Organizers Nix Massive U.S. Rally to Protest Haredi Draft in Israel

Demonstration scheduled for next week and planned by ultra-Orthodox rabbis plagued by disorganization and funding problems.

NEW YORK – A massive rally being planned by ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States to protest the drafting of Israeli yeshiva students into the army has been canceled due to organizational and funding problems, Haaretz has learned.

The demonstration, tentatively scheduled for January 7, aimed to bring together tens of thousands of protesters to denounce Israel's planned induction of Haredi yeshiva students to the Israel Defense Forces.

Israeli lawmakers earlier this year approved a bill that would increase by the thousands the number of Haredi men joining the army, in an effort to more fairly distribute the burden of army service among Israelis.

However, efforts to draft Haredi yeshiva students have stalled, as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon just last week postponed once again the drafting of 1,800 yeshiva students who were to have joined the army at the end of this month. They are now due to be drafted in April 2014.

The U.S. rally was supposed to have been the largest gathering of Haredi activists since a May 2012 protest brought some 40,000 to Citi Field, a New York ballpark, where they listened to rabbis rail against the dangers of the Internet. However, no location had been secured and funding sources remained unclear for the $2 million minimum that would have been required to stage it.

This demonstration was being organized at the behest of the Gerrer Rebbe, sources told Haaretz, although some major Israeli Haredi leaders, particularly Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman -- the venerated leader of Israel's Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community -- were opposed to the idea of the gathering from the outset.

According to reports, the planned rally was already running into trouble last week following an organizational meeting at the office of Jewish philanthropist Sol “Shlomo” Werdiger.

Werdiger is close to the Ger Hasidic Rebbe, and is also one of Ger’s major funders in the U.S., largely through his Werdiger Family Foundation -- which on its 2011 tax return reported assets of more than $23 million. Virtually all of the Werdiger Foundation’s $1.1 million in 2011 distributions went to Haredi educational institutions, including Ger organizations. Werdiger did not respond to phone or e-mail messages at his office and home seeking comment about the event.

At the time of the meeting at Werdiger's office, it was unclear which Haredi groups would back the demonstration and how the at least $2 million would be raised. Initially rabbis from the Hasidic groups Ger, Belz, Skver and Vishnitz were on board for the rally and members of Israel’s Council of Torah Sages were planning to arrive in the U.S. for it on Sunday.

According to Yeshiva World News, the Belzer Rebbe on Monday said he would not take part, citing “personal reasons,” and the Karliner-Stoliner Rebbe instructed his associates not to take part in the event's planning committee.

Meanwhile, Agudath Israel of America took a hands-off approach with this latest planned gathering. The organization “stood ready to assist the esteemed visitors in any way we could, but we were not involved in the decision to have the event or its planning, and I have no information about why the plans were changed,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the group.

Another Haredi source told Haaretz that its cancellation was rooted in the community's inability to organize a large-scale gathering that would be seen as bashing Israel. Rally planners were unable even to craft a clear message about its intended message.

“Nobody knew what the point was and it ended up collapsing,” the source said. “They couldn’t even decide what a poster would look like. There was a lot of chaos.”

Stefano Giovannini, VosIzNeias.com