At the beginning of the week in which Israel celebrated its independence, Yoelish Kraus was set, for the first time in his life, to lose the extreme freedom he’s pursued all his life. He was about to start serving a five-month prison term. Kraus, who in the past was dubbed by the media the “operations officer of the Eda Haredit” ultra-Orthodox communal organization in Jerusalem – a nonexistent position from which he disassociated himself – was convicted of failing to report the revenues from a slaughterhouse he ran in Jerusalem. In addition to being ordered to pay 250,000 shekels (about $70,000) in arrears, he was sentenced to a short prison term. He was also convicted of not having an Israeli ID card.
A few days before his scheduled incarceration date, Kraus looked a bit worried, but also somewhat bemused at the looming change of atmosphere. There’s never a dull moment in his small apartment – two connecting rooms and a mini-kitchen – in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood. Doors open and shut as the 16 children of Kraus and his wife, Rachel, ranging in age from 3 to 22, come and go, along with visitors from here and there: neighbors, local children, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law and two or three toddler grandchildren – Kraus doesn’t exactly remember whose. In comparison to the constant melee of home, prison will be a vacation, Kraus says, and will give him time to write his autobiography. Since 2011, when the slaughterhouse ceased operations, Kraus has worked long daily shifts in a catering firm, as a vegetable peeler and slicer, in order to provide for the large family that he and Rachel are raising. He’s 44, she’s 43.
According to Kraus, the local abattoir had existed for a century, but lacked the necessary permits. “I tried to get the permits, and in the meantime slaughtering went on once or twice a week for the community,” he explains. Under the rules of kashrut as set forth in the Shulhan Arukh, the 16th-century code of Jewish law, a fowl slated for slaughter must be capable of walking about two meters, as proof that it is healthy and fit for human consumption. Sticklers about Jewish law are concerned that the big plants, where hundreds of birds are slaughtered hourly, have no time to ensure that the birds meet this athletic criterion. Thus, the community needs its own slaughterhouse. By the way, Kraus himself is a vegetarian.
“One day the tax authorities, the police and municipal inspectors showed up, demolished the slaughterhouse and did investigations,” Kraus relates. “After a five-year trial I [was convicted of a] failure to report. It doesn’t matter whether you have a profit or a loss – not reporting is an offense.” He was ordered to pay 100,000 shekels (about $28,000) in back taxes and 80,000 shekels to the VAT authorities, and was slapped with a 50,000-shekel fine for not reporting income. He was also sentenced to five months in prison.
Why didn’t you file tax reports?
“The slaughterhouse didn’t belong to me, it was run by a company. After the municipality told them to stop, I went on operating the place: I thought I would sort out the permit, and then it would revert to the previous owner. Getting a permit is very tough bureaucratically. There was no intent to evade taxes. The rent and the salary to the slaughterer cost me more than what people paid [for the service], and many people didn’t pay at all, because they don’t have money. Our ideology is not to not pay the state, it’s not to take from the state. I don’t want favors from them.”
The court agreed to defer the start of Kraus’ prison term to allow him to appear before a committee that decides who is eligible to be incarcerated in the prison’s Orthodox ward. He started his term on May 10. He will pay the money he owes in installments, which he hopes he will be able to meet. “I don’t think that anyone in the country has gotten a sentence like mine – both the fine and prison. After all, they didn’t say I evaded taxes, only that I didn’t report. There’s a singer who evaded tax of 2.5 million shekels and was sentenced to four months of community service. [He’s referring to Eyal Golan.] The judge wrote that it’s because he has three children – and I, who have 16 children, get a punishment.”
By “our ideology,” Kraus is referring to the Haredi sects that do not recognize Israel’s existence and oppose the state and Zionism. Thus, Kraus and his wife do not have ID cards – in fact, he doesn’t even have an ID number, due to a bureaucratic snafu shortly after his birth. After being charged with not being in possession of an ID card, Kraus says, he tried to obtain one, but unsuccessfully, as the Interior Ministry has no documentation attesting to his identity. Kraus says he filed an administrative petition to the District Court to obtain an ID card, “but for 10 months they’ve rejected the request. On the one hand I’m charged with not having an ID card, and on the other hand they don’t give me one.”
According to Kraus, he’s never needed the document. “My father didn’t want me to get an ID card,” he says. (All Israelis must carry an ID card from the age of 16.) “He was afraid that I would get a driving license, that I would flee the country. I’m also an only son – I have one older sister. My father said: One misfit is enough, I won’t have more. I said I would have 22 children, so maybe one would come out okay. In the meantime I have 16, and there’s more where they came from.”
Kraus is a member of the Jerusalem-based, Hasidic and anti-Zionist Toldos Aharon sect. He and his wife decline to accept National Insurance Institute monthly child allowances (which could be of significant assistance, considering that they have 13 children of eligible age) and do not belong to a health maintenance organization. (Nevertheless, income tax, NII and health insurance payments are mandatorily deducted from Kraus’ salary in the catering service.)
What do you do when a child is sick?
Kraus: “Statistics show that people who don’t use HMOs are sick a lot less. If we have an occasional need, we go to a private doctor. All the children were born in Bikur Holim Hospital [in Jerusalem], and we paid privately each time. Each birth cost between 9,000 and 12,000 shekels.”
If you pay anyway, why not use what the state offers?
“If I take money, I’ll be theirs. If I’m theirs, tomorrow they’ll tell me to take [the Education Ministry’s] core subjects, and I’ll have to, because I’m taking money from them. There’s no such thing as them giving to you and not asking for something in return.”
Yoelish and Rachel (nee Epstein) are married according to halakha but are not registered in the Chief Rabbinate. As a result, all 16 of their children are registered as having an unmarried mother. The children have ID numbers (at least, 13 of them do, because the bureaucracy somehow overlooked three of them), but they are not registered under their names in the Interior Ministry. When the boys receive a first army call-up notice – which they ignore – they are noted as “son of Bat Miriam Epstein.” (Miriam Epstein is Rachel’s mother.)
Bat Miriam Epstein – that is, Rachel – Kraus’ wife, a pleasant, sociable, charismatic woman, is a significant figure in the neighborhood. During our conversation, people arrived with various requests and the phone rang nonstop. “This is an open home, flowing,” Rachel says.
The children, too, enjoy the action, occasionally listening in on conversations and laughing at their father’s jokes. They go rocketing from the house when they hear a rumor that a police van has dared to enter the neighborhood, because of a neighbors’ quarrel. The adolescents want to throw stones, the little ones want to shout “Nazis!” at the officers. The girls return amused: one of the officers was a policewoman, who was branded a “pritzeh” – Yiddish for slut.
Rachel, like her husband, is from Mea She’arim, a large Haredi quarter in central Jerusalem. Her family belongs to Neturei Karta, another anti-Zionist sect. She used to run a day nursery, but at the moment doesn’t work outside the home, as she is caring for her aged parents, who live nearby. She’s the youngest of four children. Her father, who grew up in Argentina, ran a yeshiva in Jerusalem that Yoelish attended, after he crossed the lines from the Hasidic world to an institution associated with Neturei Karta, whose origins lie in non-Hasidic Lithuanian Jewry. Hence the match between Yoelish and Rachel.
Is it usual for Hasidim to marry Lithuanian Jews?
Rachel: “It happens, though not very often, because usually Hasidim take genuine Hasidim, even though Toldos Aharon and Neturei Karta have the same approach. Yoelish and I each took a little from the other. We are educating the children in institutions that don’t belong to Toldos Aharon, but whose customs are Hasidic. For example, Hanukkah candles are lit after sunset, like Hasidim – with Lithuanians it’s before sunset. But we don’t belong to a specific Hasidic dynasty such as Toldos Aharon, because Yoelish felt that we want to be more on a middle path.”
The neighborhood here isn’t considered friendly to secular women, or in general. How is it that your house is open to everyone?
Rachel: “We are Jews, we are hospitable to everyone. There are homes that are more closed, but if you knock at the door they’ll let you in, provided you’re dressed modestly. We don’t accept the state, we are against the idea of Zionism. But each person is distinctive. Every Jew is a soul created by the Lord. Every Jewish soul is a diamond. When Jew meets with Jew there is an inner closeness, a root or a bond. Only the burden of the exile caused the separation. Unity builds the Jewish people.”
In contrast to Kraus, who was trying to be positive about his looming “vacation,” his wife and children were worried. They hung a note on the refrigerator reminding him not to forget to pray for the reversal of the judgment. “It struck us like a bolt from the blue,” Rachel says. “It’s a trauma for the children. They pray all day, make segulot [benevolent charms or rituals] and are preparing a thanksgiving meal [believing] it won’t happen. I tell them that if it happens, it’s all divinely ordained.
“We do not manage the world, you have to look at the positive side – it’s not a hospital or an illness – but it will be very hard in every way. He is the head of the family. At night, when he comes home from work, the children gather around him. He is like the king of the family, especially as I’m at my parents’ home a lot. We will have to cope with it, especially because he’s not someone who leaves the house much. I don’t remember the last time he went to a wedding, for example.”
Rachel also has concerns of a technical nature: Yoelish is so strict about kashrut that he doesn’t eat anything that’s not prepared at home. Rachel bakes bread for the family, and makes her own cheese. Things will be somewhat different in prison. “The prison rabbi said he would get him matzos,” Rachel says, to guarantee kashrut.
Though 16 children (9 boys and 7 girls, none of them twins) is not a neighborhood high – a nearby family has 21 children – it’s not something you see every day. “If someone imagines beforehand getting into such a project, it doesn’t look realistic,” Rachel says, referring to childbearing. “When I had my fifth child, I met a woman with 15 children. I asked her how you do it, it didn’t seem reasonable. She told me, ‘Don’t think. When you get to birth number 15, you won’t have to do anything anymore, everyone will be around you, you’ll be like a queen.’ I didn’t believe it. And now I look, and 16 children doesn’t seem like so many. We fulfill our task. It’s with the help of God. It’s not our powers. I don’t think that a mother who has fewer children has more strength or more time.”
The children attend independent schools not funded by the state, and which are geared to the family’s ideology. According to Kraus, about 40,000 children in Israel attend similar institutions, the great majority of them in Jerusalem. No precise official data about them exist, but in 2015 the Jerusalem Municipality estimated that about 10,000 children in the city were attending these institutions. Core subjects such as math and English are not taught. The girls’ curriculum consists mainly of religious studies, including prayer and Shabbat precepts. There’s also a little arithmetic and basic geometry, Jewish history and geography, along with sewing, cooking and, for those who want, there’s a class in painting. Except for religious studies, teaching is in Yiddish.
Rachel: “The purpose is to prepare for being a housewife. Afterward, many girls learn how to be teachers, but without a certificate. When they complete the 12th grade, many of them marry, and some become teachers or kindergarten teachers, or seamstresses who work at home. Or they might work a little outside the home. If a girl is interested in specific work, she learns it on her own.”
It’s terrific being the mother of 16 children, she says, now that most of them are older. “One girl likes to do laundry more, and one likes to cook more, but they all do everything, they all want the house to run like clockwork. The mother looks down from above. I see who needs a break, and I give it. Mother has a special wisdom; extra intelligence was given to women. If I see that a child needs more attention, I take him with me when I go to my parents, to talk a little. That way I listen to them, hear their requests.”
Rachel is proud of her children’s education. In fact, her eldest daughter, who was married half a year ago, rejected a candidate for a match because she heard he intended to take National Insurance allowances. “Sometimes the children are more determined than the parents, they think the parents are compromising,” she notes. “I myself would not have interfered over the NII thing, but Simcha insisted. It was also very satisfying for my father that I continued on his path. It’s in our blood. For me it’s more of a punishment to take than not to take.”
Is it usual in your community not to use HMOs, or are you the exceptions?
Rachel: “Many people today say that the HMOs are private, no longer state bodies. I couldn’t do it even if I wanted, because I don’t have an ID card. There’s an HMO doctor whom we see privately for 80 shekels [$22]. My parents don’t have an HMO, and they don’t get NII funds, so we look after them alone. We don’t rush to the hospital for every little thing. When you’re in an HMO, you go to the doctor and to hospitals more. Patients in hospitals are also neglected a lot, and at home everyone is around you. It’s also important for the children’s education – they see that granddad is not being dumped in an old-age home. He is respected, he is the head of the family.”
Rachel Kraus doesn’t feel that their contrariness makes life harder – just the opposite, in fact. “We don’t have a bank account, and anyway we don’t have extra money to put into it. If I need a check for something, I take one from friends. For the installment payments to repay a debt, our son took out an ID card and we are doing it through his bank account. In a certain sense, it’s true that we look at many things from the side, but we are also in it and see things very well.”
What does the Israeli condition look like from the side?
“The state denies the Lord and his Torah. That hurts us very much.”
Secular people feel that the state is becoming increasingly religious.
“That does not solve the problem. Even if it were a Haredi state, having a state here would still be prohibited.”
Surprisingly, the slaughterhouse case is only the second time Kraus has been arrested, even though he has led many violent struggles by the Haredi community on issues of religion and state. Kraus believes he was targeted in order to silence him, as he likes to give media interviews. His lawyer, Jonatan Kivel, from the Public Defenders’ Office, thinks the authorities are trying to make Kraus a scapegoat in order to deter others. “For example, the state refuses to issue him an ID card, claiming there’s no proof that he is Yoel Kraus, but they’re ready to imprison him under that name. That’s absurd.
“Kraus was convicted of tax offenses,” he continues, “but the court found that he acted solely for ideological reasons and not for monetary gain. After he was acquitted in Magistrate’s Court of all aspects of fraud, and the court stated that his motives were ideological, the state prosecution naturally said that it’s a typical case of tax evasion by Haredim and Arabs.”
A spokesperson for the Jerusalem district attorney’s office told Haaretz: “Yoel Kraus was convicted of failing to report income of 1.5 million shekels and sentenced to five months in prison and a fine. The court accepted the prosecution’s argument and found that Kraus and his partner systematically ignored the tax laws and the obligation to file reports. The two ran a slaughterhouse in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood without having a business permit, without keeping books properly and without reporting their revenues to the tax authorities. The Magistrate’s Court sentenced the accused to seven months in prison, and on appeal the District Court reduced it to five months and a fine, while reiterating the severity of the accused’s deeds.”
Kraus’ only previous arrest occurred in 2009, in the wake of demonstrations held in Jerusalem over the episode of “the mother who starved her child.” The woman, a mother of five and also from Toldos Aharon, was accused of maltreating her toddler son, including disconnecting him from a feeding device in Hadassah Medical Center. The welfare authorities and psychiatrists found her to be a menace to her children. The children were removed from her custody and she was indicted. The Toldos Aharon community branded this a “blood libel” and launched fierce demonstrations that ended with several people injured and several dozen arrested. Kraus says he spend a night in custody because the police wanted to distance him from the demonstrations. The charges against him were dropped within a few hours.
“They arrested me for one night, even though they knew it was not right. They were always looking for something, until they latched onto the slaughterhouse. Today no one from our communities talks to the media. At the time, I was doing well and I talked a lot.”
Kraus views the case of the mother – who eventually agreed to a plea bargain and was not jailed – as a victory for the Eda Haredit. “It was a hard blow for Hadassah,” he says. “They’ve suffered since then, because people don’t go there anymore. Haredim hardly go – only if they have no other choice. When that mother was arrested, all I did was hang up a single announcement in the street. Everyone laughed at me. I wrote that everyone who had a complaint against Hadassah should send a fax. I received hundreds of letters. We printed them, and people started to see what the hospital was doing. And since then – you can laugh, but it’s true – I claim that life expectancy in Israel is rising. People started to ask what was being done to them in the hospital, they are more afraid and ask questions, and the doctors can’t do whatever they want anymore.”
Are you involved in the current struggle against the draft for Haredim?
Kraus: “That doesn’t interest me. I say that whoever takes money [from the state] and votes in the elections, should also do army service. That’s my personal opinion. I won’t demonstrate over that. Anyway, I’m not a figure anymore, I’m forgotten. I am not in the forefront of the struggle.”
Do you miss it?
“Yes. But the army doesn’t interest me, so I’m glad I’m not available for that.”
If there were a Palestinian state, would it be simpler to live here?
“For the Haredim? Of course. And by the way, by Haredim, I mean us, not Gur and not Vizhnitz [two large Hasidic dynasties]. Just so you’ll understand the difference: They vote in the elections and take money from the state, they are part of the state. It’s only when it comes to the army that they say: Let secular folk be killed. We, the Eda Haredit, number 10,000 families. We don’t take anything from the state. We had the issue with buses where men and women sit separately. The state said it didn’t want to fund that, so we did it ourselves. There was one [bus] line, from our areas. They removed all the buses from the road, they fined us. The state doesn’t let us live. A couple of weeks ago, they arrested 25 people for pedophilia and harassment. What came of it? Nothing. They were all released – maybe one was still held. They keep trying. The police need publicity and they look for all kinds of nonsense, because they know that no one will sue them. It’s very hard for Haredim to live here.”
Despite his anarchism, Kraus contributes to the state in a sense, in ways he chooses carefully. For example, he donated his collection of 20,000 Haredi pashkevilim, or wall posters, to the National Library. “I have no problem giving,” Kraus notes. “The pashkevilim were here and no one was getting anything out of them and no research could be done on them. So I scanned the collection for the National Library. People call with questions and I instruct them on the phone where to look for what. There’s 50 years of for and against there. About demonstrations, graves, Shabbat, autopsies, daylight saving time and other issues – we boycotted Pepsi for sponsoring a Michael Jackson concert here. There were small struggles and major ones. Election posters: it’s interesting to read the notices of the previous election each time, to see what promises weren’t kept. I, of course, don’t vote.”
Is the state the enemy for you?
“Obviously. No doubt of it. They can’t bear to see us here. It pains them that we’re not part of them, so they try to force us in all kinds of ways. But they won’t succeed.”