MONTREAL — “How did this come to happen?”
“This,” was the highly publicized December incident in Beit Shemesh, Israel, in which an eight-year-old Orthodox girl was spat upon by extremist haredim for not dressing “modestly” enough.
The sole Canadian participant in a recent Yeshiva University (YU) social justice mission to Israel called Tzedek v’Tzedakah says the above question, posed by a panellist on the mission, served as an ideal backdrop to frame a serious, thoughtful discussion on the issue.
Montreal native Gershon Albert, a fourth-year student at YU studying for the rabbinate at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, was one of 30 YU undergraduate students who spent Jan. 15 to 22 in Israel, discussing and exploring social justice issues in the context of creating a just society in the “modern, democratic Jewish state.”
YU’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), which co-ordinated the trip, noted that it also took place in the context of the “Occupied” social justice movements in the United States, Israel and other countries last summer.
“We felt it was necessary to work with the students to clarify the issues and reframe the dialogue, with the help of Torah sources and experts in the field,” CJF dean Rabbi Kenneth Brander said in a YU release.
(A second group of 10 YU undergrads took part in a concurrent service learning program called Art at Ort, focusing on “social activism and the empowerment of Israeli teens through art.”)
Tzedek v’Tzedakah applicants underwent a rigorous application and screening process before taking part in the mission, led by YU’s Kiva Rabinsky. Other participants included scholars-in-residence rabbis Hershel Schachter and Assaf Bednarsh.
Albert, who grew up in Snowdon, attended a public primary school and a Jewish high school, and gradually became more observant as a yeshiva student in Jerusalem. He said Tzedek v’Tzedakah proved to be a revelation.
“Yes, I have lived in Israel,” he said in a telephone interview from New York the day of his return, “but I was never quite this exposed to larger Israeli society before.
“This trip was not meant to be in the comfort zone,” Albert said. “Israeli society is much larger than the Western Wall.”
The group Albert was with, although based mostly in Jerusalem, travelled to Haifa, Ramat Gan, Sderot, Ramla and Beit Shemesh, among other destinations. They visited a prison, hospitals, rabbinic courts, the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, an intellectual centre for interdisciplinary discussion of issues related to philosophy, society, culture and education, and met with Israeli Supreme Court Justice Neal Hendel.
The group interacted with eminent secular and Orthodox figures, from rabbis to kibbutzniks to feminists, with each day devoted to a different aspect of justice.
“It was amazing,” Albert said.
In Beit Shemesh, there was a recurring thread, he said: the “vast, vast majority of haredi Jews do not support what took place.”
At a panel discussion on the spitting incident and the ramifications of haredi extremism, one panellist, Rabbi Moshe Levkowitz, asked an obvious question: “how could pious Jews commit despicable acts?”
There were no ready answers, Albert said, except for the fact that in the haredi world, he inferred from the panel, there exists a “lack of leadership” that can control marginal, extremist elements.
Albert came away from the trip committed to the notion that building a just society in the modern Jewish state comes with an imperative – both “a burden and privilege” – to play some sort of role toward that end, and that all Jews, whether religious or secular, all share that duty.
“We all have a responsibility to provide input to a socially just society,” he said.