Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

4 Tammuz 5764 - June 23, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Keeping the Faith: The Yemenites of Rechovot Revisited

by Binyomin Y. Rabinowitz

In the city of Rechovot is a neighborhood called Oshayot. A mixed bag of people can be seen walking around outside on a typical day, mostly not-so-new immigrants living at the neighborhood's large absorption center. Some Russians, a lot of Ethiopians -- but the Yemenites stand out most of all in their traditional attire and the "simonim" (payos) in plain sight on the men and boys.

When I came here ten years ago, I was attacked by the absorption center staff who also made a point of inciting the new immigrants against me. Shortly before the visit I had uncovered an affair that had the chareidi world in Eretz Yisroel and abroad up in arms.

I went back to see what took place over the past ten years and whether anything remains of this large group of Jews who came to Eretz Yisroel yirei'im ushleimim, with their forefathers' tradition intact. When they came they were Jews who kept mitzvos to the finest detail, Jews whose dress and appearance attested to their inner purity.

The sight that met me was enough to draw tears. Netzach Yisroel lo yishaker. The efforts of the immigration authorities to rob these immigrants of their religious tradition and faith -- like their brethren before them who came as part of the Magic Carpet Operation some 50 years ago - - proved a failure. (Editor's Note: This visit took place around nine months ago.)

There were little boys with curly payos learning with the mori from the Taj, adults in their traditional attire, men with simonim praying Minchah and listening to a shiur. For the Yomim Noraim the community arranged a temporary place for the tefillos, that was large enough to allow the women to come hear the shofar.

The vast majority of the children are enrolled in Torah-based educational institutions. The older children learn in yeshivas and seminaries and many young couples have already set up exemplary Jewish homes in chareidi neighborhoods in Eretz Yisroel and abroad.

I went back to the people I spoke with ten years ago, especially Salaam Zarev. He was not easy to find, but eventually I came across a group of boys near one of the buildings who might tell me. When asked why they were gathered there they, replied that they were waiting for the mori to teach them parshas hashovua.

Keeping the Faith

While waiting for the mori to arrive, an informal survey of the children revealed that all of them study in Torah institutions. An older boy named Yosef Kafri rode up on a bicycle, and during the course of a brief inquiry he explained that most of the children study at the Chinuch Atzmai talmud Torah in Yavneh, taking the bus every day.

Meanwhile, adults filed one by one into the little beis knesses built among the pillars of the building. There is another beis knesses like it in the neighborhood, and a third one built in somebody's yard.

The most prominent figure in the beis knesses was HaRav Yaakov Oved, who has served as rov of the Yemenite kehilloh for the past ten years. In the morning, he learns at a Lev L'Achim kollel, and he dedicates his afternoon hours to the Yemenite immigrants.

HaRav Oved does not try to hide his gratification over the fabulous work over the years to keep the immigrants from Yemen unchanged. The vast majority of the adults remain faithful to their tradition. Many of them even learn in a kollel that provided stipends for 40 men until recently. Now, due to budget cuts , only a few receive stipends, but all of them continue to come.

Dedication Pays Off

HaRav Oved says children who came to Rechovot when they were older did not all remain true to their heritage, whereas the younger children did, for the most part. "We have been particularly successful with the girls," he reports. "Almost all of them study in chareidi institutions. And most of the boys learn in yeshivas and Torah-based institutions. It was not easy, but if dedicated efforts are invested, real success can be seen."

HaRav Oved once had a high-ranking military post and later became one of the top employees at the high-tech firm El Op, working as a mechanical engineer. Twenty- five years ago, thanks to Lev L'Achim's widespread work in the city headed by HaRav Tzvi Schwartz, he became much more religious, and eventually became an avreich kollel.

Ten years ago, he was sent to become the rov of the Yemenite community in the Oshayot neighborhood, and ever since then he has devoted himself heart and soul to preserving and strengthening the kehilloh members.

When asked to compare the period back then to the present he says, "Beyond any doubt, if they had gone to live in a chareidi place the situation would have been much better. They still live in the Oshayot neighborhood among immigrants from different parts of the Diaspora whose lifestyles are bad, yerachem Hashem, and their situation here is terrible, which is why many of them went wrong. I estimate that about 30 percent are beyond our control. Some of them cut their simonim and don't come to learn. They wear inappropriate clothing in the streets.

"But boruch Hashem we succeeded in retaining about 70 percent of the adult community along with a staff of rabbonim, morim and women teachers who do the day-to- day field work. We have five morim. Three are Yemenite immigrants and two are avreichim from our ranks. Besiyata deShmaya we managed to have most of the boys and girls educated in Torah-based institutions.

In addition there are day-to-day problems that are not just in ruchniyus, but also financial. The parnossoh situation is really dismal. Most of the immigrants don't work. The social situation is also abominable; the streets there are so full of terrible disregard for the bounds of tznius that you can't walk around.

"We made a major effort to get as many families as possible out of here and into chareidi areas, and they were even willing to give a special grant of $10,000- $20,000 to every family that agreed to move to a chareidi area. But many did not take up the offer then. Now that they realize the mistake they made, there is no money for this.

"Tzedokoh organizations once gave help to young couples renting in chareidi areas and today there are a number of couples living in Bnei Brak and Elad, but now the financial situation is extremely tough and we no longer have the large assistance we once received. Therefore, for example, the number of people who learn in the kollel who receive a special stipend has been reduced from 40 to 15, but most still come to learn without money. This is a big miracle, that they come to learn without getting paid."

Following all these remarks -- that point to a few disappointments, but mostly impressive successes -- I asked HaRav Oved how, despite the secular free-for-all prevailing in the neighborhood, a considerable portion of the community members continue to wear traditional attire and simonim. HaRav Oved's pleasure is obvious.

"Their perfect innocence and purity is simply unbelievable. To hold onto tradition is a fabulous and special thing here. I told them the simonim are part of our attire and cannot be left behind. The vast majority of the little boys also continue to wear simonim."

Lev L'Achim

HaRav Oved, echoing HaRav Schwartz of Lev L'Achim, says that if the needed funding materializes in the future it will be possible to continue strengthening the community in keeping its age-old heritage. Readers who would like to assist him in his efforts can call HaRav Oved at 050-5656822. Any donations would be very welcome.

Following the conversation with HaRav Oved, I went to see the little boys learning with the mori.

What a moving sight! The young boys sat and learned Chumash while the very little boys learned the Alef- Beis. The mori, reading perfectly upside-down of course, used a long pointer to help the children find the right place. One of the ladies who came to pick up her son would not allow us to photograph him, fearing ayin hora.

The classrooms and the learning conditions are horrendous. HaRav Oved prepared me for this in advance, saying it was simply miraculous that studies could continue under such circumstances.

"We're maintaining them by the skin of our teeth because the conditions are totally inadequate, as you can see for yourself. Now we're looking for a normal place to serve as a beis knesses for the Yomim Noraim because in the existing place the conditions are terrible. If you manage to rouse the public in Eretz Yisroel to support what we're doing here it would be of great benefit."

From Yated Ne'eman

Later I went to the home of Salaam Zarev across the street from the absorption center. He recognized me as soon as I stepped in. "You're from Yated Ne'eman," he said, to my great surprise. At first I asked him whether any families went back to Yemen. He says there are two such families, one from Rechovot and one from Ashkelon.

Zarev says that since coming to Eretz Yisroel three more children were born to him, in addition to the five he came with. His oldest daughter married a Yemenite and now lives in Monsey, New York.

Salaam says that other young couples moved to the US and are living in Monroe and other Jewish areas, after a Satmar chossid working in outreach came with large sums to help the Yemenite community of Rechovot.

Salaam says his other children are attending Torah-based institutions. His oldest unmarried daughter, for example, is studying at the seminary in Be'er Yaakov.

At the same time, he is filled with remorse over the older generation who were victims of the State's immigrant absorption system. "Among the adults some were harmed by absorption, but among the young people and the little children this was not the case."

Salaam Zarev visited Yemen not long ago. There are another 20 families still there, primarily in Rida, which is near Tzana'a, and he reports that all of them, without exception, get along fine and remain religious "better than I." Though he is pleased with his children's education, he is distressed by the financial hardships the Yemenite immigrants face.

Later I had a conversation with the elderly Dovid Faiz, who overflows with praise for HaKodosh Boruch Hu. He has no complaints. He answers every question comparing past and present with the words, "Boruch Hashem we have our health, good children, thank G-d."

If R' Dovid Faiz, whom we know from his troubles ten years ago, is satisfied, who are we to differ?

The Initial Expose

To understand the great miracle that took place in that the schemes of the authorities were not realized, we must go ten years back. The pages of the Yated Ne'eman in those days, Hebrew and English, were filled with harsh stories about the goings-on at absorption centers and the way the Yemenite immigrants were received. These incidents started in Rechovot, but later they also reached Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat.

The first media coverage was on 6 Nisan 5753 (March 28, 1993). The front-page banner headline in Yated Ne'eman read, "Campaign of Religious Persecution Against New Immigrants from a Certain Country Currently Being Waged in the Streets." At that time, the fact that the immigrants were from Yemen was a closely guarded secret since, the authorities claimed, premature publicity would likely have caused the Yemenite authorities to put a stop to all immigration. Notwithstanding the legitimate reasons, the immigration authorities were using the freedom given them by the secrecy to advance their own goals.

According to the report, "chareidi activists are accusing the Absorption Ministry of waging a campaign of spiritual destruction and secularization of new immigrants who arrived in Eretz Yisroel from a certain country, and although the immigrants keep Torah and mitzvos and throughout the years [of exile] they preserved their age-old Jewish appearance and are adorned with payos, they have been housed in an absorption center in Rechovot together with secular immigrants and are subjected to critical comments by secular guidance staffers that can have a decisive [spiritual] effect."

Government censors placed a ban on publishing the immigrants' country of origin, but the phrase "adorned with payos" made it clear to most readers they were from Yemen.

The Blank Space in the Newspaper

The exclusive report in Yated about the "welcome" the Yemenite immigrants received in Eretz Hakodesh sent shock waves far and wide, irritating old scars among Sephardim who had been the victims of the establishment and the left-wing parties who once dominated the political scene. As part of their attempt to shape the Yishuv in Eretz Yisroel in the early years of the State, they had tried to systematically strip Sephardic immigrants of their religious practices and tradition.

"An unequivocal demand should be made of the various authorities," concluded the article. "The immigrants should live in a chareidi environment in keeping with their way of life, and their children must be placed in Torah institutions. Under no circumstances can we allow the terrible wrong of 5713 (1953) [i.e. the mass immigration from Yemen] to repeat itself in Israel in 5753 (1993)."

Unfortunately the demand to bring the immigrants to chareidi population centers was not realized, which led directly to woeful results especially among the older youths, some of whom stopped following in their forefathers' ways.

The next day, in a dramatic departure, Yated Ne'eman's editorial column was left mostly blank, under the headline "Violent Suppression." A brief explanation read, "Scandal! We have been prevented from reporting on it! Our mouth has been shut with a violent political fist! An issue of major interest to the chareidi public that has received wide media coverage in reports that are partly false and tendentious, appears in Yated Ne'eman today in curtailed form. Political figures with vested interests -- including chareidi figures who felt personally responsible for the scandal -- intervened and our newspaper received a directive tantamount to shutting our mouths in order to prevent an outcry. The 50s are back in a revised form. Hard to believe, but it's a fact! What we wanted to write in this space we will not write. We will leave the space for our readers to fill in the blank and act according to the needs of the hour!"

Secular Atmosphere

On the front page was a report about the demeaning treatment of residents at the Rechovot Absorption Center, where immodestly dressed counselors directed all of the center's social activities, instilling an overwhelmingly secular atmosphere. Another article raised strong suspicions that the IDF Censor who suppressed the information about the country of origin was acting under political pressure from above.

Yet apparently, even these abbreviated articles had an effect, for on 13 Nisan another large, front-page headline told of, "Some Improvement in Spiritual Condition of Immigrants at Rechovot Absorption Center."

The article quoted Rabbi Aryeh Gamliel, then a Shas MK and himself of Yemenite ancestry, in a meeting he had called in the Knesset three years earlier on the possibility of a Yemenite aliyah. "I am very doubtful whether we can absorb them and keep them in the same condition of cleaving to Torah and mitzvos as they do today," he said in response to previous statements by Rabbi Avrohom Ravitz, who had been one of the central activists working toward the spiritual success of Sephardic immigrants in the State's early years. "Some of those involved in the absorption of the [Yemenite] aliyah at the time acted with callousness, stupidity and a lack of understanding, handling this aliyah in a shameful way. We must remember these things in order to know how to attend to . . . Jewry." (Due to government censorship the ellipsis was used to replace the word "Yemenite." --B.R.)

Censorship at Work

Although at first the entire affair was strictly off-limits for publication, after Yated Ne'eman's expose the government censor's office had to permit covering the story, with certain limitations.

Later there was much more to print, such as a letter sent to rabbonim and public figures in the US by two Yemenite chareidi activists who managed to spend an entire day at the Rechovot Absorption Center. They provided detailed, eyewitness testimony on what was taking place there.

Meanwhile, in Bnei Brak, activists held an emergency meeting at which they blamed the Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency for waging a sophisticated, methodical campaign to secularize the Yemenite immigrants. In reporting on the meeting, once again Yated Ne'eman had to write about the Yemenites in vague terms, referring to them as "Torah- true immigrants who kept their rooted Jewish appearance throughout the years and are adorned with payos."

In an interview, Rabbi Gamliel claimed, "All of the children, without exception, are being cared for in a religious framework. The allegations and claims that the youths were taken to overwhelmingly secular areas and that their spiritual absorption is not being handled properly are totally false . . . All of the remonstrations alleging that the government is acting to uproot religion and spread heathenism are merely attempts to denounce the successful absorption work. The claims that the children are not receiving a chareidi education are being spread by individuals whose ideology distorts their thinking. Both the children and the adults study in yeshivas," insisted Rabbi Gamliel, who was serving as Deputy Ministry of Construction and Housing under Minister Yair Tzaban (Meretz) in the anti- religious administration whose infamy will not be forgotten, that included both Shas and Meretz. That government signed the original Oslo accords, but its anti-religious activities were very important and destructive. Meretz no longer exists.

Rabbi Gamliel's statement came in reaction to serious accusations by chareidi activists who held him directly and indirectly responsible for what was taking place in Rechovot. "It tears the heart to see that a chareidi representative is willing, because of political considerations, to cover up serious misdeeds and to blur the bitter and distressing reality, and to silence the chareidi public's denunciation in general and the avreichim from his own background in particular. The time has come for him to consider transferring all of the [absorption] center residents to a place with a concentrated chareidi population, which is the only way to preserve their spiritual and religious heritage."

A New Scandal

The censorship scandal was overshadowed by an incident unfolding at the time at the Beit Canada Absorption Center in Ashkelon. Upon their arrival in Eretz Yisroel three months after the first group, eight Yemenite families placed there refused to enter the rooms given to them after seeing the terrible pritzus on the part of the absorption center staff, which included several young army women, other immigrants residing there and offensive presentations shown them.

Eventually they capitulated, following threats to deny them new immigrants' rights altogether, but the next day the families left the absorption center abruptly, leaving all of their belongings behind.

HaRav Y. C. Blau, the rov of the city, HaRav Reisman, who heads the kollel and the yeshiva ketanoh, and Rabbi Avrohom Ravitz made haste to visit the absorption center together with this reporter.

On Erev Shabbos, 20 Tammuz 5753 (1993), an in-depth report under the headline, "Approved for Publication" related hair- raising testimony on the events taking place at the absorption center in Ashkelon. It described the director's refusal to allow chareidim to visit the site and included sharp criticism of chareidi figures who were constantly trying to whitewash the bitter truth.

In an even more shocking development, the Yemenite immigrants were brought to a party held at a community center in Ramat Eshkol where indecent dancing took place in full view of the chareidi immigrants. The incident drew sharp reactions and led to emergency meetings and meetings of high-level government officials. At a meeting held that week between United Torah Jewry and then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to review various policy and security issues, Rabbi Ravitz took advantage of the opportunity to raise the issue of the Yemenites' absorption.

The Central Demand

The chareidi activists objected most of all to the Absorption Ministry efforts to disperse the Yemenites among various absorption centers around the country in order to better assimilate them into the secular population. Thus the foremost demand was to concentrate all of the immigrants at a single, chareidi absorption site, for it was already clear that the eight families in Ashkelon were part of a wave consisting of dozens of other families making their way to Eretz Yisroel. Indeed, a short time later, several families were brought to the absorption center in Kiryat Gat.

Time after time, Yated Ne'eman's editorials addressed the painful issue and revealed that some of the immigrants wanted to go back to Yemen. Dovid Faiz and his son were the leaders of that group.

One day I got a message on my beeper to call a certain public phone in Rechovot. The man on the other end of the line asked me to come to his home right away. I set out without delay and when I reached the building I saw someone up on the fourth floor signaling for me to come.

The apartment was a shocking sight. I could barely squeeze my way in. The living room and all of the bedrooms were filled with beds arranged side by side. In the living room I counted five beds. There amongst them was Dovid Faiz, his son Levy, the elderly grandfather and Dovid's brother Shlomo, who had arrived a short time earlier with his two wives and five children.

"I Won't Stay in Ashkelon Any Longer"

Between the four families a total of 21 people were living together in indescribably crowded conditions. The material difficulty led to serious halachic and spiritual problems as well. I already knew about this family and what it was going through.

When Dovid's father came to Beit Canada together with his family, upon stepping down from the bus with sifrei Torah they had brought along from Yemen they encountered very immodest sights, a far cry from what these chareidi immigrants with dangling payos had hoped to see in Eretz Hakodesh, the land they had prayed for as long as they could remember. I had earlier sat down with them back in Ashkelon and they told me of their plight. Mostly they described the material difficulties they faced, but they were also tied to very grave halachic problems.

Despite their difficulties and impoverishment, they suddenly decided to move to the absorption center in Rechovot one night. "My father saw there were Russian women dressed very indecently," recounts Dovid Faiz, "so he said, `I won't stay in Ashkelon any longer.'"

They expected to be given an apartment at the absorption center in Rechovot to live in but the directors of the absorption center decided to "teach them a lesson," adamantly refusing to accommodate their request even though there were vacant apartments at the center. Thus they decided to cram themselves into Dovid Faiz' apartment.

Following the publication of the initial report in Yated Ne'eman about the decision by the group of immigrants to return to Yemen, reporters rushed to the Faiz family to hear for themselves. Their spiritual problems were compounded by material problems, but as Chazal tell us, "Godol hamachti'o yoseir min hohorgo" ("Causing one to sin is worse than killing him").

That week for the first time we were permitted to use the word "Yemen" in print and to publish pictures taken at the Rechovot Absorption Center. The reports in Yated Ne'eman definitely had a positive effect.

Back to the Present

In today's Rechovot there are about 100 new immigrant families from Yemen living in the Oshayot and Trumpeldor neighborhoods. (Almost none remain in Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat.)

At first, it was hard to gain entry to the buttressed homes. A fear of foreigners still remains from the trying welcome they received upon arrival in Eretz Yisroel by those seeking to harm them spiritually. But after I showed them the decade- old edition of Yated Ne'eman, the tension subsided and the conversation became warmer as the expressions on their faces became more revealing. When Salaam began to read the articles again, I clicked my camera. Now I had a picture of Salaam reading an edition of Yated Ne'eman containing a picture of Salaam reading Yated Ne'eman.

The homes the immigrants live in are furnished with the same simplicity and modesty they brought from Yemen. Their furniture included the heavy, metal Jewish Agency beds most people nowadays have not seen for decades. The air bore a scent of gat, of course. They sit and chew the leaves, holding Tehillim and Taj seforim in their hands. When you step into their homes a spirit of bygone days pervades.

But alongside the scenes reminiscent of ancient times is the sight of a nine- year-old girl doing her limudei kodesh homework, which was certainly not seen in the past. This group of Yemenite immigrants underwent changes in coming to Eretz Yisroel, but not the changes those who brought them wanted to see. Unlike the machinations of the 50s, this time the boys with the simonim won the battle!

The Media and Legal Battle Ten Years Ago

Despite the government censor's attempts to silence public protest, it was unable to keep a lid on the story. In fact the widespread dissent caused a tremendous awakening that led to the start of Torah-based activities at the Rechovot Absorption Center, though the fact that the immigrants continued to live in an overwhelmingly secular environment hindered the efforts.

When another group of Yemenite immigrants that arrived three months later was placed at the Beit Canada Absorption Center in Ashkelon, again in the midst of completely secular immigrants, a great outcry rose up against those obviously determined efforts to take away the community's rooted faith in Torah and mitzvos.

High Court Appeal

The report about the arrival of the immigrants to Ashkelon was prepared a week earlier than it was actually published, but it was at first rejected by the Government Censor. Although all mention of the immigrants' country of origin was deleted from the article -- even the description of them as "adorned with payos" -- still it was not approved.

When it was learned that Eitan Haber, then director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, was behind the rejection of the article, Rabbi Avrohom Ravitz and this reporter met with him at length to discuss changing the government's handling of the immigrants. Although several decisions were reached, Haber later announced to us that all of the agreements were subject to the approval of the Deputy Minister of Construction and Housing, Rabbi Gamliel. Two hours later, Haber called to inform us that all of the agreements were void.

This time there was no alternative other than to take an extreme measure: filing a High Court appeal to force the Censor and the Defense Minister to permit publication.

Extraordinary Circumstances

This step was taken only after I consulted with Maran HaRav Shach zt"l, who determined that the situation called for such a move, although under normal circumstances making use of the state judicial system is unacceptable, particularly in religious matters. Making the matter known to the public was a crucial part of the battle to spare this small wave of immigrants from the kind of disastrous treatment their Yemenite brethren suffered in the 50s.

According to the appeal we filed, publishing the report would pose no threat to security whatsoever, particularly since the immigrants' country of origin was not mentioned. High Court Judge Eliyahu Matza, who recognized the urgency of the appeal, immediately issued a nisi order giving the Censor and the Defense Minister five days to explain why they would not allow its publication.

One day after Yated Ne'eman filed the case, the Censor suddenly reversed its decision and permitted publication of the article. The appeal was later withdrawn, but the Censor still had to pay our legal expenses.

Conspiracy in Monroe: Up to Their Old Tricks

About three weeks ago the Israeli media were full of a modern Yemenite "aliya" story. The Jewish Agency said it had managed to "rescue" a mother and five of her 12 children from the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel in Monroe, New York. Jewish Agency spokespeople splashed the story throughout the Jewish media, claiming that they had to work clandestinely since the family was being held against its will.

Satmar spokesmen ridiculed the claim, saying that the mother simply wanted to visit her own ailing mother in Israel and could not afford the flight so she asked the Jewish Agency for help. The Agency agreed only if she went as an immigrant. They denied that any families are held against their will.

US law enforcement authorities said they were aware of the press reports, but they were taking no action, suggesting that the Satmar version of the events is true, as least with regard to any criminal activity.

There were also no reports of any family difficulties between the woman, her husband and the other seven children.


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