The wave of intercommunal strife that has engulfed the country in recent weeks
has led to a flood of political and media prophecies foreseeing the imminent and
apocalyptic collapse of our society.
Suburban Beit Shemesh, in
particular, has become one of the centers of the unrest, where a microcosmic
fault line has developed between the ultraconservative haredi community in one
part of town, and the more modern world of the national-religious and
Anglo-haredi community abutting it.RELATED:Beit Shemesh residents decry ‘haredi only’ area Thousands protest ultra-Orthodox extremism
Attempts, frequently abusive, by
extremist segments of the ultra-Orthodox community to hermetically seal their
neighborhood off from the outside world, have of late been challenged by a
carefully coordinated – and some say provocative – campaign from the other side
of town to fight back against this phenomenon.
So the swiftly arranged
initiative of one of the Jewish Agency’s flagship programs, Partnership 2gether,
to heal the fractured town, is welcome news.
“We’re trying to get
moderate voices from all communities to talk and then to move beyond that and
take action,” said Gideon Vennor, director of the Beit Shemesh Partnership
2gether program. “Extremists are getting all the headlines at the moment, so
this is the time for the moderate majority to take action.”
To this end,
the Beit Shemesh branch of Partnership 2gether, run by a joint steering
committee of representatives from communities in South Africa, the greater
Washington, DC, area, the Mateh Yehuda region in Israel and Beit Shemesh itself,
has issued a public call in the Beit Shemesh press for ideas for intercommunal
projects to promote dialogue and “social entrepreneurship.”
Partnership 2gether program is designed to link Jews abroad with communities in
Israel and serve as a conduit for the exchange of ideas.
According to the
Jewish Agency, it involves 300,000 members of 600 Jewish communities around the
world, and across 90 regions in Israel.
Having published the call for
proposals 10 days ago, Partnership 2gether will pick three of the best ideas by
the end of the month and begin to take them forward. The Jewish Agency has
provided NIS 35,000 in seed money for each project.
Speaking about the
recent tensions, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said the only solution
“We are one people and cannot keep ignoring one
another... At the end of the day, all the different communities and
segments of the Jewish people and of Israeli society must learn to communicate
with one another,” he said.
Vennor also emphasized the importance of the
“We’ve been the flashpoint of inter-societal conflicts of
late, but it’s a wider issue than just Beit Shemesh. The importance of secular
and haredi communities living together in harmony is going to come up around the
country and we want to make Beit Shemesh a model for how to address these
The goal, Vennor explained, was not simply to engage in
dialogue but to develop programs that would address real communal needs, whether
it was projects for at-risk youth, environmental protection initiatives,
building or repairing neighborhood infrastructure or other similar
“There are enough people here who are interested in dialogue,”
Vennor said, rejecting the idea that the town had become irreversibly
The response to the call for proposals had been very positive,
he continued, and pointed out that people from all the communities – secular,
national-religious and ultra- Orthodox – had sent in suggestions.
idea is that instead of each segment of the city solving issues on its own, we
can come together to resolve local problems. This should be the hallmark
of normalcy and a model for the way things can and should happen,” Vennor
The Partnership 2gether board has also met with Beit Shemesh Mayor
Moshe Abutbol to discuss the potential for an annual conference there, akin to
other city-branded conferences held in Herzliya, Caesarea and Sderot, to promote
tolerance and cooperation.