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Haredi rabbi battles religious coercion, violence
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Haredi rabbi battles religious coercion, violence

Haim Amsalem brings iconoclast’s message in Whippany talk

JERUSALEM — He believes all fervently Orthodox Israelis, or haredim, should serve in the army and work for a living.

He spoke at a rally condemning haredi discrimination against women.

And he would facilitate the conversion of hundreds of thousands of people even though they do not intend to keep all the commandments.

At times, Haim Amsalem can sound like a secularist member of Knesset. In fact, he is himself a fervently Orthodox rabbi who lives in Jerusalem’s haredi Har Nof neighborhood.

He was elected to Knesset in 2009 as a member of the Sephardi Orthodox Shas Party but broke away following disputes over the party’s attitude to army service, secular studies, and conversion.

Now, with the country boiling over with charges of haredi coercion, violence, and intolerance, Amsalem stands to play a key role in bridging the divides between Israel’s secular majority and Orthodox minority.

“What’s happening in Israel is very problematic,” Amsalem told NJJN in an interview at the Knesset last week. “The extremism is a ticking time bomb. Only a haredi rabbi can shout out that we don’t need such extremism and that haredim must serve the state. Likud and Kadima shouldn’t be saying it; a haredi rabbi should.”

Amsalem will speak about those tensions on Thursday, Feb. 2, at 6 p.m. at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. The talk is being jointly sponsored by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.

Prior to that, at 4 p.m., a briefing with Amsalem for rabbis from both communities will be hosted by the Central federation on the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains.  The 6 p.m. program will also be available via videoconferencing on the Wilf campus.

Ahead of his visit to the United States, Amsalem said more needs to be done to encourage moderation among the haredim. According to figures released by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics on Jan. 1, haredim comprise 9 percent of the 5,802,900 Jews living in Israel today.

Amsalem has formed a new political party called Am Shalem (A United People) that will wave the banner of moderate Judaism ahead of the next election. The party will have religious and non-religious Jews and place an American immigrant — Beit Shemesh Rabbi Dov Lipman, who was born in Maryland and will accompany Amsalem to New Jersey — near the top of its Knesset slate.

They will speak about Israel’s struggle to define its Jewish and democratic nature at a time when the focus of local headlines has shifted from war and peace to internal divides.

The flare-up in the mixed city of Beit Shemesh brought Amsalem to the forefront. He was the only haredi MK to visit the home of eight-year-old Na’ama Margolese, a Modern Orthodox girl whose story of being spat on by Orthodox extremists became the focus of the news in Israel and beyond last month. He came to light Hanukka candles with the Margolese family after Na’ama said she was afraid of anyone who looked fervently Orthodox.

Police in Beit Shemesh have since cracked down on haredi violence and intimidation. But Amsalem said Beit Shemesh was a symptom of a larger problem of extremism that other haredi MKs represent rather than fight.

“Extremism must be fought without compromise,” he said. “Most Israelis and Jews don’t want to create Kabul here. It’s a shame for all of Israel.”

Amsalem has also come out strongly against segregation on buses in which the mostly haredi clientele request that women sit in the back. He believes there is no place for discrimination against women in any public area.

A lenient path

But the issue that drives Amsalem the most is conversion. He wrote a book asserting that Halacha, Jewish law, requires that more lenient criteria for conversion be applied to people of Jewish descent than for others who wish to convert.

In a statement that many haredim would term heresy, he wrote that the demand that converts commit to keeping all the commandments does not apply to them. He has even said that serving in the IDF indicates more of a commitment to the Jewish people than abiding by all halachic restrictions.

“There are 400,000 people in Israel and three million around the world who require a solution,” he said. “Every Jew we lose is precious. Others try to create problems. I believe in trying to create solutions within Halacha and sane Judaism with a more lenient path. Most of the problems with converts can be fixed within an Orthodox framework that the Reform and Conservative streams would accept. We just need to put the issue in the hands of rabbis who understand the people’s needs.”

Amsalem’s views on military or national service for the haredim are equally controversial within his community.

He wants to limit the right to avoid army or national service to a set number of elite yeshiva students via clear criteria.

“When I asked my colleagues in Shas why they send so many people to learn Torah who are neither fit for it not particularly interested in learning full time, I saw I was talking to a wall,” he said.

One of his own sons served in the IDF’s Central Command, and another is on the way to the Tank Corps. A third son served in the Nachal Haredi, a special unit of haredi men who have daily Torah classes and prayer services to accommodate their lifestyle.

Despite the many challenges Israel is facing, Amsalem said, he was optimistic that problems in Israeli society can be fixed.

“We have a tradition that the Holy Temple was destroyed by baseless hatred, so we must rebuild it with unconditional love,” he said. “But we have to do it fast, because what wasn’t done until now will be harder to do later.”

Central New Jersey federation executive vice president Stanley Stone said that both his community and MetroWest want to make a positive impact on the quality of life in Israel.

Max Kleinman, executive vice president of UJC MetroWest, said he invited Amsalem to the community because he believes it is important for his message to be heard.

The federations “have been warriors for Israeli hasbara [public diplomacy] and now The New York Times is making it look like Israel is controlled by Jewish ayatollas,” Kleinman said. “We have to do what we can to support a positive civil society and back liberal standards for conversion to make Israel livable for all Jews and prevent tension with the Diaspora.”

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