The new Chabad House and the challenges of diversity in Israeli cities

For the past few months, I’ve been privileged to be part of a group of Fellows at the Shaharit Institute who have been investigating the challenges, successes and failures of “shared cities” in Israel and across the world.

By ALEX SINCLAIR
August 22, 2016 21:29
4 minute read.
JEWISH STUDENTS man the Chabad table at the University of Central Florida recently. (

JEWISH STUDENTS man the Chabad table at the University of Central Florida recently. (. (photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)

 
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They just opened a new Chabad House in Modi’in, five minutes’ walk away from my house, and I hate it.

Why? This question has become increasingly relevant this week with the Housing and Construction Ministry’s announcement that it will begin building haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods in secular cities, as long as the city’s current population of haredim is under 15 percent. If I can answer my question, maybe that will be a step toward creating a shared urban landscape for the diverse tribes of Israel society.

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For the past few months, I’ve been privileged to be part of a group of Fellows at the Shaharit Institute who have been investigating the challenges, successes and failures of “shared cities” in Israel and across the world.

We’ve researched cities like Beit Shemesh and Lod, met with an urban planning expert and analyzed research by social scientist Robert Putnam and others that highlights the challenges of social cohesion in heterogeneous cities.

Most of these discussions have led to one conclusion: my reaction to the Chabad House in Modi’in is not unique. Across the globe, the social dynamics of modern urban communities are precariously balanced, and Israel is no exception.

Whether it’s yuppies in Modi’in concerned with ultra-Orthodox Jews, or working class Mizrachim in south Tel Aviv whose community status quo has been upended by refugees from Eritrea and Sudan, or British “Brexiters” angry about Polish immigrants, the issues repeat themselves everywhere.

I would suggest three core elements for policies that could improve the way that my city, and other cities, deal with diversity: an empathetic understanding of everyone’s basic humanity and decency, including those who feel threatened by change; the strengthening of existing communities to give them the self-confidence to engage with other communities; and economic intervention in highly heterogeneous communities.

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Firstly, empathy – but empathy for everyone concerned. I must have empathy for newcomers to my neighborhood, who are no doubt good and decent people who, like me, care about finding a supportive environment for them and their families.

But we must also be empathic toward those who feel threatened. People aren’t necessarily being racist when they express their concerns over changes to the neighborhood.

Community, continuity and consistency are important to people, and when those are all threatened in the name of globalization or macro-economics, it’s no wonder people react defensively.

Secondly, the strengthening of existing communities. Putnam’s research shows that social cohesion is lowered when communities become more diverse: there’s a “hunkering-down” effect. In order to mitigate this reaction, we need to do more to support and nurture existing communities, especially in neighborhoods with diverse populations.

This means supporting synagogues from multiple denominations and traditions (especially those who see their remit as community-building rather than just spaces for prayer); nurturing spaces for secular communities (for example, events centered around libraries, cultural early- evenings for young families, and municipally- funded after-school centers for kids); and carefully facilitated events that bring different communities together for mutual learning or cultural interactions.

Diversity must cease being perceived as a competition for limited cultural resources, and instead become a win-win game. When your own community feels strong, warm, nourishing and publicly supported, you are more likely to be open to sharing your space with other communities.

Finally, the economic component cannot be overlooked. This is less of an issue in Modi’in, but is a major one in other Israeli cities where this new policy may be enacted.

Policy-makers must internalize that social cohesion and economic flourishing are blood brothers. People are more open to diversity when economic threats do not hang over them and their children. Communities that are becoming more diverse must be special targets for serious economic intervention and support.

Cities where this new housing policy will be enacted must adopt those three policy positions. If they do so, there is a greater chance that the reaction of the existing local communities to new ultra-Orthodox neighbors could be welcoming, not wary.

Cities are by definition always going to be places of diversity and heterogeneity.

Ultimately, Shaharit’s vision is that urban and civic diversity can be a source of great strength and growth. The core ideas noted here can bring that vision into reality: to put in place the social, cultural and economic support systems that will enable the diversity of Israel’s communities to exist and flourish.

The author is senior adviser for international development and English-language content at the Shaharit Institute, an Israeli non-profit that advocates for political and civic models which transcend traditional communal boundaries.

He is also director of programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the author of Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism.

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