A year ago, Yoav Lalum, an ultra-Orthodox resident of the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood in Jerusalem, wanted to register his daughter for first grade at the Beit Ya'akov ultra-Orthodox school nearest his home, in the adjacent neighborhood of Givat Shaul. But she was rejected.
Lalun, a law student, had no doubt that discrimination against Sephardic Jews was behind the decision. He decided to sue the school and the Education Ministry after receiving the approval of his rabbi, Ya'akov Yosef, the eldest son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas.
The school argued at the Jerusalem Administrative Court that the child had not been accepted because her mother was not modest, an accusation Lalum said was baseless. In the end the case was not decided because the school year was about to open. Lalum had to compromise and send his daughter to another Beit Ya'akov school some distance from his home.
It appears that Lalum's public battle against discrimination, which is one of the most painful issues in the ultra-Orthodox world, is about to bear fruit.
Lalum says that in recent years the more Sephardic parents bring their claims of discrimination by schools to the courts, the more creative ways the schools find to counter them. One of them is to divert the debate from the alleged unwillingness of the school to take in Mizrahi children, to a so-called failure to meet the "spiritual standards" of the school.
Among them are arbitrary rules about modesty that contradict the laws of the state and Jewish law, Lalum says. He says the demands are directed at women, the mothers of the female students, because "the men all wear black and white, and nothing can be said against them."
Lalum says the schools' line of defense is that as private schools, they are autonomous in setting their prerequisites. However, the schools enforce these prerequisites only with Sephardic and not with Ashkenazi mothers, he says.
Lalum has established an association to handle parents' complaints on this issue, and to run an aggressive campaign against discrimination in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Lalum is the behind-the-scenes force in a High Court petition against discrimination by parents from Elad whose daughter was rejected by the city's only Beit Ya'akov school. The parents argue ethnic discrimination. Here too the school says the child's mother does not dress modestly.
In a hearing last month, High Court President Dorit Beinisch said she was surprised at the modesty criterion and asked the Education Ministry to explain it.
Haaretz has learned from an exchange of letters in Lalum's case how the screening process works. The letters about Lalum's case were written by the school's principal, Yocheved Elyashiv, who is the daughter-in-law of the ultra-Orthodox spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv.
In the first letter, from May 2006, Elyashiv writes to supervisor Hava Irenstein of the department for recognized but unofficial schools, that the only reason the child was not accepted was "the mother's appearance." The letter also stated that "although we don't like to go into the details of the immodest dress of Mrs. Lalum, we do this at your request."
The letter then enumerates the following details: "a short, spiky wig or a long one with horizontal stripes. Her clothes are too short or too long and tight. She wears jeans skirts or skirts with a slit; her painted nails show more than anything what image Mrs. Lalum projects." The letter concludes that Mrs. Lalum's appearance is "cheap" and does not suit the spirit of Beit Ya'akov.
In December she sent an apology to Lalum, saying this came on the advice of her father-in-law.
Galit Lalum, Lalum's wife, a social worker, says Elyashiv's behavior was deeply humiliating and hurtful, and she will continue her struggle.
Elyashiv declined to comment on the content of the letters.
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