Twenty minutes past five. The intense black of night has already given way to shades of blue-green on the distant horizon, but the streets are dark and still. From the tall windows of the small synagogue in the center of the courtyard, soft voices intoning the liturgy of the morning prayers waft out into the clear, cool air. The occasional hurrying footstep, along with chirping of winged creatures, are the only other sounds to break the silence.
Somewhere not too far away, the screech of rubber on the asphalt breaks rudely into this tranquil scene. A window flies open, a scarved head peers fearfully out into the dim light. From her vantage point, the old lady has a perfect view of one of the gateways leading into the courtyard and now, to her horror, she realizes that the narrow path is blocked by two armed, helmeted officers. Sickened and trembling, she retreats from the window and sits down on her bed to pray.
The scene – Warsaw in 1940? Budapest in 1944? Perhaps a shtetl in Galicia sometime during the Second World War?
No. This is Meah Shearim in 2017. August 16th, 2017 to be precise.
Meanwhile, around thirty riot police, armed with batons and tear gas, uniformed in combat gear complete with helmets, have fanned out across the tiny neighborhood, sealing the area known as “Shuk Meah Shearim” – the walled maze of streets located just off the main road. At each of the five gates that lead into the shuk, a pair of policemen stand, not allowing anyone to either enter or leave. They have a list of four targets for this early morning raid, and first and foremost is Reb Dovid Kroiz, infamous in police and government circles for his staunch anti-Zionist views. Reb Dovid – a young man, not even married yet – also heads Vaad Hatzalah which supplies free advice and legal assistance to any religious Jew caught up in the Zionist net of forced enlistment. For this alone, many seek his head.
This morning, however, Reb Dovid is not at home. He is, in fact, rarely at home, knowing as he does that he is liable to be arrested at any time. No matter – the police next raid his grandmother’s home, hoping to find him there. They enter through a window – but he is nowhere to be found. Giving up on Reb Dovid, they head to the next person on their list, where again they come up empty-handed. Reb Leibel Deutsch had already left shul to daven vasikin, and in any case, had he known that the police were coming for him, he would certainly have fled. After all, barely a week has passed since his last encounter with law enforcement, when, prostrate on the ground outside the offices of Vaad Hatzalah, he was stomped on by two policeman with satisfied grins on their faces.
Next on the list: Reb Yossel Blau. Finally something to show for their efforts, and Reb Yossel is led, handcuffed, to the waiting squad car. By now the neighborhood has been alerted, and a furious crowd has gathered, despite the early hour. Some arrive clad in tallis and tefillin. But a cordon of riot police prevents them from approaching the police cars and impeding the arrest.
From there, the operation heads to the nearby Beis Yisrael neighborhood, in search of another “criminal,” Reb Yankel Davidovitch. By the time the first protester reaches the scene, the police have already entered the apartment – but not the apartment of Reb Yankel himself. For some reason best known to them, the police chose to hunt him down at the home of his elderly widowed mother. He isn’t home – but the police find themselves an alternative scapegoat. As he enters the stairwell crying out “Nazis!” Reb Avraham Brandwein runs straight into the waiting arms of the police. A few minutes later he is led out of the building in handcuffs, his jacket torn, showing evidence of the beating he has just endured. Evidence of wrong-doing? They’ll find that later.
It’s still before seven in the morning. Another long summer’s day has begun. Just another day in Meah Shearim.
By Y Rabinovitz
Postscript: By the afternoon, both men have been released for lack of evidence.