Aliza Bloch, Beit Shemesh religious-Zionist mayoral-candidate, October 2018.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The 2018 municipal elections in Beit Shemesh shocked Israel and the Jewish world. A religious-Zionist woman, Dr. Aliza Bloch, defeated the incumbent ultra-Orthodox mayor in a city in which the ultra-Orthodox are the majority. Since then there has been a noticeable improvement in municipal services, and appointments have been made based on skill, ability and experience, and not on political deals and nepotism. But what happened at the Beit Shemesh Remembrance Day ceremony reflects the greatest change the city is experiencing since the election.
Thousands of residents gathered at the city memorial for those who have been killed while serving in the IDF or in terror attacks. The ceremony included prayers, musical presentations, a moving video about the 100 residents who lost their lives for the country, and speeches from the mayor, a member of Knesset and a relative of one of those who had been killed.
The very first musical presentation shocked the audience. A choir made up of ultra-Orthodox men and boys walked onto the stage, along with a hassidic cantor. They sang the prayer for IDF soldiers. That’s right. In Beit Shemesh – a city where religious extremists ruled in past years and where soldiers have had to use caution and not enter certain ultra-Orthodox areas in uniform – an ultra-Orthodox choir and cantor openly sang the prayer for IDF soldiers.
That never happened when the city had an ultra-Orthodox mayor. But with the victory of a religious-Zionist mayor whose stated goal was to unify the city and create an atmosphere where all populations could feel comfortable, the previously silenced moderate ultra-Orthodox population – which believes in tolerance, coexistence and the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into society – is now able to make its voice heard.
This message was magnified even more when Rabbi Eliyahu Meirav, the father of a soldier who was killed last December, walked to the podium to represent the bereaved families. He was wearing a long black coat and round black hat, while sporting a long white beard and peyot, the long and curly sideburns that is a trademark of many hassidic communities. His son Yossi, a combat soldier in the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox unit, was killed by a terrorist while on patrol in Samaria. The very idea to turn to the father of an ultra-Orthodox soldier was extraordinary. And the fact that Rabbi Meirav accepted the offer was nothing short of revolutionary. Again, a sign of changing times in our city.
BUT THE content of his speech made the night truly exceptional. The following are a few excerpts from his presentation:
• “The audience tonight includes many families from [the ultra-Orthodox army unit] Netzah Yehuda – the unit Yossi merited to be among its combatants. Yossi, like all his fellow soldiers in the unit, was a soldier who was prepared to give up his life at any moment for the Nation of Israel. I remember clearly how on the last Shabbat of his life he spoke with great emotion about the gratitude that he had that he could defend Israel with his body.”
• “We have faced many dangers that threatened our existence as a nation, but none of them succeeded. We survived Pharaoh, Amalek, Haman, the Greeks, the Romans, the Inquisition, the Nazis, Communism and many others. But one threat was and still is the true danger to our survival as a nation – as believing Jews, as a society and as a state. And this threat is not external but internal: baseless hatred. We each have a heart. But if we use our hearts to hate then with which heart will we love?”
• “We must appreciate and honor those who learn Torah, who kill themselves in the tents of Torah as representatives of the people, giving up life’s pleasures amid a feeling of doing so on behalf of the nation that lives in Zion. Through their Torah study they are insuring our existence here.”
• “Our beloved Yossi had many positive qualities. But one that truly stood out was his ability to sincerely and naturally connect with people who were different than he was, with no conditions or self-interest. Yossi was a brother, friend, combatant and giver for all, and all felt this.”
• “Rabbi Nachman teaches us not to settle with simply accepting the other, but to find that which is good and special about them and to find a true place in our hearts for them. This is not merely a slogan – it takes work, to connect between us, between all the tribes... In Yossi’s name and in the name of all those that have died for Israel, I allow myself to turn to you and ask: Let’s seek out the good that is in us... Let’s come to know anew the people whom we don’t know personally but have preconceived notions about.”
Tolerance. Coexistence. Mutual respect for one another. That is the tone that captures the essence of a new day in Beit Shemesh. May this tone continue to spread throughout our city and from Beit Shemesh to all of Israel.
The author is a resident of Beit Shemesh and served as a member of the 19th Knesset.