Four and a half years ago, I stood on the witness stand and answered Jonathan Goldberg QC, as he defended now convicted and jailed sex offender Todros Grynhaus. The barrister asked if I was a member of the Charedi community, and I told him I wasn’t. I told him I wasn’t because, at that time, I didn’t realise that I still was.
Of course I am Charedi. I tremble before God. I was brought up to do so. My values and ethics haven’t changed, just because my world view has broadened and I have made changes to the way I live. To me, being Charedi means belonging, either by birth or choice, to a community that believes in strict adherence to Jewish law, and values Jewish traditions even if they are not codified. I don’t conform to the stereotypes many people hold of Charedim, but that isn’t a reason to let anyone deny me my heritage.
It’s true that for many in the Charedi community, conforming to specific standards is a key part of heir lives. Many will do this consciously and reap the benefits of the sense of belonging that it brings. Others feel stifled or bored by the constant sameness, but are not prepared to pay for the price of being different. Others push boundaries, making slight changes bit by bit, trying out different ways of living.
This conformity must not be taken for lack of individuality. Do not look at one Charedi family and assume you understand them, because you know another one. Do not look at one Charedi child and think they deserve less of an education than your child, less opportunities, less equality, less safety, because others group them together and say they are happy that way.
Charedim are human like you. Some are tall, some short. Some are introverted, some are extroverted. Some happy, some not. Some have aspirations, some challenge themselves to meet those aspirations and some will have their aspirations thwarted.
You would think I am stating the obvious. Unfortunately, it needs to be said. On Facebook, scores of Shtisel fans post on a dedicated group. On a thread discussing the prohibition of women driving, a poster said: “We cannot be demeaning because these ladies do not feel condemned…” She felt able to speak to the feelings of every Charedi woman who is not allowed to drive. Recently, the journalist Rosa Doherty declared Charedi women to be the ultimate multi-taskers. Some are, Rosa, some aren’t. Can you imagine it being OK to say “Black women are the ultimate cooks/midwives/ insert low paid caring role here?”
I took part in a question and answer session at a community event not long ago. An audience member on the front row said that her Charedi neighbours make her uncomfortable – they all wear the same clothes and she can’t tell them apart. A police officer admitted to me that in her dealings with Charedim “it’s hard to tell them apart because of all the beards and wigs”.
Just because people choose to — or are pressured to — dress the same way as each other, that doesn’t mean they have the same opinions as each other. Just because people tick the same box on a form does not mean they do not face individual risks and struggles, and have unique and valuable contributions to offer to society. It is too easy to cast an entire group of people as wanting one single thing, whether it is in terms of housing, education, or women’s rights.
Who benefits from obscuring individuality? It’s not the individuals, I promise you.
I know that the community can seem hard to access and gatekeepers zealously guard their posts. Statutory authorities are overburdened and are keen to accept a one-size-fits-all attitude to the thousands of people these gatekeepers say they represent.
But just because something is difficult to achieve that doesn’t make it impossible, and all of us have a responsibility towards each other — kol yisrael areivim ze lazeh.