Demonstrations in Tzfat: Against Missionaries, or Against a Valuable Community Resource?

Updated: Mar 10

In August 2020, demonstrations against the Hillel NGO (Non-Profit Organization) erupted in Tzfat's city center. Weekly demonstrations have continued ever since.

As public awareness of the demonstrations grew, so did misinformation and confusion about Hillel's activities, the motives of its members and volunteers, and — especially — its directors. Presumptions and rumors include Hillel's supposed missionary activity, Christian backing, and the like. These unsubstantiated claims, advertized and disseminated without scrutiny, have ballooned to include charges that the NGO's motive is to persuade young people to abandon Torah and mitzvot, to alienate them from Judaism; that they bribe youngsters with iPhones and cash, and so forth.

My personal experience with the Hillel NGO is inconsistent with any of these rumors. On the contrary, Hillel initiates no direct contact whatsoever with members of the Haredi community, because of its sensitivity to this issue. Hillel’s application criteria include review by various committees, plus evaluations by social workers and other professionals. Only after a thorough and objective evaluation, untainted by political or other immaterial considerations does Hillel determine whether an offer of support to an applicant is warranted.

From first contact, through interaction with Hillel’s professional staff, until Hillel finally accepted my application — I never received any offer that might be construed as a bribe: neither cash, nor mobile devices, nor anything else. It is truly unfortunate that some people condemn — and even maliciously vandalize — a charitable enterprise like Hillel, so vital to those in desperate need. Certainly, young adults raised in a closed, repressive (and in my case violent) society that condemns all expression of individuality, need their help.

I was raised in a Haredi family of 11 children, in Jerusalem’s Belz community. I knew nothing of the world apart from my home, school, and the synagogue. Shortly before my 17th birthday my family arranged my engagement to a Belzer chasid. By age 17½ I was already married to a harsh, abusive man. I endured humiliation and oppression until I decided to flee, no matter the cost.

In a community where everyone knows everyone else, and where divorce is frowned upon, it wasn’t going to be at all simple. I finally made up my mind when I realized I was pregnant, and another soul would also be harmed in this relationship. It wasn’t easy. It took a year of interminable arguments, disputes, being shunned, enduring malicious gossip behind my back — including vicious slander that I was insane.

Finally, I managed to get my divorce. I left Jerusalem and the Belz community. I arrived in Tzfat as a single parent looking for a way to begin life anew. It was my good fortune to experience Hillel in action. Hillel supports people after they take that daunting step to leave the Haredi world. Hillel gives people like me a second chance, and the backup they need to live with dignity while integrating into a new society — a society that permits self-expression and free choice.

I remember hearing the name Hillel at home or in the community, always — to put it mildly — as a pejorative. Despite preconceptions so ingrained from my childhood, I decided to approach them.

From the very start of my relationship with Hillel, I discovered something I never knew before: open-mindedness and a sincere desire to help — help that didn’t depend on my skin color, religiosity, dress, and certainly not on my opinions. Wonderful people — managers and professionals — whose only aim was to help me and others in every possible way to stand on my own feet. They gave me a sense of belonging in a community, helped me complete my studies, and made it possible for me to imagine a better future for myself and my child.

At Hillel, I was exposed to young men and women, beautiful people, from Tzfat and elsewhere. Some of them also endured hardship. Some had been thrown out of their homes. Most had no education. Some had lost their way and lived rough on the street. There were other difficult and tragic cases as well. We discovered that we had much in common. We ate together, celebrated holidays together, and shared our stories.

Hillel always provided an attentive ear, a supportive response, counselling, advice on every subject, lots of smiles, and a huge heart. From another perspective no less important: Tzfat is a small town lacking in cultural centers, education, and enrichment. Young people with nothing to do roam the streets. The vandalism that we see in the city center, the Metzuda, and elsewhere throughout the city is a consequence of boredom. For youth growing up here there is a dearth of cultural opportunity.

As a mother of an adolescent, I see the cumulative emotional damage inflicted on him and his friends, especially now, when even educational frameworks hardly exist. I see a real need for public spaces where young people can meet (aside from school) for socializing, enrichment programs, culture, art, and so forth. We can and should leverage the connection with the Hillel organization (which has already expressed willingness) to help.

In coordination with existing public authorities, we can create social and cultural venues for youth, a platform for growth and social change to enlighten and enrich our young people, the next generation. We could be working together regardless of our religious persuasions, instead of perpetuating the divisions that bring so much strife.

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