As the mayoral race in Beit Shemesh heats up ahead of the November 11 election, Shalom Lerner hopes to be transformed from the Anglo favorite into the first choice among the city's electorate. Born in Brazil and educated at Baltimore's Ner Israel high school, Lerner made aliya from Belgium in 1976. He worked in the family diamond business and was part of the founding staff of the Globes financial newspaper. In 1989, he and his wife decided to settle in Beit Shemesh, then a minor development town of some 16,000, "to be part of building something." "When we first came to Beit Shemesh, we received a wonderful welcome. Everyone was so warm, and we soon became active in promoting the city to other residents," recalls Lerner. Lerner advocated for the city first as a volunteer guide, then as head of a real-estate firm he founded, Lerner Realty. He claims to have brought hundreds of new residents to Beit Shemesh. When the local National Religious Party branch was looking for a representative of the Anglo immigrant community to join the list, Lerner was a natural choice. He founded the Beit Shemesh branch of the Headquarters for the Land of Israel to protest the Oslo Accords, and a Keren Klita to assist the influx of Russian olim in the early 1990s. Today he serves as deputy mayor of Beit Shemesh, and holds a number of portfolios in the city council. A father of six and grandfather of five, Lerner's platform emphasizes improving the educational system in the city. "We have to make sure every child has a place that is appropriate for him," he says. That includes both schools which are appropriate to every community as well as extracurricular activities. Rabbi Dov Lipman, a community activist who has volunteered to manage Lerner's campaign, says the campaign has touched a nerve among English speakers. "The campaign has energized the Anglo community. This might be the first time in the history of our country where Anglos are rising to the occasion and taking such an active role. I am bombarded with e-mails and calls from people who want to help or offer advice." Lipman, who made aliya from America four years ago, was dissatisfied with the actions of MKs and local politicians, and decided that only personal involvement could change the face of the city. "I heard about Shalom Lerner and turned to him to volunteer my time to try to make our city better. After working with Shalom and seeing his integrity, his sincerity, and his emotional connection to the city and its residents, I tried to push him to run for mayor," recalls Lipman. Lerner says he senses excitement from the Anglo community about his bid for mayor, but not because he will give particular attention to their niche. "The Anglos, the national religious have what they need in Beit Shemesh," says Lerner. "It's outside these communities that you really see a city that is not living up to its potential." He says the city's residents realize the Anglo community is not after jobs in the municipality or looking after their own interests, but seeks to build up the entire city. Lerner says his experience with municipal politics showed him how bureaucracy was holding the city back and how important the mayor's role was in setting the tone for the city. "If you don't set a good example, if you don't encourage good work and punish the loafers, you establish an atmosphere of 'lo meshaneh' [it doesn't matter]," he explains. "A little more effort and a little more caring could increase the quality of life" in Beit Shemesh, he says. Earlier this month, Lerner held a rally to kick off his electoral bid, attended by nearly 1,000 people, primarily residents of Beit Shemesh's Anglo and religious Zionist neighborhoods. But the key demographic in Beit Shemesh is the fast-growing haredi population. To capture the mayoralty, Lerner will have to make significant inroads in the mostly haredi Ramat Beit Shemesh and other haredi areas. That means tackling the haredi community's own candidates, including Moshe Abutbul of Shas, as well as the current mayor, Daniel Vaknin (Likud), who in past elections has captured a large part of the haredi vote. A Teleseker survey commissioned by Lerner of 397 likely voters found him in a close race with Abutbul, while the incumbent Vaknin languished behind. Lerner realizes that the growth of haredi communities has created a backlash from veteran residents who see their city being radically transformed. His hopes of capturing the mayoralty depend on portraying himself as the "man in the middle" - the modern Orthodox representative who will be sensitive to haredi needs while protecting the character of old Beit Shemesh. Lerner has promised to stand up against religious coercion, which has recently tarnished the city's image, but also supports community-appropriate institutions in haredi areas - from synagogues and schools to pools with separate swimming hours.

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