Orthodox replace blame game with soul-searching
by Eric Silver
Leah Schwartz’s children did not want to leave the house this week. They were afraid of going on a bus, and when they heard an ambulance siren, they shook with fear. The Schwartz family — father, mother, five children aged three to 10 — weren’t on the Jerusalem bus blown up by a Hamas suicide bomber last Tuesday, but they live on Shmuel Hanavi Street, where he struck. They heard the explosion that killed 20 strictly Orthodox Jews and a Filipino care worker going home from the Western Wall. "My children," Mrs Schwartz said, "know whole families who were killed or wounded."
Secular Israelis marvelled at the serenity with which the Charedi community responded to an atrocity that also wounded 136. Ha’aretz reporter Lily Galili praised "the restraint and soul-searching" that replaced the more familiar blame game. Wall slogans calling for "Death to the Arabs" were quickly whitewashed over. By the end of the week of mourning, all physical traces had been erased.
"I found a very disciplined group of patients," Dr David Applebaum, head of the emergency department at Sha’arei Zedek Hospital, told the JC. "They overcame their fears. They allowed us to treat them without any hint of hysteria."
Yet behind the doors of their self-contained neighbourhoods, the strictly Orthodox were suffering the same trauma as other casualties of the intifada. Children clung to parents; parents shielded children. Families — most of them without private cars — hesitated to use public transport. They flinched at the sight of an Arab worker.
Mrs Schwartz and her children were at a playgroup improvised by the local municipal community centre. A child psychiatrist was there if needed. Supervised fun broke the barrier of fear. "Finally, they’re going out," she sighed. "They’ll even come here on their own." On Tuesday, about 40 boys and girls were riding a donkey or fondling goats, rabbits, geese and budgies brought in from a suburban petting zoo. Ducks splashed merrily in a plastic paddling pool in an underground shelter designed for a different kind of warfare.
Five children kept themselves apart. "They’re not playing with the other kids," said a voluntary helper, herself barely into her teens. "They are preoccupied, still coming to terms with what hit them." They are children of the Bar-Or family, whose 12-year-old brother, Avraham, was killed on the No 2 bus. Their mother had only just been released from hospital. Another brother was readmitted for treatment, suffering from delayed shock.
The community centre in the Bucharan quarter caters for 45,000 residents of the inner-city religious neighbourhoods, from Mea Shearim to Romema. Its director, Rabbi Ya’acov Fertig, said a soup-kitchen was providing free meals for the playgroup children. The centre was also delivering food to nine bereaved families. The strictly Orthodox community, among the poorest in Jerusalem, is rehabilitating itself through its established network of support groups.
But the key to the Charedim’s resilience is their unquestioning belief that everything, however evil, has a God-given reason. Some attributed the bus bombing to Jewish sins. It was hard to blame individual victims — two of them respected Torah scholars, as well as seven children. So they generalised. "The nation of Israel must return to religion and take a hard look at its deeds, especially between man and man," read a wall poster. But most were simply resigned. "When a father loses a child, it’s the hardest thing," acknowledged Rabbi Fertig, a Gur Chasid whose own son was drowned on a school trip 16 years ago. "But there is a kind of strength in accepting and overcoming the worst. That’s the foundation of our faith. Nothing happens by accident, even if we don’t know God’s reasons."
Secular commentators admired their steadfast solidarity, but not their fatalism. "A sovereign society," wrote Nachum Barne’a in Yediot Achronot, "does not hide behind justifications of divine judgement."
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