Beit Shemesh: Residents march in favor of embattled school

Several hundred national religious residents march in solidarity of school slammed by haredim opposed to it operating in the area.

Beit Shemesh school protest 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Beit Shemesh school protest 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Several hundred national religious residents of Beit Shemesh held a protest march on Wednesday night to show their support for a girls’ school set to open on Thursday, the first day of the 2011-2012 school year.
The school has been slammed by haredi residents of the neighborhood who are opposed to the school operating in the area. There is also a severe shortage of classroom space in the city.
A number of haredim broke into the building on Monday morning night and began squatting there and engaging in spirited debates. Police escorted them out.
Carrying signs, supporters of the school proceeded in a well-behaved march to the Orot Banot school, where they held a short rally.
Jordy Alter, a New Jersey native, was protesting because “this affects the community. It affects us if the school is forced to move far away.”
When asked about recent statements by the mayor’s office that implied that the national-religious community was being inflexible on the matter, Alter said, “I don’t know what the spokespeople mean by not being flexible; this building-plan has been in effect for years. These plans for the school were in effect before the haredi buildings next door were built. This is our neighborhood, we aren’t being inflexible.”
When asked why he thinks there has been a controversy over the issue, he said, “I think it’s two issues. One smokescreen is that they say they can’t look at six- or sevenyear- old girls, and if that’s considered reasonable then we have really big problems. I think the other issue is control.
You can see that this is clearly not in a haredi neighborhood.
“The fact that we should have to compromise in our neighborhood doesn’t make any sense. I think what it is is that the mayor [Moshe Abutbul of Shas] is a haredi guy and he feels pressure from a small percentage of people in the community who place pressure on him and he feels overwhelmed.”
Alter added, “No one here has any problem with the haredim, I think they have a bigger problem with us than we do with them.”
Two years ago, ground was broken to build a branch of the Orot Banot national-religious girls’ schools, a little over two years after an adjacent national-religious boys school was built on the same plot of land.
The ground-breaking for the girls’ school was greeted with fierce protests from some members of the city’s ultra-Orthodox community, incensed that there would be a national-religious school within what they say is the confines of their neighborhood, and in addition, that it would eventually include a girls’ school.
The demonstration on Wednesday followed a meeting held earlier in the day at the office of Buskila with members of the local parents committee and the haredi community.
Ze’ev Moskovitz of the Parents Committee said that during the meeting they called on the mayor “to lead a process of real dialogue between the different sides for the sake of Beit Shemesh and a better future. The school year will open tomorrow, and this is the most important thing.”
In terms of the dialogue and what the committee is willing to agree to down the road, he said, “We aren’t looking to carry out any sort of negotiation with a gun to our head. We aren’t offering any solutions, but we’re willing to have a dialogue.”
He added, “The issue isn’t flexibility; the issue is to get to the most correct solution.
What should we agree to? That our girls will enter the school buses and people will try to hurt them?” Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, city hall spokesman Matti Rosenzweig acknowledged that the school is “on the edge of a haredi neighborhood and next to a national-religious one,” but added repeatedly that the national-religious community has shown an inability to be flexible.
Rosenzweig vowed that the school would open on Thursday without a hitch, but added, “I’m worried about what will happen a week from now, a month from now – what some extremists in the haredi community will do.”
Walking the streets that surround the campus of the Orot Banot school, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about, at least from the point of view of the haredi community.
The school does not appear to be by any means in the thick of a haredi neighborhood, nor is it in the heart of a densely packed, solely national-religious district.
The school lies on Herzog Street on a rise in the Givat Sharett neighborhood. In front of the school is a large open green area that stretches for more than a block and is ringed by the national-religious neighborhoods Scheinfeld, Ramat Neriya and Nofei Aviv.
Facing the school, to the right, is a new apartment building for national-religious families. Beyond that are more complexes for the community.
To school’s left however, is an apartment complex for haredi families that looks over the girls’ school, and behind that is a six-to-eight floor complex under construction, which will also house haredi families.
While the school itself appears to be in an area that is predominantly national religious, a block or two further up Herzog street things change significantly.
Posters appear on the walls of buildings reading “Daughters of Israel – the Torah demands you dress modestly,” and at the bottom of a stairway, a neighborhood on Rabbi Dotsai Street is completely haredi, and includes a few posters calling on residents to “prepare for the war over our houses,” in regard to the national-religious girls’ school.
Next to the trailers housing synagogues and a beit midrash study hall, a few dozen haredi men and women take advantage of a discount-vegetable market set up on the sidewalk, as a crowd of young men exit a caravan synagogue after evening prayers.
“Yitzik,” a 25-year-old father of two, said that for him and others in the neighborhood, “the presence of the boys school was never a problem, but then, they try to sneak in the girls’ school.
It’s not just the extremists among us that are against this, all of us are.”
Yitzik added, “We are raising our children here and they can’t be exposed to these sorts of immodest sights,” in reference to the style of dress favored by national-religious school girls and their mothers.
The haredi young men were very defensive of their position and described the national-religious side as being unwilling to understand their needs. They repeatedly said that they are not capable of just living anywhere and when the character of their neighborhood changes they will have no choice but to fight the change, or move elsewhere.
When asked what constituted a change of character, they would repeatedly mention the “immodest” dress of national-religious females.
One haredi man who identified himself as “Moshe,” said the issue was not as simple as merely a school house.
“Don’t let anyone confuse you, this isn’t about that school house. It’s about the character of the neighborhood.
They [the national religious] don’t want to see the nature of their neighborhood change, and we don’t want ours to change either.”