Pnina Pfeuffer is a social activist, writer, feminist, mother of two, Jerusalem resident and former political candidate who holds both a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master’s degree in organizational behavior.
She’s also a Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jew on a mission to help define what that concept means in a modern context.
“I am a ‘new Haredi,’” Pfeuffer said. “We make up 10 percent of Haredi Jews who want to engage with Israeli society and want an education from their society.”
Speaking to an audience of more than 100 on Jan. 30 at Owings Mills’ Gordon Center for Performing Arts, Pfeuffer joined Yehonatan Indursky, co-creator of the acclaimed Israeli TV drama series “Shtisel,” for the program, “On Screen and IRL: Shtisel and The New Haredim.”
The discussion was co-hosted by the New Israel Fund, a nonprofit committed to advancing and defending equal rights for all Israelis.
“Shtisel,” which premiered in Israel in June of 2013, follows the lives of a Haredi family living in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Geula. The show — which has won 17 Israeli Academy of Film and Television Awards — has become an international sensation by portraying Haredim in an everyday, universal light.
The first two seasons of “Shtisel” can be streamed on Netflix, and production has begun on a third season, which should be available on Netflix in about a year.
“Through the show, we have a window into this world that is unfamiliar to most,” said Libby Lenkinski, the New Israel Fund’s vice president of public engagement. “We wanted to take the opportunity to talk about the real shifts and changes that are happening within that community. We want to integrate the activism individuals are doing in Israel with the openness people are feeling because of the cultural phenomenon that is ‘Shtisel.’”
In a phone interview with Jmore, Pfeuffer said of Haredim, “We are people just like everyone else, and this show very much portrays what a Haredi family looks like. It’s an authentic show with no agenda. It’s the way you would make any other television show that is focused on a specific family or neighborhood. For people who know the community and who don’t, the show creates an authentic experience.”
While often viewed as monolithic by secular Jews, Haredim consist of many groups and subsects, including the Chasidic and Litvishe-Yeshivish movements.
“Each group has a bit of a different lifestyle, but for the most part the differences are in how the men and women dress,” said Pfeuffer. “For example, Chasidic men have sidelocks, whereas Yeshivish men do not. And Chasidic men wear fur hats on Shabbat, whereas Yeshivish men wear fedora-looking hats.”
A native Jerusalemite, Pfeuffer grew up in a Yeshivish family in the Israeli capital, with her mother coming from the American Midwest and her father from New York. She said they were one of the only families in their neighborhood that spoke English, since most Haredim speak only Yiddish or Hebrew.
Haredim are generally known as being insular, cloistered and anti-modern. While Pfeuffer admitted that those labels are “pretty accurate stereotypes,” she said that is due to the fact that “the ultra-Orthodox are trying to build a world to preserve customs, culture and religion.”
As a divorced mother of two teenagers, Pfeuffer said she believes she can be a part of the Haredi community as well as mainstream Israeli culture. As CEO of The New Haredim, a volunteer group that promotes progressive ideals in the ultra-Orthodox community, Pfeuffer lives in Nachalot, a Jerusalem neighborhood with Jews of all backgrounds, and feels strongly about integrating herself and her children into Israeli society.
“Something that is a phenomenon in this [new Haredim] movement is women have more of a voice than men,” she said. “There is a strong female presence and leadership, which is unusual in the Haredi world.”
Pfeuffer, 41, said she feels that young Haredim want to simultaneously have a seat in the study hall and in the Israeli political system.
“This younger generation of Haredi Jews want to take a leadership role within Israeli society,” said Pfeuffer, who founded a Gemara class for Haredi women and started a women’s Talmud study group. “We want to preserve our identity while promoting women’s rights and how we are seen in the community. We want a religious education alongside an education that allows us to succeed outside of the Haredi world.”
While admitting that her views are somewhat unconventional and radical in the Haredi world, she said her family members have generally been supportive of her endeavors.
“They may not always be thrilled about my decisions but they are warm and accept me, which is the most important thing,” she said. “I go to my parents for Shabbat, and I am close with my siblings. When I ran for City Council, people warned me that I would be ostracized. But that never happened.”
Pfeuffer said she believes the new Haredi movement is making inroads in Israeli society and the ultra-Orthodox world.
“Ultimately, I think there will be a scale based on our level of involvement within Israeli society,” she said. “But we are in a position where some think we are totally leaving the community. Some people are on the fence and some are supportive of our efforts, so where we end up will be something to watch.”