In a Jerusalem Suburb, Jewish Cultures Clash In Jerusalem, more ultra-Orthodox Jews are leaving their cloistered neighborhoods for cheaper housing in the suburbs. In one suburb, that has led to rising tensions and sporadic violence with their modern Orthodox and secular neighbors.
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In a Jerusalem Suburb, Jewish Cultures Clash

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In a Jerusalem Suburb, Jewish Cultures Clash

In a Jerusalem Suburb, Jewish Cultures Clash

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The conflict in your neighborhood over yard signs or trash may be nothing compared to the tensions in some neighborhoods outside Jerusalem. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Harediim, are leaving the city for cheaper homes in the suburbs. Some come into conflict with new neighbors they deem not kosher or modest enough.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Solly Wahlbe, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, spends his days studying the Torah. He lives in this sprawling, quiet suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh a half hour outside of Jerusalem. In an outdoor shopping area near a local supermarket, the slight 18-year-old says he approves of the big signs posted everywhere by his fellow ultra-Orthodox imploring women to dress modestly. Women wearing jeans or pants, Walbee says, are a distraction to what he calls the focused, settled minds of the Harediim.

Mr. SOLLY WAHLBE: In dealing with this issue of Torah, your mind has to be much more settled and you can't be jumping around to all sorts of different planets. You know, all sorts of different fantasies and thoughts that might come up on a teenager's head.

WESTERVELT: Or, he says softly, into the head of a married man. We're not trying to change people, he says, but they must respect our way of life. The problem is this is a public shopping center in a mixed suburb where Harediim make up a little over a quarter of the population. And a minority of ultra-Orthodox here have tried to impose respect using rocks, fists and intimidation.

Dr. Hahvah, a modern Orthodox woman who dresses modestly, keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath. One day, driving home, she saw that someone had put up a sign in her neighborhood that read, don't pass here unless you dress modestly.

Dr. HAHVAH: I find that offensive. I don't think that anybody should impose dress codes on the public.

WESTERVELT: When she tried to haul the sign down, some ultra-Orthodox pelted her and her car with rocks. Dr. Hahvah, who asked that her full name not be used, went to the local police, but she says they did nothing.

Dr. HAHVAH: It's very hard. I know the people who attacked me, and when their families come to me as a doctor and I can't say anything or do anything because it's unprofessional.

WESTERVELT: That rock attack was hardly an isolated incident. People driving on the Sabbath here have been bombarded with rocks. Earlier this year in Beit Shemesh, a young Haredi woman was sitting next to an Israeli soldier on a public bus when ultra-Orthodox men assaulted both of them and forced the woman off the bus. Men and women, they said, should be segregated.

Later, an ultra-Orthodox man who stood up to the zealots within his own community was himself brutally beaten.

Shalom Lerner is the deputy mayor of Beit Shemesh.

Deputy Mayor SHALOM LERNER (Beit Shemesh): One of the problems with this group of violent fanatics, I would call them, is that they don't know how to handle when they have a disagreement.

WESTERVELT: The deputy mayor says some Harediim have felt estranged as rising costs and overcrowding have forced more and more of them out of their sheltered neighborhood, Mea Shearim, in the heart of Jerusalem and into the suburbs.

Deputy Mayor LERNER: Culturally, it's a big change for them. This is the first time these group of people are moving out of Jerusalem, out of Mea Shearim. They're not used to seeing a woman in pants. They're not used to seeing a woman with uncovered hair, and they find it very hard to adjust.

WESTERVELT: Lerner, an observant modern Orthodox, says Beit Shemesh leaders said enough is enough after some businesses received mafia-like threats to put up modesty signs or else. Then a family whose television was allegedly visible through a window got a threatening letter demanding they cover up the TV or face attack.

Lerner says the town made it clear to the ultra-Orthodox that there will be big legal, financial and political costs if the threats, bullying and violence continue.

Deputy Mayor LERNER: If it's a school they want, the school will be the last one to get allocation. It won't be where they want. We won't give them any financial help. If they want to be tough, we'll be tough.

WESTERVELT: This past summer, community members started a group that's trying to narrow the religious and cultural divide through dialogue. Organizers say they've made some progress. But both sides acknowledge the goal of the dialogue in the end is not wider integration, but a kind of peaceful segregation.

David is a 25-year-old ultra-Orthodox who studies Torah here full time.

DAVID: If they want to be the way they want, we want to be the way we want, we can't put them together because it's two different things. It's two different worlds.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Ramat Beit Shemesh.

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