Changing the Haredi Discourse

Israeli activist Pnina Pfeuffer discusses her efforts to transform Haredi communities from within—and the failures of communal leadership during the pandemic.

Libby Lenkinski
June 19, 2020
Photo courtesy of S. Smith Patrick

I first met Pnina Pfeuffer a few years ago, during a research trip I led in Israel to explore uncommon narratives and unheard voices. When Pnina shared the story of her activist journey in front of this group of strangers, I was struck by her openness and vulnerability, and we have since become close friends. Pnina and I have a lot in common: We were born in the same year; we both began to identify as feminists at a young age, even before we fully understood what it meant; and for each of us, divorce led to a personal and political awakening. But we’re also very different: I’m a red diaper baby from a long line of atheist socialists, who was taught to be skeptical of organized religion, while Pnina is a woman of faith who has lived in a Haredi community all her life. 

Pnina is part of a new generation of Israeli Haredim who are challenging long-held norms and myths within and about their communities. They break taboos on reporting sexual abuse and push for female leadership in the community. Beyond this intra-communal work, Pnina and Haredim like her are also building bridges with activists from very different backgrounds—such as Palestinian citizens of Israel and Ethiopian Israelis—around issues of common concern.

When I reached out to Pnina in early May, I wanted to learn more about these efforts to transform Haredi communities and to participate in joint struggles for justice. I also wanted to hear how Covid-19 was affecting Haredi communities in Israel, to contextualize reports that some Haredim were defying social distancing requirements, and to understand why the virus has hit Haredi communities so hard, while Haredi leadership has seemed unwilling to help flatten the curve. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Libby Lenkinski: Tell me about the movement that you lead, the New Haredim. What is it? How does it relate to the rest of Haredi society?

Pnina Pfeuffer: The Haredi community in Israel is divided into three major groups, each represented by a political party. The Ashkenazi Hasidic and non-Hasidic Haredim are represented by United Torah Judaism (UTJ), which is actually a merger of two parties—Agudath Israel and Degel HaTorah—that started running together in 1992. And the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox are represented by Shas. 

The kinds of people who are part of the new Haredim comprise 10% to 20% of these groups. We’re people who stayed in the community but joined the general workforce, or who are in academia, or who are fighting for better secular education for our children. Some of us are working to break the silence about sexual abuse in the community. Some of us come to this work through feminism. We’re trying to change the discourse—both within the community and outside it—about what it means to be Haredi in these times.

LL.: You often talk about how Haredi feminists are fighting to get a seat at two tables: the decision-making table and the Torah-learning table. What does that look like? 

PP: I realized that the liberal idea of women being equal—meaning that they have financial independence, employment opportunities, and an education—isn’t enough in conservative communities like mine. As long as women aren’t in politics, it’s not real equality. We don’t have any say. Education and employment are really important, but as long as the political piece is missing, I don’t feel like the job is done.

LL: Are there similar groups within Haredi communities in the United States trying to get seats for women at the tables, too?

PP: There are similarities between Haredi communities in the US and those in Israel, but obviously there are cultural differences, and because Israel’s Haredim have political representation in the system, it creates a unique situation. 

You do have a Haredi woman judge in New York: Rachel “Ruchi” Freier. She ran her campaign in a very interesting way. She didn’t have her picture on any of the campaign posters, and she used her husband as a go-between with the rabbis because she didn’t have easy access to them. She was also very insistent on saying that she’s just like any other Hasidic woman: she cooks, she bakes challah. Her way of dealing with the criticism from within her community was by doing everything else by the book. If I were to compare the women in our movement in Israel to the US, she’s our closest counterpart. The women in our movement run in political campaigns—we started a chapter in the Labor Party so a Haredi woman candidate, Michal Zernowitzki, could run in the primaries.

But it’s less organized in the US. It’s not a political or social movement. Yes, there’s something there, but we’re actually ahead here.

LL: In both Israel and the US, there was a lot of attention paid to Haredim who violated social distancing guidelines, especially at the onset of the pandemic. What’s your sense of the reality on the ground in Haredi communities in Israel? If there has been a lack of cooperation with lockdowns, what factors led to that?

PP: First of all, there was a delay in how Haredi communities reacted to the pandemic because these communities are purposefully disconnected from the regular flow of information. They’re not online. You and I were exposed to a hundred messages a day about Covid-19—every time the Health Ministry or Education Ministry put out a notice, I knew about it within minutes—whereas my siblings don’t have smartphones. It took them days to get information. The Health Ministry was sending text messages to people who needed to go into quarantine because of possible exposure to the virus, but Haredi people weren’t getting these messages. 

There’s also a lot of mistrust of the government. Even after the Education Ministry said to close schools, the most important rabbi in our community [the non-Hasidic, or Lithuanian, Haredi community], Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, instructed the community to close school just for girls but to keep the boys’ schools open. He kept them open for two extra weeks.

So the delayed reaction was partly a result of irresponsible leadership in our community. Haredi politicians were in a position to prevent this. [Editor’s Note: The Minister of Health at the time was Yaakov Litzman, a member of the UTJ party; the Minister of the Interior was Shas’s Aryeh Deri.] They should have foreseen these and other problems. They could have preempted it, but that didn’t happen. Because Haredi families are really big, and we live in close quarters, it took just those two weeks for the virus to spread like wildfire.

As soon as the messages from the government got through, and when the army came to enforce social distancing, most people were very cooperative. You had little subgroups of extremists who flouted the rules, but most people cooperated. They just had no tools to deal with this situation, and no one looking out for them.

LL: Besides these difficulties with communication and leadership, it seems like there are also cultural factors that make social distancing especially difficult in Haredi communities, even where most people were abiding by the guidelines. 

PP: There were some real sensitivities for people. My father, who is 68, has never missed a minyan unless he was seriously ill. He is a pretty rational person, so he obeyed the regulations, but it was very difficult. Gathering, especially for men, is a fundamental part of the culture. You have a wedding nearly every night and prayer three times a day. 

Bringing all that to a halt was painful. It’s not like these Haredi people could say, “Oh, I don’t have a wedding tonight, I’ll sit on the couch and watch Netflix.” The gathering is their entertainment as well as their socializing. There’s no social media to stay connected. It was a much bigger blow to people.

Now we know that a very disproportionate number of the coronavirus deaths in Israel were from our community. So there’s a lot of introspection, and there will probably be something of a changing of the guard in rabbinic leadership. It’s not really a changing of the guard, because we’re talking about rabbis all in their 90s—but change feels like it’s coming. 

LL: In the last couple of months, it seems that a pretty strong anti-Haredi sentiment has emerged, in the US as well as in Israel. Do you find that to be the case?

PP: Yes. Visibly Orthodox women going to give birth in hospitals have been automatically sent to special areas in the hospitals for people from areas with a high incidence of coronavirus—even if they weren’t from Bnei Brak or the other high-incidence towns. 

People are coming back to work now, but some Haredi employees have been told, “You know, maybe stay home.” My friend’s brother works in tech, and his company has an open concept office. His boss said, “You know what? Why don’t I sit in the open space, and you can take my office, because people aren’t going to want to sit next to you.” 

LL: I imagine that this puts further strain on already complex relationships between Haredim and other people. In general, how do you think the New Haredim can partner with groups outside of the Haredi world? 

PP: I actually started my activism in Jerusalem, and not only in the Haredi community. I was interested in connecting between East and West Jerusalem. I also ran for City Council in Jerusalem, something I might do again in the future. All of this work is part of bridge-building. Right now, I’m planning a meeting of New Haredi activists with Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, this week. There’s a small group of Haredim that has been trying to build a partnership with the Joint List for a while now. We got a bit sidelined by the results of these elections and the coalition agreement, which were disappointing to many people who hoped to see Netanyahu unseated, but we’re continuing the work so we’ll be more ready for the next round.

Building partnerships between different factions of Israeli society is crucial. It’s not a side note in my work: It’s the end game. I don’t believe you can dramatically change people’s worldviews, but you can bring people together around shared commitments. You can meet what’s already there and build on it.

LL: It’s amazing that Haredi activists are sitting with Ayman Odeh and the Joint List and thinking about a partnership. What’s the basis for that?

PP: There are some obvious things. In some ways, we’re the minorities within the minorities, marginalized voices within marginalized communities, demanding change from within our communities and change outside of them. But I think there’s more than that. The people who are seeking this partnership are really thinking of a different type of Israel, where there’s room for everybody—where if you’re a citizen, you have equal rights.

LL: That all sounds almost too good to be true. Is there anything you fight about?

PP: The Joint List has some of the same political issues that I sometimes have. We both walk a fine line between internal and external politics. There are certain things that they can say in the room with us and certain things they can say to their electorate. I’m at a point in my life where I share what I do, but the inability to do that fully is something I easily understand. I wouldn’t say we fight about that, but sometimes there is tension around it—like, why aren’t you proud of your relationship with us?

LL: Before this last election, the Joint List had some campaigns in Yiddish and Amharic, directed at the Haredi and Ethiopian-Israeli communities. Was it effective? 

PP: I don’t think it was effective as far as getting lots of votes, though I do know some Haredim who voted for the Joint List. There’s a value in expressing your values and bringing them out front. It’s for the long term. Ayman Odeh wasn’t just thinking about this particular election campaign. He is extremely determined to get the message across that we’re not just an Arab party, there’s room for everyone. I think that campaign was directed more as a long-term message than a get-out-the-vote effort.

LL: Are you imagining a political party with Haredim and Arabs and Ethiopians and women?

PP: That would be amazing. I ran for City Council two years ago. I was invited to run as part of a pluralistic Jewish party. There is no Arab party in the Jerusalem municipality, as you know. Some people were moving to set up a new, joint Arab–Jewish party in Jerusalem, and they wanted me to join their list, too. The list didn’t end up working out, but maybe for the next municipal elections, we will try to set up a party, even if just for the statement. Every time you do something like that, it makes a little dent.

Libby Lenkinski is vice president of public engagement at the New Israel Fund and has been working at the intersection of progressive Israeli and American social change for more than 15 years.