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Mother and Fighter for Religious Tolerance Quits Beit Shemesh

The Los Angeles-born woman, whose daughter was spat on by extreme Haredim in Beit Shemesh, has given up her fight for religious tolerance and leaves the city , but she blames modern orthodox Jews.
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Hadassa Margolese walking her daughter Naama to school in Beit Shemesh a few days after Naama was harassed by Haredi Orthodox men in December 1911

Hadassa Margolese walking her daughter Naama to school in Beit Shemesh a few days after Naama was harassed by Haredi Orthodox men in December 1911
Photo Credit: Flash 90

Two years ago, Hadassa Margolese became a symbol of resistance to Haredi Orthodox domination after she allowed her 8-year-old daughter to tell an Israeli reporter how religious men had spit on her as she walked to school.

The report made headlines around the world and cast Margolese into the spotlight as a defender of the rights and values of the Modern Orthodox community in Beit Shemesh, a city of approximately 75,000 just off the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with a growing Haredi population.

Now Margolese has departed Beit Shemesh — driven out not by the Haredim with whom she once clashed but by members of her own modern Orthodox community.

In May, Margolese published a column on the website of the Israeli daily Maariv detailing the degrading treatment she had endured during her monthly visits to a public mikveh, or ritual bath, a practice required by religious laws on marital intimacy. But rather than rally around her as it did in 2011, some in the modern Orthodox community turned on Margolese, subjecting her to a steady stream of online vitriol.

“I was airing our own dirty laundry as opposed to before, when I was airing another community’s dirty laundry,” she said. “I hear from so many women about their negative experiences [at the mikveh]. I thought people would say, ‘Yes, let’s change this.’ ”

Margolese, 32, is something of a reluctant activist. Unlike many Israeli social reformers, who aggressively seek media attention and speak in confident tones, Margolese is quiet and unassuming, cautious of offending friends and guarded when it comes to her personal life.

She assumed the protest mantle two years ago, she says, mainly out of necessity. And from the time that conflict died down until the mikveh column, she largely retreated into private life, visiting Beit Shemesh’s Haredi neighborhoods only when necessary.

“I really have very mixed feelings about it because I want to make whatever changes I can possibly make, but on the other hand, being a public figure isn’t so simple,” she said. “Really the only way to change things is by being public. If you’re not public, nobody cares what you have to say.”

Born in Los Angeles, Margolese came to Israel at the age of 2. A self-identified feminist, Margolese says inequalities between men and women in Judaism have bothered her since she was a child, when she began to question why Orthodox men bless God each morning for not making them women. She apparently did not know or did not accept modern orthodox explanations that the blessing is not anti-feminist and in fact is an expression of thanks by men that they can perform mitzvahs that women are not required to keep.

Margoles now is living a more tranquil life in a town of secular and modern Orthodox families she prefers not to name. She plans to continue to be active on the mikveh issue, though in a more circumscribed way, conducting low-key meetings with activists and politicians, and confining her writing to her blog.

“I’d like to be a social activist,” she said. “I don’t think I have a thick enough skin to be a politician.”

In her mikveh column, Margolese described the way mikveh supervisors would question her Jewish observance and stare at her as she entered and left the water naked. An attendant would interrogate her about how thoroughly she cleaned herself and demand that she return to the sink for another wash.

“I’m supposed to feel clean after the mikveh,” Margolese wrote, “but instead I feel degraded and dirty.”

Soon after the column was published, Margolese was at a meeting of the Knesset Caucus for the Advancement of Women. She planned to stay afterward to meet politicians sympathetic to her cause, but shaken by a stream of negative comments being posted to her Facebook wall — some of them by friends — she left early.

“The humiliation I felt from these individuals was worse than all of my negative mikveh experiences all put together,” Margolese wrote on her blog. “I knew about the gossip going on around me. I cried for days. I couldn’t breathe. I stopped leaving my house other than to go to work. I decided that it is time to move.”

Margolese’s departure comes as tensions between the modern Orthodox and Haredi residents in Beit Shemesh continues to flare.

Last month, a group of Haredim smashed the windows of a bus after a women refused to give up her seat and sit in the back. This week, police arrested 14 Haredi rioters who blocked a major street and set trash bins on fire to protest construction at a Beit Shemesh site that once may have been a burial ground.

Such clashes are not the cause of Margolese’s departure, but they have led other families to ditch Beit Shemesh in recent years, according to City Councilman Shalom Lerner.

“I’m sorry she’s leaving, but it’s her right if she feels better elsewhere,” Lerner said. “Hadassa isn’t the first one to leave and is not the only one thinking about leaving. The past five years haven’t been good.”

Though a number of initiatives aimed at promoting coexistence in Beit Shemesh were launched in the wake of the incident with Margolese’s daughter, the city is still wrestling with its identity. An acrimonious mayoral campaign is underway, pitting the Haredi incumbent against a modern Orthodox opponent.

Activists say the result will determine the city’s future.

This article was written by Ben Sales for the JTA.

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7 Responses to “Mother and Fighter for Religious Tolerance Quits Beit Shemesh”

  1. Alan Kardon says:

    To the men who spat on this child you should start saying a prayer that you did not do it to any of my family. There is no excuse for this behavior. Sorry that this family had no one to stand up for them. Wishing Hadassa Margolese and her daughter happiness and peace in their new home.

  2. Miriam Goodman says:

    You don't bring about change [as she writes] by airing all the complaints in a secular newspaper..You bring about change by writing an articles in religious Jewish newspapers….Makar Rishon, Hamodia, Mishpachat etc… You form committee with balanot and together you bring about change. How many secular Kallot did this article scare away.

  3. Hadassa is a gem. Never give up. These so called Chareim, are just as bad as any religious fanatic around the world who believe in "my way or the highway".
    This is not the Tora way and not "veahavta lereacha kamocha".

  4. Linda Green says:

    Fanaticism on any level destroys justice. Activists need to speak gently and carry a big stick.

  5. Gideon Yavin says:

    NOBODY EVER WINS A WAR. Sometimes one side looses less then the other side and is erroniously named the victor. Either way it is the folly of the Roman Exile Mindset. Here she is the victem of her own petard. Like Dov Lipman and Moshe Amsalem she has still a lot of suffering coming herway for the enormous damage that they caused and are causing the Torah Observant community.

  6. Sara Conway says:

    I believe all these publicize Anti-Chareidi articles are a concerted attempt for Modern Orthodox to improve their political power in the upcoming elections. I believe people are purposely provoking negative responses.

  7. Forgive your enemy for your own good. Pray for them.

Comments are closed.

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