Agudat Israel and the yeshiva that was never built
By J. Zel Lurie
DELRAY BEACH, Florida– My father, Jacob “Yankel” Lurie and my mother, Ida “Hayele” Lurie, made aliya from Brooklyn to Haifa in 1929 a few months before the crash on Wall Street.
My father, the owner of several ready-to-wear women’s fashion stores, was 54. My mother at 50 had brought up six sons and served as vice president of the Brooklyn chapter of Hadassah.
For years my parents had told everyone that they were planning to move to Palestine while they were still young enough to help build a national home for the Jewish people.
In 1926, three years before, my mother had hosted a fund-raising dinner for Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah. Miss Szold heard about my parents’ plans. She sent my mother a note, which I have, praising my farher’s ambition but warning them that life in Palestine was tough and advising them to make an exploratory trip before pulling up stakes.
When my mother relayed Miss Szold’s sage advice to my father he answered in Yiddish, “Ikh bin nisht a meragel (I am not a spy),” referring to the spies that Joshua sent to Canaan as the tribes of Israel were about to invade the country. The spies reported that the land was flowing with milk and honey.
My father’s plans matured three years later and they set sail for Haifa. Their ship anchored in Haifa Bay. The port had not yet been built. They gazed, possibly with rapture, at a small hillside town of little houses climbing halfway up Mt. Carmel.
My father decided that what Haifa needed was a modern apartment house.
Although he had no experience as a builder, this is what he set out to do. A four story building with sixteen large apartments rose at 10 Ahad Haam Street. Its ten-foot ceiling has never been duplicated as Haifa spread all over Mt. Carmel.
My father was a modern Orthodox Jew. His ambition was to reform the Orthodox yeshiva system in Israel. Instead of devoting full time to studying Talmudic debates, which is called studying Torah, pupils would devote half their time to learning a trade.
I found in my father’s papers a set of blueprints for Yeshiva Torah Veavodah (Torah and Work) to be built by Agudat Israel on a site owned by my father on Mt. Carmel. The blueprints were ready for a builder, but the builder never appeared.
I tried to find out why. Here is what I learned. My father owned a beautiful site on Mt. Carmel with a view of the Mediterranean to the west and Haifa Bay to the north. It had been zoned for a public building: a school or a library, not a private home.
Agudat Israel had their eyes on my father’s unique buiding site, They had agreed to build a Torah Veavodah yeshiva in my father’s name. But after my father turned over title to the land, they lost interest in building the yeshiva.
As this type of yeshiva is contrary to the Agudat Israel school system, I don’t believe that the Agudat Israel leader who dealt with my father ever had any intention of building a Torah Veavodah yeshiva.
A few years after I discovered the blueprints for a yeshiva, I asked an Israeli nephew to find out what happened to he building site. He reported that it was registered in the Tabu in the name of the Agudat Israel leader, not in the name of the organization, and that it was still vacant.
I have continued my father’s interest in educating the young in nonconventional paths. I built the first bilingual Jewish/Arab school twenty years ago in the Arab/Jewish village Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace) in the Judean Hills.
Now there are four more bilingual schools in areas with mixed Jewish and Israeli Arab residents. They are government schools run by Hand in Hand.
If I could prove that Agudat Israel had acquired my father’s building site by false pretenses and get it back I would dedicate it to the first bilingual school in Haifa, which has many Arab residents. I would name it for my father and my mother.
Fast forward fifty years. Agudat Israel continues to cause trouble as a leader of the Haredi community. For the elections to the 13th Knesset in the 1990s, they joined forces with their traditional enemies, the Lithuanians in Degel Torah. (In Europe, the Lithuanians were called misnagdim, those that were opposed to the Hassidim in Agudat Israel.)
Under the banner of United Torah Judaism the two parties elected 8 Kesset members in the 13th Knesset. In subsequent elections they have never equaled this figure, and today they have six Knesset mebers, or five percent of the 120 members of the Knesset. This five percent of the Knesset is part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, serves as chairmen of leading committees and has a signed coalition agreement to build apartments for Haredim in Beit Shemish (House of the Sun) between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. More on this later.
Agudat Israel believes that the Zionists have usurped the role of the Messiah in establishing a state. Therefore their representatives will not accept a cabinet portfolio. But not wishing to give up the perks and privileges of a cabinet minister they have adopted the fiction of a deputy minister with a nominal minister from another party. The deputy minister is called the acting minister and has all the powers and perks of a minister. The acting minister of health, Yaacov Litzman of Agudat Israel, caused a scandal a few months ago which is still reverberating. A woman professor of pediatrics was awarded a prize for a book on Jewish genetic diseases. At the awards ceremony, conducted by acting Minister Litzman, she was not allowed on the stage, and Litzman awarded the prize to her husband.
When this treatment of a woman professor reached the press, the nominal minister, who was none other than Netanyahu, said it won’t happen again.
The situation in Beit Shemesh is much more serious. A group of American modern Orthodox Jews, like my parents, built a neiborhood in Beit Shemesh which they called Givat Sharet. It loooked just like the street in Brooklyn where I grew up. For many years Givat Sharet was the southern end of Beit Shemesh until a Haredi neiborhood was established further south. It spread northwards and a row of apartment houses for Haredim was built across the street from the last houses in Givat Sharet.
Then the troubles began. The Haredim demanded that the Americans move their TVs out of their living rooms because the Haredim could see the pictures from their patios.
On Independence Day, which the Haredim do not celebrate, they tore off the little flags on the Americans’ cars.
Worst of all they, harassed the Americans’ kids as they walked to school at the end of the new block of apartments. The girls school is brand new this school year.
The Americans fought back using their public relations skills. On the national news program on a recent Friday evening an 8-year-old girl named Nama testified that she was terrified to go to school. She had been spat on and called a whore by the Haredim because her elbows were bare.
The nation was aroused. The politicians issued statements. The police became active and made a few arrests. A protest rally held near the school drew thousands of women from all over the country.
Then the most modern arena for protest, the Facebook, stepped in. A Facebook page of support was started and within days had tens of thousands of names.
I know many Haredim, including a grandnephew. They are all good people who do not actively support the violent minority. Because their women, including my grandniece, are baby machines, the Haredim are growing in number but Agudat Israel and United Torah Judaism are not. They have been reduced by 25 percent, from eight seats to six, in the current Knesset.
The mainstream politicians should resolve their differences so the five percent will no longer hold the balance of power. Then they will receive no more and no less then what they deserve as five percent of the Knesset.
Lurie is a freelance writer living in Delray Beach, Florida. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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