to do things legally, without resorting to violence. She and her neighbors support the local haredi businesses and get to know the owners. But she refuses to concede. “Most people are not interested in spitting at women. But when it becomes allowed to happen, it becomes a norm. Like throwing stones at cars in Mea She’arim. If no one is telling you to stop, there is no deterrent.”
DESPITE THE lawsuits, the modesty signs have remained in place. Opponents claim the massive signs contribute to an intimidating atmosphere and encourage violence. Attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski of the Israel Religious Action Center explained to In Jerusalem why the signs don’t fall under the principles of free speech, even on private property. “First, the signs look official,” says Erez-Likhovski, “and are signed by rabbis. Yet no permit has been acquired.” “Second,” she continues, “they are offensive, because they attempt to limit the ability of women to walk in public. In the 2013 report on exclusion of women written by the government’s legal advisory council, there is no mandate for separation of the sexes as a principle of haredi culture. Modesty does not have the same weight as Shabbat observance, for example, and prohibiting the presence of a woman in the public sphere is contrary to the principles of a democratic society.” With the help of Erez-Likhovski and the Israel Religious Action Center, four women sued the Beit Shemesh Municipality for malpractice, through the local magistrate’s court, in 2013. “Our claim,” says Erez-Likhovski, “is that the signs were not only offensive, but led to physical damages. Judge David Gidoni accepted our claim, awarding NIS 15,000 to each of the four women.” In 2016, the district court rejected the municipality’s appeal, obligating the city to remove the signs – but they quickly reappeared. In February 2017, the women sued the city for contempt of court. This past June, Supreme Court Judge Yigal Marzel agreed and said that the city would be fined NIS 10,000 for every day the signs remain. Marzel also ordered the city to place cameras at its own expense, and increase police patrols to keep the signs from being replaced.
At the Supreme Court hearing, Mayor Moshe Abutbul of the haredi Shas Party claimed that he had no argument with the law forbidding the signs, which have been up for 15 years. But he expressed fear about entering the neighborhood to take action. “They have overturned a police car and dropped concrete blocks. I’m embarrassed by the violence.”
Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul (left) Photo: Hannah Katsman
Abutbul and the city legal adviser, Mickey Gastwirt, spoke to IJ after the ruling. “The judge understands that it is not simple,” Abutbul said, “The topic is complex.”
“There has been a calming down,” says Gastwirt, citing the resolution of the conflict with the teen counselors. “It has to be through dialogue. There is a war, and we get a lot of complaints about threats. The people who suffer the most are the haredi residents, not the national-religious. But the signs are a symbol. It’s like going to the city of Mosul [in Iraq] and giving [Islamic State] a fine for leaving out garbage.”
He offered reasons for the delay in following the ruling. “The city prosecutor went on maternity leave and others are on vacation,” he explained. “There was no contempt of court. Go deal with the real problems, like the crazy driving on Highway 1, and forget about the signs.” Attorney Rena Hollander, a resident of Beit Shemesh, recently filled a vacant spot on the city council. “It’s clear that Abutbul doesn’t want to take down the signs,” she says. “I don’t believe for a minute that they can’t be controlled. Abutbul puts up cameras during the day, in full view, and they get taken down immediately. It’s all a show between him and the extremists. He’s winking to them.” After the hearing, the city removed five signs, but they were immediately replaced. Recently a sixth sign was spotted, asking men and women to stay on opposite sides of a public staircase. Hollander, who made aliya from Toronto at age 10, served for a year and a half as the only female representative of the city’s religious council. She has recently resigned to take a seat on the city council and provides an insider’s glimpse of the goings-on behind the scenes in the religious council. “Everything is a big fight. When we bring in speakers, they see it as taking ministry money for liberal women. There is a lot of tension between the haredi and dati leumi [national religious] rabbis surrounding the cemeteries and mikvaot [ritual baths]. Who will make the decisions, who appoints the balaniot [female mikve supervisors]. The haredim don’t even use most of the services. The previous rabbi resigned and instead of appointing someone new, they brought in a very extreme ‘volunteer’ rabbi who makes all of the decisions. There is no other national religious member of the council.” “The atmosphere in the city is that women shouldn’t be in the public sphere,” Hollander continues. “This radiates into national religious society and even completely secular cities hire more male singers than female. Once it becomes normalized, it’s hard to eradicate – like the buses with separate seating that used to be on only one or two lines. Now there are dozens, even though they are unofficial. “The signs aren’t irrelevant. I spoke to some extremists during the harassment of teenagers. They said, ‘Don’t you see the signs?’” Hollander included the incident in her report to the court. Penina (not her real name), a haredi resident of Beit Shemesh, says that some city groups are extremely concerned about staying separate from secular influence. “I think these signs are not really about tznius [modest dress],” maintains Penina. “It’s more about separation. In Israel, how you dress totally defines your ‘camp.’ Picking on dress is the easiest way to do that. “Staying separate from foreign influences is a Torah value that’s highly prized in the haredi world,” continues Penina. “But usually not at the expense of other serious mitzvot, like loving your fellow Jew, not embarrassing people, and so on. In my opinion, this is a serious error.” Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein of the Lev Eliyahu synagogue in the Mishkenot Ya’acov neighborhood of Beit Shemesh told IJ that he doesn’t know about any conflict regarding signs. “There are more important problems,” he says. “Newspaper writers are trying to make trouble. People here are very peaceful.” Other local haredi rabbis refused to comment.
Dr. Eve Finkelstein. Photo: Hannah Katsman
Dr. Eve Finkelstein, a party to the lawsuit, feels that the signs encourage violence. She was attacked by 300 men during a protest against the Egged bus company that she happened to walk into. “They threw rocks at me. It was winter and I was wearing long sleeves and a long skirt,” she recalls. Peaceful means of removing the signs, like mediation, have been ineffective. “The signs have real-life consequences. A patient of mine was wearing a tank top when she fell and broke her ankle. When she got to the kupah (health clinic) on Hephzibah street, she saw the large modesty sign outside. So she went to the emergency room and had to pay about NIS 800, which the health fund refused to reimburse. “From their side, they want to have control of the women. From our side, we need there to be a precedent. There are similar signs in Ashdod and Arad, with language about how women should dress. The haredim sent women out to work and opened their eyes. The women are not toeing the line. So the leaders get control through violence and fear.” Finkelstein describes other attempts to take control. “It’s a violent haredi sect that wants to enforce its rules,” she declares. “There is a modesty patrol that physically attacked the editors of publications who print ads for lactation consultants, driving lessons for women or for yeshiva students, or for a tzimmer [guest house]. A Sephardi haredi editor allowed ads for driving lessons. They came to his office, poured glue in his door and destroyed his entrance. It rules with violence. “The secular Jews have a ridiculous respect for haredim. But the haredim have taken things to a place with no connection to Halacha. The secular think it’s a religious issue. But religious men live in North America and Europe. They don’t attack women sexually. Don’t tell me you need the sign to control the men.” It’s not clear what it will take to resolve this conflict, but perhaps it is simple members of the haredi community who will begin to force change, even incrementally. Notes Finkelstein: “I know a woman from [haredi Beit Shemesh neighborhood] Heftziba who is moving out of the neighborhood after hearing about another woman attacked for a long wig like she herself wears.”