The Shas paradox
Two months ago, Shas leaders attempted to solve a crisis of the utmost delicacy: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's granddaughter was not accepted to a prestigious religious seminary for girls. Government ministers and other officials pleaded for the young girl's soul and poured out supplications before the heads of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv and Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman. The principal of the Ashkenazi institution in Jerusalem eventually surrendered, admitting the spiritual leader's 14-year-old granddaughter.
A generation has passed since Sephardim Shomrei Torah (Shas for short) was founded in Jerusalem as an answer to the exclusion of Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) from ultra-Orthodox educational institutions. Since then, the movement has gained a great deal of momentum and has established Sephardic ultra-Orthodox educational institutions all around the country. However, the leadership left the Sephardic revolution to the masses. Members of the "elite" observe Sephardic rabbinical rulings, eat only products that bear the Shas "Beit Yosef" kosher seal, subscribe to the Yom Leyom newspaper and every few years slip the right vote in the ballot box. But they send their children to Ashkenazi religious schools.
The situation does not sit well with the party leadership. A senior member of the party, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, says that the biggest paradox of the Shas movement is its class-based hierarchy - the fact that parents who do not number among "the princes" or whose children are not excellent students go around "frustrated, in tears, weeping and disgraced." Also grave are the political connections, he says, as exhibited by the story of Yosef's granddaughter.
According to the Shas source, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox establishment is dependent on the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox establishment and the United Torah Judaism party: "In this way, the Ashkenazim keep us at ground-level. They create our dependency on them, especially among the Sephardic leadership."
Please shut the door
The Shas source's children are all being educated at well-regarded Ashkenazi-Lithuanian schools. This detail will not give him away, since all of the Shas leaders, ministers and Knesset members - including Yosef - send their children to the same schools.
The source: "The solution to this painful problem lies with the Ashkenazim. If they want to do right by us, they should make a sweeping decision not to accept any Sephardim, and it won't matter if the family's name is Yosef, Yishai or Deri. In that way, there will be no more social classes. Today they are taking all of our best children to Ashkenazi institutions and leaving us the mediocre ones. If the Ashkenazim wouldn't accept anyone, then there would no longer be social classes within the Sephardic public and the children would not be frustrated."
Isn't that your job? The job of the Shas leadership?
"If there is a hermetic closure of doors on the part of the Lithuanians, it will be perfect. No other way can work now, because Shas does not have the ability to go from family to family, with lists, and make all of them send their children to Sephardic institutions. There is no way of changing this from within."
Does Rabbi Yosef think this way too?
"The rabbi doesn't like this, but he has a conflict. What do you want? Do you want him to force his sons to send their children to Sephardic institutions? Just as he can't start a political party with his children alone, he also can't overhaul the education system only with them. So there are Torah scholars who are Sephardic at home, follow Sephardic rabbinic strictures and come into conflict with Ashkenazim - but when it comes to learning, they study at their institutions."
Rabbi Avraham Yosef, the rabbi of Holon and Ovadia Yosef's son, says his father "knows that a revolution doesn't happen in a single day. It trickles down. Thanks to it, even at Lithuanian yeshivas, a scholar has to study halakha and not just Gemara, as had been the custom. The current situation will resolve itself, ultimately."
During the season when hundreds of thousands of students register for religious schools, the voices of Sephardic parents claiming discrimination by Ashkenazi institutions are amplified. Such claims have already been brought before the courts, which have confirmed them, and other claims, are already in the pipeline. On the ground, hardly anything has changed - but the rhetoric is escalating.
In Shas circles, an anti-Lithuanian pamphlet, Meholot Hamanaiyim, has been circulating. The trigger for its publication is the rabbinical debate surrounding the sabbatical (fallow) year, which had Yosef and Elyashiv at loggerheads. However, much of the manual is devoted to accusations of racism in the Lithuanian public. Among other things, it tells of methods used to reduce the proportion of Sephardic students; for example, holding classes in Yiddish.
"Awaken, brethren, and sound a voice of great protest that will be heard from one end of the world to the other," exhorts the anonymous writer, "to inform men of generous spirit from among our brothers to pull back their hands from supporting those institutions until they accept more sons of Sepharadim."
These accusations are also stirring polemics within the Sephardic camp - the first signs of a revolt against the Shas leadership. "Ashkenazi racism does exist, but it does not cleanse Shas," says A., a yeshiva student from the Har Nof neighborhood in Jerusalem. "How is it possible to complain of discrimination and at the same continue to knock on the Ashkenazi doors? We Sephardim must raise ourselves up and disengage ourselves entirely from dependence on the Ashkenazim. In this, the Shas leadership has failed."
These arguments are eliciting broad agreement in the Ashkenazi circles, and less so among the Sepharadim. A. is associated with a small group headed by Rabbi Avraham Zafrani, the head of a relatively obscure kollel (yeshiva for married men) in Jerusalem, which is trying to nurture that "authentic" Sephardic ultra-Orthodox education that prevailed prior to Shas' founding.
Zafrani refused to be interviewed for this report, on the grounds that the polemic should be conducted within the bounds of the ultra-Orthodox community. In an interview to the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Hai about a month ago, he said "this is a problem of the Sepharadim and not of the Ashkenazim. We aren't reading the map; we simply don't want to go out of Egypt."
The root of the Sephardic-Lithuanian connection was planted at the beginning of the 20th century. In "Shas: The Historical Depth," Dr. Ya'akov Lupu tells of a group of rabbis from yeshivas in Lithuania that in 1912 set out for Morocco to "save" members of the Jewish community at a time when the French Alliance network of schools was making inroads. The connection grew deeper after the founding of the State of Israel.
The institutional pyramid
One person who did not receive an Ashkenazi education is Yosef, who in his sermons frequently even condemns "the fruitless, in-depth studies" of Lithuanian yeshivas. He himself studied at the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which offered, among other things, the study of rabbinical law and Kabbala. However, nearly all of those who helped him establish Shas in the 1980s were educated in Ashkenazi yeshivas.
Religious Sephardic parents describe the ultra-Orthodox class system as such: The lofty ideal to which nearly every family aspires but which few achieve, is acceptance at an Ashkenazi-Lithuanian school. Anyone who isn't accepted turns to a Sephardic institution, whose instruction mirrors that of Lithuanian yeshivas - where Ashkenazi pronunciation, liturgy and melody are used. The third option is Sephardic ultra-Orthodox institutions that try to preserve the Sephardic method of learning and place special emphasis on the study of rabbinical law and Sephardic Hebrew. Shas' schools are considered suitable for people from outlying neighborhoods, from the bottom of the social pyramid.
This class structure does not necessarily reflect the quality of the studies, which are also considered to be excellent in some of the "lower" institutions. "The greater the natural rate of reproduction, the more excellent Sephardic educational institutions are opened," relates the Shas source. "Today there are tens of thousands of Sephardic families that aren't even trying to register their children in Sephardic institutions."
According to Rabbi Avraham Yosef, who sends his children to Ashkenazi schools, "today there are at least 10 Sephardic yeshivas that are just as good as Ashkenazi yeshivas, but they lack the PR of Ashkenazi yeshivas. They have a good reputation, and it is impossible to compete with this. How do you create a good reputation? Apparently this is something that the Sephardim haven't learned yet. The approach of the Sephardic rabbis has always been 'to walk humbly.'"
Yeshiva student A. is nostalgic for precisely that kind of yeshiva, like Porat Yosef and Talmud Torah Bnei Zion, Sephardic ultra-Orthodox institutions. Today, many of them no longer exist and others are fighting to survive.
"When I was a boy," recalls A., 30, "people weren't so carried away. Eighty to 90 percent sent their children to Sephardic schools from the outset. Today the vast majority tries to get accepted at Ashkenazi institutions and there is dearth of registration at the veteran schools for young boys. A parent who himself attended a Sephardic ultra-Orthodox school prefers to send his son to an Ashkenazi institution, or at least 'becomes more Ashkenazi.' This revolution occurred over the past 15 years."
"The imitations aren't succeeding," said Zafrani in his interview with Kol Hai. "Sephardic institutions must be different. The Hasidim don't resemble the Lithuanians either in the ways they study and pray. The slang also needs to be more Sephardic-kabbalistic, like it has always been, but we so much want to resemble [them]." The problem, according to him, begins with self-confidence: "It is necessary to heal, it is necessary to invest in one expert psychologist who will treat everyone."
"Even if it is the right thing to do, to establish authentic Sephardic institutions, it is still too early," responds the Shas source. "You can't start producing an automobile according to a certain model and also decide that the steering wheel will be on the right and not on the left. First you have to know how to create institutions of your own, then introduce a suitable style. It could be that, at first, it will be necessary to educate the youth to suckle from the Lithuanians' sharpness."