With side curls tucked under wire-rimmed glasses, Mordechai Krybus has become an ultra-Orthodox celebrity virtually overnight.
Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the Emmanuel elementary school, which his daughter attends, practices de facto ethnic segregation by separating students along religious lines. Mr. Kyrbus and 35 other parents went to jail rather than comply with what they considered religious coercion by the secular court.
More than 100,000 ultra-Orthodox supporters poured into the streets of Jerusalem in June to demonstrate on Krybus's behalf, aggravating Israel's religious-secular rift. Israel's mainstream press and secular public were outraged by what they saw as a case of brazen defiance of the legal system's principle of equality. Israel's ultra-Orthodox – known in Hebrew as Haredi, or God-fearing – saw a secular government meddling in the spiritual life of their children.
"It was worth it to suffer. We were there for ideological reasons. The rabbis told us what to do," says Krybus, interviewed a day after being released from 10 days in jail. "We felt we were emissaries for the Jewish people and that the Haredi world was behind us."
The controversy is the latest symptom of what many consider a serious challenge to Israel's democracy, especially three pillars: its schools, economy, and military.
Why ultra-Orthodox oppose Zionism
The Haredim oppose Zionism, believing that only the Messiah's return will pave the way for reestablishing their nation.
After its 1948 founding, Israel made provisions for the community to refrain from army service, study instead of work, attend separate schools, and live in separate towns like Emmanuel – enclaves where Yiddish is spoken and residents often rely on religious courts.
With birthrates three times the Israeli average, Haredi influence is growing – increasing tensions. Only 5 percent of Israel's population in 1990, Haredim are expected to account for 1 in 3 Jewish children under age 14 by 2028.
Haredi and secular Israel are on a "collision course," says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the nonpartisan Shalom Hartman institute in Jerusalem, which focuses on Jewish affairs.
"The situation is untenable. The ultra-Orthodox separate themselves from the rest of the Jewish people. They refuse to participate in the burden of defending the country. They insist on being subsidized for their separation and lack of participation," he says, adding that Israel is too preoccupied with the Arab conflict. "The ultra-Orthodox situation is a long-term existential crisis, but the Israeli attention span is dominated by short-term existential crises."
In the past year, the ultra-Orthodox have brought thousands into the streets to protest the opening of Jerusalem parking lots on the Sabbath. Israel's high court has ruled that welfare assistance for yeshiva students is discriminatory. And in May, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai accused the ultra-Orthodox school system of promoting ignorance among students.
But the case against Emmanuel's Beit Yakov girls school touched a raw nerve. In 2007, parents prevailed upon administrators to essentially split the school, setting up a divider in the hallways and a fence on the playground, separating Hasidic Jews – a subset of the Haredim – from the rest.
But the division also fell largely along ethnic lines. The court ruled that the school was perpetuating decades-old discrimination against Sephardic Jews – those of Middle Eastern origin.
Kyrbus's act of civil disobedience was based on a belief that Jewish law takes precedence over the secular government.
"The courts are secular and plainly do not follow the Torah," he says. "We have no problem with the laws: we pay taxes and follow traffic rules. But if a judge says, 'Don't listen to the Torah or the rabbis, there is no way we can comply."
For more than a week, the minimum-security prison where the parents were being held became a pilgrimage site for ultra-Orthodox. By day, in 95 degree F. heat, they listened to Haredi political leaders speak of government tyranny; by night, they listened to rabbis preach.
Haredim emerging into mainstream Israel
David Landau, former editor of the liberal Haaretz newspaper and author of a book on the ultra-Orthodox community, says the tensions are a result of Haredim's emergence into the mainstream.
"The court failed completely to understand the sensitivity of the issue," he says. "[The ultra-Orthodox] feel like the Jesuits. They've got to inculcate their young people at a young age with their values to inure them to the world they are going to encounter."
Menachem Moses, a Haredi member of parliament, confirms that concern.
"In Bolshevik Russia, they used to do this," says Mr. Moses, who threatened to add his weight to a no-confidence vote. "In the days of Stalin, if you don't know, they would take parents to Siberia, and leave the kids in schools to reeducate them."
Back in Emmanuel, as Krybus gets a congratulatory handshake from a neighbor, he says his community is ready to sacrifice all for their principles. "The state is only 70 years old, but the Torah is 2,000 years old," he says. "We are ready for everything."