Fundamental differences

Fundamental differences

October 23, 2009 10:50

Rehov Abarbanel, on the eastern margins of the central Sharon city of Ra'anana, presents as an unlikely location for controversy. Quiet and populated mainly by single-occupant family homes, its discreet anonymity is broken only by the cluster of buildings at one end of the street given over to religious observance and associated activity - a synagogue, a center for women's studies, a crèche and a kindergarten serving the religious community. Given its size, the complex is - surprisingly - physically unobtrusive, half hidden amidst a small copse of trees. Nonetheless, it has recently been caught up in a furious debate between some residents of Abarbanel and the neighboring Rehov Einstein, and users of the women's center. Allegations of noise, parking congestion and overcrowding have been capped by claims of religious intolerance, with opposing arguments about the competing needs of the secular and religious communities mirroring a broader debate on the subject - one which threatens to challenge the existing socio-religious "status quo" in the city. At the eye of the storm is a recent application to the city's municipal authorities to add a second story to the existing structure, extending the synagogue and the center. Local opinion is fiercely divided. On one side of the debate are those who see the complex - and particularly the women's center - as a benefit to both the neighborhood and the wider community. Robin Katz, a local resident and participant at the women's center, thinks that the public service performed by the institution must be taken into consideration. "Ra'anana has an integrated population, both observant and secular," she notes, arguing that the center benefits the community as a whole. "The Matan Center is a great place for learning, intellectually stimulating and completely non-judgmental in terms of attendance," says Katz. Katz acknowledges that the presence of - and proposed extension to - the center may not be to everyone's liking, but disputes suggestions by some residents that it would fundamentally alter the nature of the neighborhood. Taking particular exception to quotes in the local press likening the present situation to living in Jerusalem's Orthodox Mea She'arim neighborhood, she says that she "never felt that the neighborhood is being 'invaded' by religious people using the center and the synagogue." Daniel Weiss, who has lived locally for three years, does not feel that suggestions that the extension will "alter the character of the neighborhood" are fair comment. "The neighborhood has a mix of people of all persuasions, and suggestions of stone throwing and the closure of roads on the Sabbath sound like fear-mongering." Weiss thinks that the center provides an invaluable community service, and is saddened that debate has descended to name-calling and worse. "The center is very open and pluralistic, and welcomes anyone interested in learning about their Jewish heritage.… As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I feel distinctly uncomfortable about claims of religious intolerance, in Israel of all places." RA'ANANA IS a city with a significant immigrant population, olim from North and South America, Europe and South Africa - and of differing religious persuasions, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or none - rubbing shoulders with veterans. While many residents would argue that the city is a model for diversity, tensions in maintaining an appropriate balance between the needs of the secular and observant populations do sometimes simmer, occasionally erupting noisily. During last year's municipal elections, political discourse was at times subsumed by loud - if not always entirely illuminating - arguments concerning the alleged marginalization of the city's secular population. Earlier this year, outrage at the defacement across the city of billboards advertising a local lingerie shop only subsided when it surfaced that the graffiti were part of an advertising campaign orchestrated by the shop's proprietors and designed to play on fears of the "Haredization" of the city. Those fears are perhaps felt the most in the vicinity of the Rehov Abarbanel complex where some residents consider the proposed extension to the religious complex as not merely a disruption of the neighborhood's peace and tranquility, but a more fundamental intrusion upon their liberties. Lawrence Fisher, a local resident for nearly 30 years, considers the application a threat to the very nature of the neighborhood: "The main thing is that I see no reason to put an Orthodox center in the middle of a secular neighborhood." Fisher argues that the issue is not necessarily one of religious observance, but of the impact that the center has on the neighborhood. He asserts it is impossible to ignore events and functions there and that the problem, for him, is a basic lack of consideration for the needs of the local community. He states that noise from the complex is often hugely disruptive, with "music so loud that one cannot even hear the television," and on Shabbat, he notes, parents allow their children to play unsupervised in the local parks while they attend services at the synagogue. In effect, he argues, the children "desecrate Shabbat" by disturbing the community's enjoyment of the day. This, he says, shows a lack of respect for others. "One might almost say that it [their alleged behavior] is against religion." BUT IT can be difficult to disentangle the civic needs of the populace from perhaps more amorphous concerns about the religious balance in Ra'anana. While shops in the city center generally observe Shabbat, there are no restrictions on movement or the use of vehicles. However, some see such restrictions as inevitable. According to Fisher, an application was made a number of years ago to shut Rehov Schwartz, the main thoroughfare adjoining Abarbanel, on Shabbat. The application was turned down, Fisher says, but only because the road is one of the main arteries for traffic in the city: "Abarbanel and Einstein are smaller, and if they had tried the same with these streets, who knows?" According to Fisher, complaints about noise and congestion have in the past been rebuffed by the municipality with the explanation that it "is a religious matter, and that they cannot get involved." When contacted by Metro, a spokesperson for the municipality confirmed that an application was under consideration, and added only that interested residents would be invited to state their opinions in due course. Dr Adit Diamant sits on the City Council on behalf of the Meretz Party, and has argued strongly in the past for the preservation of the existing status quo. Speaking of the difficulties at Abarbanel, Diamant told Metro that the application submitted to the municipality stated that there would no additional impact upon the neighborhood as a whole. However, subsequent representations from concerned residents challenge this. "These must be considered and weighed carefully before a decision can be made," she says. Diamant confirms that there is some apprehension about the needs of the majority secular population of the city being marginalized at the expense of observant newcomers. "If they (new residents in the city) are happy to accept the existing balance between secular and religious residents as it is, then obviously there isn't a problem." She cautions against presumptions that the balance can be altered to meet the needs of observant Jews at the expense of the community as a whole. "If, for example, a religious family move to the sixth floor of an apartment block and then ask existing residents to allow the elevator to operate as a Shabbat elevator, it puts everyone in a difficult position and is not at all fair." Diamant confirms that there have been applications - rejected by the municipality - to close off streets in the city, as well as reports of residents receiving notes "asking them to refrain from driving on the Sabbath." Ra'anana, she points out, is already sensitive to the needs of the religious community. "The municipality rarely organizes events and activities on the Sabbath, unlike (neighboring cities) Kfar Saba and Herzliya." This, she argues, should not be taken for granted. "It is important to respect the needs of the secular community who live here; one cannot expect the municipality to act solely in the interests of the religious community." The situation on Rehov Abarbanel is not an isolated one. A recent decision to charge an admission fee for entrance to a popular children's activity area in the municipality-administered Park Ra'anana has already attracted adverse comment, critics noting that it would unduly penalize families with several children - observant, religious families mainly. But generally, such friction seems the exception rather than the rule. Traffic remains unimpeded on Shabbat, and the small number of shops and restaurants on the city's peripheries that do open do not attract comment or complaint. In fact, perhaps the real surprise is that there aren't more flash-points for tension between the religious and secular populations of the city, indicating that local communities are generally willing to seek compromise rather than confrontation. "I do believe that Ra'anana is genuinely pluralistic," says Katz. "It would be more useful, on the whole, for us all to consider a means to overcome the growing pains of the center, rather than focusing our attention on the negatives."

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