This election campaign for Jerusalem’s mayor and city council is becoming a source of continuous suspense. A new protagonist from the haredi sector is causing a lot of anger and frustration, and has changed the rules of the game.
Chaim Epstein is a gentle and smiling man, who represents in the city council the Peleg Yerushalmi faction created a few years ago by the late Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, whose major aim is to prevent young yeshiva students from enrolling in the IDF and maintaining a harsh line against any change in the status quo.
In 2013, Epstein surprised the haredi sector when he decided to join the race and ran for the position of mayor. He won one seat at the council, and was the first invited to join Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition, with the title of vice mayor.
On Sunday, Epstein announced that he was running again, but this time his move has pulled the carpet out from under Deputy Mayor Yossi Daitch (United Torah Judaism) who is still very busy trying to convince all the parties inside the haredi sector to fully support his candidacy.
Epstein answered In Jerusalem’s questions.
So what happened? Why this candidacy now?
I also ran five years ago. But the reason is that we believe that there must be a haredi candidate.
But there are other haredi councilmen who haven’t yet officially announced their plans. So why did you decide to do so?
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My friends haven’t yet decided, and they are facing some problems on their way to decide, and one of the reasons is that their major request [to reach a decision] is to keep us [Peleg Yerushalmi] out of the game.
Why? How different are you from each other?
An outsider wouldn’t understand that. But I will try to explain. We have not accepted the agreements that the rest of the haredim have accepted. For example, we reject totally the conscription bill, we refuse the coercion, and moreover, we refuse the system that replaces yeshiva students from one side with students from another yeshiva, based on draft quotas.
It is immoral, and it will lead to closure of most of the yeshivot. It means that to release students from Bnei Brak from the army, we would have to provide the IDF with students from our yeshivot. We will never accept that.
What else prevents you from joining a large haredi bloc?
There is the program called Kemah, established and led by Yossi Daitch [a foundation that provides scholarship for yeshiva students who decide to go to university or college].
It is merely a way to seduce young yeshiva students to leave the world of Torah, and we are against it. This a reform in the haredi world with which we do not agree. None of them would have dared to promote that in the days of Rabbi [Yosef Shalom] Eliyashiv.
Today there is a vacuum in the haredi leadership and you are fighting these trends?
What does that have to do with the Jerusalem municipality and this election?
We are persecuted by them. They have fired our teachers, kindergarten teachers, synagogue gabbaim and cantors. We have had to build everything from scratch here in Jerusalem.
Thank God, we already have 15 new synagogues here for our people. So how can they ask me now to join the ranks and support the haredi consensus? They ostracize me and now they want me to join them? They persecute me and now they want my support?
We’re talking about a city’s needs, about cleaning the streets, taking care of infrastructure – why don’t you consider simply joining one of the non-haredi lists?
Because we think that Jerusalem deserves a haredi mayor.
Suppose you or Daitch become the next mayor. Can you understand the concern of the pluralist sector here?
Of course I understand that. But I tell them that they have nothing to fear. What does a secular mayor tell me? I am also afraid of a secular mayor, and he tells me not to worry. Isn’t that so?
Has your sector really been discriminated against?
In many things. Barkat has respected his commitments, but the atmosphere here has become much more secular and it hurts us. Give us what we need and leave us alone – yeshivot, separate neighborhoods, synagogues, but I will not tolerate a municipal public event where non-kosher food is served. We have no plans to persecute secular people.
What about the First Station, with haredim attempting to compel the city council to close the restaurants there that are open on Shabbat?
The law in Israel is made by the Supreme Court. Although I am opposed to the Supreme Court, it is the sovereign here, so I will respect it. We pray that God will remove the evil reign, but for the moment, that’s the reality.
What do you say to people identified with your movement who deface posters depicting women?
That’s not my way. But I am strongly opposed to displaying posters with immodest pictures of women in public places.
Will you call on the haredi public not to do that?
It depends what kind of pictures they are. If they are not hurting feelings, then yes.
How do you estimate your chance of being elected?
I offer an alternative, one that will return the haredi sector to its roots. God will provide.
What are the chances that the secular public in this city will have a good life here, and feel at home in Jerusalem?
I think that secular people already live very well now.
That’s not exactly the overall feeling here. Will you call on the city’s haredim to understand that there are secular people who also have rights in Jerusalem? Will you do that?
Absolutely. I am not afraid of them.
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