Three leaders from the Yerushalmim Party running for City Council in October’s municipal election met with a group of Anglo supporters in Talpiot Monday night to address their concerns and discuss how they intend to improve the capital.
Rachel Azaria, a married mother of four, established the Yerushalmim Party in 2008 to represent young, religious and secular Jerusalemites following 10 years as an activist for environmentalism and Jewish law concerning women’s rights.
Azaria said she defines herself as an “Orthodox feminist,” and has subsequently led numerous successful campaigns for pluralism in Jerusalem, including the campaign against “the segregation of women in the public sphere” and Kosher restaurants’ battle against the Rabbinate’s certification practices.
Of particular interest to Azaria has been representing young families and their need for affordable schools and housing as a means to curtail the ongoing exodus of young professionals from the capital.
“My friends started leaving the city six or seven years ago by the dozen and I asked how we could cope with these changes,” said Azaria. We learned that the real way to make a difference here was through politics.”
While Azaria acknowledged that politics is “not a place for a nice Jewish girl,” she said she felt there was no other option.
“I decided if I want the city to be the way I want it to be, I have to get into politics,” she said.
Over the past five years Azaria’s initiatives have created free education programs for children ages 3 and over and subsidized afternoon school programs, as well as an additional subsidized month of pre-school in the summer.
Part of her party’s platform also includes improving educational standards in every neighborhood, renovating city schools, and reducing the number of students per class.
Apart from education, Azaria said her party is primarily focused on two other issues, including women’s rights and strengthening the capital’s neighborhoods.
With respect to women’s rights, Azaria said she hopes to “lead the struggle against the exclusion of women in Jerusalem,” including changing segregated bus seating, sidewalks, and even add posters of women on buses, including her own.
She said if elected, her party will also renew public parks, add sports and cultural events in every neighborhood, introduce shuttle buses to improve commuting time, renovate local shopping areas, and improve sanitation throughout the city.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, originally of Berkley, California, also a candidate on Yerushalmim’s ticket, said he initially got involved in area politics to address concerns among residents of Nahalaot, where he lives.
“I began going to City Council meetings and found a party that knows how to identify an issue and solve it, which is very important,” said Leibowitz.
Among Leibowitz’s chief concerns, he said, includes alternative kashrut standards and defusing tension between the ultra-Orthodox and secular communities.
“A lot of people in the world have an image of Jerusalem as Women of the Wall facing off with the haredim,” he said. “In many ways the city has become defined by tension and divisiveness of what it means to be Jewish.”
In terms of kosher dietary standards, Leibowitz who leads an alternative kashrut program, said present kashrut laws have deeply divided residents of the capital.
“Let’s notice that kashrut divides us and ask if a shared common ground of Jewish identity is possible,” he said. “I’m optimistic because what this party represents is the possible tomorrow of Jerusalem.”
Adding that he hopes to find “creative ways to change the dialogue,” Leibowitz said one of his goals is to give power back to consumers from the government, and provide them with more options.
“This is a crucial conversation if we are going to navigate the needs of different people in the city,” he said.
Fleur Hassan-Nahoum – an attorney originally from Gibraltar, who made aliya from Britain – said her focus will primarily be on providing all new immigrants with the help and attention they need to acclimate to Israeli society.
“Anglos to a large extent are lucky here, because everyone seems to know each other,” she said. “But not everybody is as lucky as we are.”
Hassan-Nahoum said she hopes to help struggling olim become successful citizens.
“Nobody is nurturing these olim by helping them navigate the bureaucracy, get jobs and get their children in the right schools,” she said. “You can come to Israel for all the ideological reasons in the world, but the reason people stay is because they like it here.”
Hassan-Nahoum said she joined the Yerushalmim Party after being taken by Azaria’s passion, as well as the pluralistic nature and commitment to Jerusalem among its members.
“I thought, ‘a party led by a woman? This is a good thing,’” she said. “And I fell in love with these people for their selfless love for Jerusalem.”
“I found it to be the most pluralistic group of all, with three men and three women.”
Indeed, Yerushalmim’s candidate list for city council also includes Tamir Nir, Tamar Brody and Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat, none of whom spoke at the event.
In terms of tensions between the Arab and Jewish sectors of the capital, while Azaria noted her party does not get involved in politics “on a national level,” she said she will work hard to create more unity.
“This is not three different cities for the ultra-Orthodox, secular and Arabs – we’re doing all we can to bridge the gaps between these groups,” she said.