One after another the Haredim came up to the reporters. Some gave their full names, some refused to give any name or - as with one leading rabbi - asked that their names not be published. Some approached in the streets of Beit Shemesh, some made a phone call.
They're not reaching out to protest the media's portrayal of the ultra-Orthodox, after Haredi residents of Beit Shemesh harassed and spat at religious Zionist schoolgirls, attacked a television news crew trying to film a sign that ordered women to walk on the other side of the street, and called the police "Nazis" when they escorted municipal officials who took down the sign.
They're reaching out to plead for the help of journalists who work for secular newspapers, which many ultra-Orthodox now think will play a decisive role in increasing the public pressure on the extremists living in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem. They want the police and the government to get on the extremists' case, because the leadership vacuum created by politicians, rabbis and newspapers that serve the ultra-Orthodox world has left mainstream Haredim looking for help in places they normally wouldn't go.
Changes are afoot even within the Haredi media. True, the ultra-Orthodox Yated Neeman newspaper warned in its lead headline on Monday of an "incitement campaign" against the ultra-Orthodox, which it said was aimed at breaking up the coalition alliance between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Haredi parties, as well as putting a damper on the goal of making more Jews Torah-observant. But several writers for Haredi websites are consistently and vigorously attacking the extremists - and even declaring them to be enemies of the ultra-Orthodox, no less.
"This is the time to create a barrier between us and the extremists," said Aryeh Goldhaber, an activist in the Tov movement, which represents moderate Haredim on the Beit Shemesh and Betar Ilit city councils. "People, even among the secular population, are beginning to realize that those who are going wild in Beit Shemesh are a crazy extremist group spreading fear through the streets, beating people, vandalizing, using violence. The public is afraid of them, the rabbis are afraid of them. This has to stop."
Tov representatives, who paid a visit Monday to the home of Na'ama Margolese, an 8-year-old girl who was spat upon by Haredim protesting the "immodesty" of religious schoolgirls on their way to class, see themselves as an alternative to the ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas. In addition to seeking a crackdown on the extremists, Tov also wants to develop a different model of ultra-Orthodox, said Goldhaber.
For instance, though many ultra-Orthodox men refuse to work for a living, Goldhaber does, and he is trying to foster a larger group of Haredim who both work and learn Torah. He spoke of an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, Metivta Beit Shemesh, that is one of the few Haredi yeshivas in Israel in which high school students take the bagrut matriculation exams.
He says Haredim like him fall between the cracks.
"Instead of helping us, the establishment ignores us or makes it hard for us," said Goldhaber.
The Beit Shemesh municipality did not allocate land for the yeshiva, forcing the founders to solicit donations from the parents of prospective students and rent a building. Goldhaber said the Education Ministry does not officially recognize the yeshiva and that it has faced many bureaucratic obstacles.
"The more support we get from the outside, the more effective we will be able to be," he said. "But if we aren't granted legitimacy, both from the public at large and from the ultra-Orthodox population, if we don't manage to establish more normal yeshivas where you can take the bagrut, then we're on the sure path to civil war."
Another area resident, a Hasidic man who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh, called on the police to take action against the extremists.
"The police have to crack down on them," he said. "They're violent, they threaten us, they're strangling us and their own rabbis. They don't let anyone live."
The man said his wife quit what he said was her "kosher" job, for which she studied at a Haredi institute for professional training, because extremists warned them they would put up flyers condeming them if she didn't.
"Their rabbis don't dare say a word to them," the man said. "I think that the ones responsible for excluding women here are the state, the police - for not doing anything about them."
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