Antwerp Rabbi Sues For Gender Integration in Jewish Schools – And Wins
The Benoth Jerusalem school of Antwerp, Belgium, an Ultra-Orthodox, girls-only public school, faced a major shift in their demographic this week when they were forced to add two boys to their student roster, after a judge ruled that Belgian schools may not discriminate against potential students on the basis of gender.
The legal decision was the result of efforts made by a surprising advocate: Rabbi Moshe Aryeh Friedman, a Brookyn-born expat who is universally acknowledged as a “pariah” in Antwerp’s Jewish community. It was, in fact, his two sons, Jacob and Josef (13 and 11) who were the “new kids” at Benoth Jerusalem. “This is a fascinating development in our society,” he told the Belgian press. “Finally boys and girls can learn together, ending centuries of discrimination”.
This is not the first time Rabbi Friedman has been the center of a controversy. Back in 2006, the Antwerp and Viennese Jewish communities excommunicated him after he attended a conference in Iran that questioned the veracity of the Holocaust, after which he publicly expressed his doubts about the deaths of 6 million in Europe during WWII. He also befriended Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmandinejad, along with other leaders of Hamas, an organization considered a terrorist group by the US and Europe, and became a vocal advocate of anti-Zionism. After a meeting in Stockholm with Hamas leader Atef Adwan, Friedman told the Associated Press that a new “coalition” had been formed between himself and Hamas. Accusations have also been made that Friedman has developed relationships with Austria’s extreme-right militant groups and that he has left unpaid debts in both Austria and the US. Throughout Europe, Friedman’s name has become so hated that Jewish travellers attacked him during a visit to Poland.
After Friedman’s 2007 trip to Tehran, three of his daughters were expelled from Vienna’s Talmud Torah (the school stated the expulsion was the result of unpaid tuition bills), after which Friedman sued the Jewish community of Vienna.
Upon his return to Antwerp in 2011, Friedman and his Belgian wife Lea Rosenzweig were unable to find an Orthodox school, including all-girls’ schools, which would admit their sons. Friedman cited it as the Jewish community taking “revenge” on him. He says, “The element of collective punishment against my children is well known”. Due to his lack of options, Friedman went to the Belgian courts and sued Benoth Jerusalem – and won. He also has another suit currently in the works against an all-boys Zionist yeshiva that refused to admit his daughters.
The backlash to the rulings in the Jewish community has been fierce, so much so that Belgian police provided the Friedmans with an escort to school, lest they be attacked. By going to the Belgian courts instead of resolving the issue within the Orthodox community, Friedman has made a major faux pas that will inevitably further damage his already tarnished reputation. Further, his actions have forced the community to compromise on its long-standing autonomy in terms of educational practices and gender separation, both of which are considered vital elements to protecting the community from outside, secular influences. Says Michael Freilich, editor of the “Joods Actueel” Jewish monthly, “It’s a sad day for the community, which has lost a battle which is important to it and its tradition.”
While the community has certainly taken a hit by this development, they are by no means shrinking away in defeat. Leaders have encouraged members to put their personal feelings aside and continue moving forward as usual. The ones who will likely suffer most through this, unfortunately, are Friedman’s children. Henri Rosenberg, and Antwerp lawyer, recently called for an investigation from child welfare services of the Friedmans’ domestic circumstances. Further, says Aron Berger, a Benoth Jerusalem father, “Enrolling [the boys] here is child abuse. They have no social interaction here, when the girls play among themselves”.
About the Author: Rea Bochner is a professional writer who has written for dozens of web and print publications, including Chabad.org and Aish.com. When not crafting copy on her laptop, Rea is a full-time mother, laundrywoman, chef, chauffeur, art director, housekeeper and referee. She lives in Cherry Hill, NJ with her husband and two sons. See more of Rea's work by visiting www.writtenbyrea.com