It's Convenient and It's Also Free'

A mass switch to ultra-Orthodox schools is just one sign of the Bukharan community's return to religion.

Every morning on Lod Road, near the entrance to the Neveh Menahem neighborhood, a line of women wait with their children for rides to their schools and kindergartens. Sometimes they exchange a few words in Russian. A few minutes later, several buses stop beside them, the kids are swallowed up inside and the mothers wave goodbye. Shortly before 4 P.M. they'll resurface to pick up their kids.

This scene is typical of many neighborhoods in Southern Tel Aviv and other places where there is a large concentration of Bukharan immigrants. The local Neveh Menahem school, the Golomb school, is actually on the other side of the main road that bisects the neighborhood. But in the last year or two, the children of many Bukharan families in the neighborhood have been bused to distant schools in South Tel Aviv. In the Shapira neighborhood, also in South Tel Aviv, many children from Bukharan homes have left the state religious school, Shorashim, a short walk from their houses, and transferred to schools outside the neighborhood.

In the last two years, more and more Bukharan families have been transferring their children to ultra-Orthodox schools. The switch to these schools is only one of the indicators of the increasing trend toward ultra-Orthodoxy in the Bukharan community in recent years.

The Bukharan community, which today numbers some 200,000 people, has been experiencing a mass return to religion that began over a decade ago, with the major waves of immigration of the early 1990s. Over the last three years, this process seems to have intensified. The immigrants themselves complain about it. "Go to Tel Kabir; 80 percent of the Bukharans there are newly religious," relates S. "I have a cousin there and he and his three sisters and his parents, and their families, have returned to religion in the last two years. It starts slowly. People that I know, friends, relatives, start showing up at family gatherings wearing kippot and covering their hair. Then suddenly they don't want to come to your house if you don't keep a glatt kosher kitchen. They observe the Shabbat; you don't. They start making little gibes and make you feel uncomfortable. As if you're a thorn in a bed of roses. That's how families fall apart."

S. is 34 and belongs to the veteran group of Bukharan immigrants. He came as a child with his family and grew up in the Shapira neighborhood. When he got older, he moved to another city. Like other Bukharan immigrants interviewed for this article, he is following the increasing move toward ultra-Orthodoxy among his compatriots with great suspicion. He is opposed to it because he says it is being done by "coercion."

"The ones becoming religious are the immigrants who came during the last 10 years. The ultra-Orthodox exploit their weakness and economic difficulties," says S., who prefers to remain anonymous, "because of the social and family pressure."

A feeling of home

Rabbi Michael Rivkin, a Conservative rabbi who came here from the former Soviet Union, provides some background to the cultural and social revolution among Bukharan immigrants. He notes that the return to religion started with people joining Shas several years ago (resulting in one Bukharan MK, Amnon Cohen). "Bukharan immigrants are similar to Jews of Middle Eastern origin," he explains. "They lived as a traditional society under the Soviet regime. That is, the authority of a spiritual leader is much dearer to them than a Westerner can understand. When they dreamed of the State of Israel, they thought of a nature reserve of traditional Judaism. But they were disappointed. The permissiveness in relations between men and women that is common here is foreign to them. Over time, increasing dissatisfaction emerged among them. In the Shas schools they found a warm environment that they appreciate; alongside children with a Mediterranean appearance, their children felt more comfortable."

The same applies to purely Bukharan schools. These schools, even more than Shas schools, provide the immigrants with a comfortable atmosphere and a feeling of home, says Rivkin. "You also can't discount the fact that they get a free education. In the eyes of immigrants from the CIS, any spending, even in modest amounts, on education is superfluous, because there, education is paid for by the state." Rivkin believes that "perpetuating the separation between ethnic groups, as the ultra-Orthodox currently do, is a dangerous tendency that is contrary to the fundamentals of Zionism, whose purpose was to transform Judaism into one society."

The largest network approached by the Bukharans is Sha'arei Zion. In 1999, this network reported (based on data from the registrar of nonprofit organizations) 2,700 students. Its schools are located in Bnei Brak, South Tel Aviv (in the Shapira, Kiryat Shalom and Hatikva neighborhoods), Jaffa, Or Yehuda, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Ono and Afula.

The Bukharans' mass move to ultra-Orthodox schools is spurred by a well-oiled machine financed by three wealthy Bukharan families: Lev Leviev, a well-known figure in Israel, and the lesser known Elishiyuv family and the Alazrov brothers. They are in agreement that the community should be brought back to the sources, i.e., to ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

From the Bukharan community's perspective, these people are success symbols. All three families made their fortunes in the diamond business. They have considerable influence among the immigrants. Leviev, Elishiyuv and the Alazrov brothers, who are all related and in close contact, see the return to religious observance as an important enterprise and believe that the way to do it is through education. They have set up various organizations that support immigrants financially through their educational institutions, which cater to children from the age of three months. The immigrants pay just a nominal monthly fee, and bus transportation is included in the price.

The amazing thing about this amazing enterprise is the rare cooperation among the various ultra-Orthodox streams, including Chabad, Shas, and first and foremost, the Lithuanian organization, Lev L'achim.

For the last three years, a pleasant young ultra-Orthodox man has visited A. every Monday evening in her South Tel Aviv home. He is a Bnei Brak resident learning in a kollel and is a father of five. A. and her husband know him well. They talk with him, tell him about their problems and hear words of Torah from him in return. Before holidays, they hear a lecture on the meaning of the holiday. They often argue politely on Jewish topics. They don't know that he is a Lev L'achim operative.

A man with patience

When asked why she opened her home to him, A. says he is very nice and "doesn't try to force religious observance on her" and besides, she says, "he is a man with patience and wants to help. It's the first time someone has taken an interest in us and wanted to hear how it was in Russia. How we lived. He wants to listen to us and afterward it's interesting for you to listen to him.

"Many knocked on our door, but they started preaching. Why do we work on Shabbat, maybe you'll pray or put on a hat. I didn't agree. I told him that if they want to come here they should send only him."

A. has no intention of becoming religiously observant. At least, not for the moment. Her ambition is to eventually have some time and not to have to work so hard to be a real Jew. Apparently her kollel student mentor is patient. Her husband, who grew up in an atheist home, started putting on tefillin this year. "He would like to observe the Shabbat," A. says, "but the only work he found was night shift work, including Fridays."

Now the kollel student is trying to find him another job that does not require working on Shabbat. He devotes 30 minutes to A.'s family every Monday night. And he has several other families in the neighborhood that he visits once a week.

A. received a CD-Rom and a tape with problematic propaganda content. A CD with an anti-abortion message was produced by the Efrat organization. It is intended to convince her to transfer her kids to ultra-Orthodox schools. A. wasn't convinced. "What can they offer me? The level in those schools is low. Their teachers don't have university degrees. I want my daughters to go to university, learn a profession and advance so they shouldn't suffer like my husband and I do and get the kind of work we have."

She is just about the only one in the neighborhood who hasn't been swept up. But she can understand her neighbors who send their kids to those schools because of the financial temptation. "They come pick you up, scoop your children up, without you even feeling it, starting from age zero. It's convenient and it's also free."

The Kehilat Yaakov elementary school, one of the chain of Beit Yaakov schools for girls, is located in the Hatikva quarter familiar to most Bukharan immigrants. Most learned Hebrew in an ulpan immediately after arriving in Israel. A. studied there, too. The vice principal, Esther Weiss, doesn't agree with A.'s assessment of the low level in the schools catering to immigrants. The school, which has 200 students in grades one to eight, is part of the Hinuch Atzma'i network, she says, and therefore its curriculum is approved by the Ministry of Education. But the school also offers a long study day (until 3 P.M., including a hot meal). English starts in grade one and computers in grade two, thanks to funding from the Elishiyuv family. For a nominal fee of just NIS 540 per year, the students get tutoring, textbooks, bus transport, a computer room and more.

The school maintains standards, Weiss says. There is an entrance exam and only suitable candidates are accepted. The spiritual level is an obstacle, she cautions. If a student is accepted, she and her parents must sign a sort of contract in which they agree to dress appropriately, not watch television, observe the laws of kashrut and the like. She doesn't mention that this is Sha'arei Zion's flagship school, where they are working on preparing a cadre of girls who may eventually become teachers. Girls who don't meet the standards are sent to less illustrious schools in Jaffa or Or Yehuda, where they accept everyone and don't bother the parents about inappropriate dress.

Weiss is unwilling to admit that it is a school meant for Bukharan girls, but the faces there speak for themselves. Some of the teachers have Bukharan names. The guard confirms that 90 percent of the students are Bukharan. Weiss portrays the school as nurturing ties with the parents more than other schools do. But beneath the veil of communal spirit and warmth is a systematic effort to transform the girls and their parents into ultra-Orthodox families. So for example, in the computer class, some eighth grade students relate that every month and a half they go to Bnei Brak and are hosted by ultra-Orthodox Bukharan families. One of the teachers told of the relationship between teachers and students: "We invited the students to our houses for Shabbat often. They like it." The school organizes gatherings and lectures for the parents. And the system always works. Weiss is proud that all the students in the elementary school continue on to an ultra-Orthodox high school.