Because of her father’s Zionist dream to convince American Jews to move to Israel, Hadassa Margolese spent her adolescent years in the Pico-Robertson area. Now it is Margolese’s own Zionist dream that has turned her and her 8-year-old daughter Na’ama into heroines of the fight against ultra-Orthodox extremism in Israel.
“It is not easy going from being private people to being public people, but if that’s what it takes to make a change, then we hope that it is worth it. We just cannot sit by silently. Our goal in the end is that Na’ama be able to grow up to be the strong woman we are teaching her to be,” Margolese, who is Modern Orthodox, told The Journal.
On Dec. 23, Israel’s most-watched news program, Channel 2’s “Friday Night News Magazine,” told the story of how Na’ama has been spat on, cursed and traumatized by ultra-Orthodox men in the city of Beit Shemesh because the sleeves of her shirts and the hems of her dresses aren’t long enough to meet their standards of modesty. It also showed Margolese walking with her daughter, reassuring her and trying to give her courage. In the week following the report, Na’ama Margolese became a household name in Israel. The struggle in Beit Shemesh was front-page news every day. Several thousand protesters came to the city to show their solidarity with Na’ama and to stand up to the zealots. Close-ups of Na’ama’s tearful, frightened face and her cries of fear as her mother tried to walk her down the street where she’d been repeatedly accosted, were broadcast over and over again on Israeli TV.
Hadassa Margolese, 31, was born in Chicago and moved to Israel with her family when she was 2. “We were a very Zionistic family, and it was my father’s dream to become an aliyah emissary,” she says. When she was 13, her father’s wish was fulfilled; he moved his family to Los Angeles, where he worked for the Jewish Agency and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The family attended Anshe Emes Synagogue and Hadassa attended Hillel Hebrew Academy then Ohr Haemet Institute, before the family returned to Israel in the late 1990s.
Margolese and her husband, Benji, a manager at a diamond company, have lived in Beit Shemesh for nearly four years with their children, who, in addition to Na’ama, include a 5-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy. The ultra-Orthodox extremists have subjected Na’ama and the other Modern Orthodox girls at Orot elementary school to a reign of terror since the beginning of their school year in September, Margolese said.
“Starting on the second day of school and for two months straight, we suffered spitting, cursing (“prostitutes!” “shiksas!” “whores!” “rotten little girls!”) as well as getting tomatoes, eggs and bricks thrown our way. Human feces and dead fish were thrown into the classrooms and onto our block, making the place stink for a long time,” Margolese wrote this week in an e-mail, noting that she has become worn out from phone interviews since first appearing on TV.
“The ‘terrorism’ stopped for a few weeks, and at that time Na’ama said to me, ‘The extremists left Beit Shemesh!!!’ A few weeks later, however, they were back, and Na’ama said to me, “I guess they didn’t leave Beit
Margolese says her daughter “suffers from nightmares, difficulty falling asleep and anxiety. Noises make her jump and get her worried. For a long time (and now on and off) she’s afraid that they will come to our house and hurt her.”
Margolese says the ultra-Orthodox assailants did not start their harassment just this school year. “It started before on the buses, where I personally had bad experiences, and in stores, where signs tell people how they should be dressed, and in the waiting areas at the doctor’s offices where signs say people should be dressed modestly,” she said.
Since the 1980s, Beit Shemesh, a city of 80,000 located between Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion airport, has become a magnet for tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews looking for low-cost housing — as well as for thousands of English-speaking immigrants, mainly Modern Orthodox. Today the ultra-Orthodox make up about one-third of the population, the Shas (Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox) Party controls the local government, and extremists of the Toldot Aharon sect, who migrated to the city from Jerusalem’s antiquarian Meah Shearim quarter, enforce their “modesty code” with threats and violence. Parents and others complain that the police department has been very lax about this, so they’ve had to find ways to protect the children themselves.
Orot elementary school for Modern Orthodox girls stands at the edge of an established neighborhood of secular and Modern Orthodox Jews. But in recent years, many ultra-Orthodox families have moved into the neighborhood, and the Toldot Aharon and their supporters tried to keep the school from opening in September because of what they view as the pupils’ “immodest” dress. Under pressure, the mayor, Moshe Abutbul, asked the Orot parents to send their daughters to school elsewhere, but they refused. They took their case to the national Education Ministry, which overruled the mayor and municipality.
Once the school year got under way, the extremists’ harassment of the girls on their way home from school began, so the parents fought back their own way. “Dov Lipman, a neighborhood activist, has been extremely active, from day one, fighting to get these fanatics off the street,” Margolese said. “Dov, along with a few other amazing neighbors, who do not have children at the school, were out every day, filming — for proof — and walking the children to their homes and buses, past the extremists, to make sure they got home safely.”
The parents also organized rallies, one of them drawing more than 1,000 people, which began to draw wider attention to the local conflict. And that’s how Margolese became a voice for the issue: “Channel 2 saw me speaking to a few Knesset members who came to Beit Shemesh; I went up to them and told them about what was happening at my daughter’s school, and things started rolling from there,” she said.
Margolese stresses that the problem in the city is not with the ultra-Orthodox in general, but only with “an extremist, fringe sect,” noting that many local ultra-Orthodox have been supportive of the Orot parents, and complain — privately — about being intimidated themselves by the likes of Toldot Aharon.
Margolese and her family are not about to leave: “Beit Shemesh is an amazing city,” she said. “The social life here is great. People are warm and welcoming. We won’t give that up. We won’t let the extremists run us out. We’re here. We want to stay. I believe I’m fulfilling a Zionist mission, because we are working to change the system for the better.”