Embracing diversity?

Kiryat Hayovel has long been considered the battleground between the capital’s haredi and in-haredi populations, but pockets of cooperation are emerging.

Kiryat Hayovel has long been considered the battleground between the capital’s haredi and non-haredi populations, but pockets of cooperation are emerging (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Kiryat Hayovel has long been considered the battleground between the capital’s haredi and non-haredi populations, but pockets of cooperation are emerging
The largest of Jerusalem’s pre-1967 neighborhoods in the southwest part, with its 29,000 residents, the only one to be exempt from the obligation of building with Jerusalem stone, has become the hub of one of the city’s major struggles between haredim and non-haredim – the battle over Jerusalem’s identity.
Once a neighborhood hastily built to absorb waves of new immigrants from North Africa and Asia and molded into a “blue collar” neighborhood, in the past decade Kiryat Hayovel has become the main arena of the struggle between haredim and the rest of the population to shape its identity. Near the almost totally haredi Bayit Vagan neighborhood, while it has remained a rather affordable and partly even low-cost housing area, Kiryat Hayovel has attracted many haredi families. But the same holds true for young non-haredi families and many students (most of them studying medicine at Hadassah) who have increased the resident population.
Today, Kiryat Hayovel has openly become the major arena of the struggle between haredim and non-haredim, a struggle over almost every apartment for rent, every plot planned for construction, not to mention every kindergarten, school or synagogue in the neighborhood.
Recent local council elections have brought new activists from the secular and religious sectors, quite a few of them identified with lists represented on the city council, such as Meretz, Hitorerut and Yerushalmim (although according to local council rules, they are not official representatives of these parties), who are determined to reshape the identity of the neighborhood into one that respects its various faces but without surrendering to haredi politicians and activists.
“Today,” says Racheli Rembrandt, founder and president of the NGO Hatene Yerushalayim and member of the local council board, “it all focuses on the Warburg Lot project. After our loss to the haredim on the city council, we are waiting for the next steps, quite anxiously I must say, for the decision of the district construction committee.
This issue has become the turning point for Kiryat Hayovel. If we fail with the district committee as well, it will have a disastrous effect on all the projects we are running here for non-haredi young adults and young families in the neighborhood.”
The Warburg Lot – one of the last plots in the neighborhood available for construction – was planned for the Jerusalem Military Mechina (prearmy preparatory) and the Secular Yeshiva (still located in Ein Kerem), two institutions aimed at bringing young, productive people to increase that part of the resident population, with the hope that many of them would remain there after finishing the programs at those institutions. Mayor Nir Barkat is very much in favor of the program and presented it at the city council last year but failed to receive support from the haredi benches who, despite being part of his coalition, voted against it. According to the rules, the plan was later presented to the district committee (at the Interior Ministry), where the final decision regarding the use of the plot will be made.
“There is still hope that we can convince the committee to confirm the original plan, but it will not be an easy task,” says Deputy Mayor Rachel Azaria (Yerushalmim).
BUT INTERESTINGLY enough and, unlike the tensions between the parties around issues of venues open on Shabbat in the city center, for example, the struggle in Kiryat Hayovel is not about pushing haredim out of the neighborhood but rather instilling a different kind of togetherness. In other words, the main aim – at least for the activists in various communities established over the past few years – is to attain a kind of modus vivendi that will allow both sides to live together in mutual respect.
“It is not that we want the haredim out of our neighborhood as much as we want their politicians not to impose their plans,” says Itamar, a young resident of the neighborhood for the past four years. “We have no problem with them having their kindergartens and schools, as long as the pupils are residents of the neighborhood and not imported from other neighborhoods, for example,” he says.
“In fact, we can say that the struggle over the Warburg Lot has had a beneficial effect on the neighborhood and its young residents,” says Ronit Gilboa, a resident and member of the local council board. A therapist who moved from nearby Ramat Denya to the part of Kiryat Hayovel where she built a one-floor villa a few years ago, Gilboa says that the urge to “save” this plot from any attempt to install any venues there to serve the haredi population has become a launching point for many local initiatives to improve the neighborhood, such as communities of young adults and families, as well as cultural and educational initiatives. “So far, it’s more for the best.
But, of course, nothing is guaranteed,” she says.
Rembrandt sees a difference between the haredi families who occupy most of Stern, Olswanger and Brazil streets – where the apartments are very inexpensive – and the struggles over the cultural activities led by the young secular and religious adults and families that take place in the public spaces of the neighborhood.
“There are absolutely no problems between us and the haredi residents on Stern or Brazil streets, who are all haredi by now. Whether they are old residents who became more religious or newcomers attracted by the low prices, they are hardworking, low-income families. We have even had some joint projects, and there is mutual respect and good neighborhood relations. The real problems are on Zangwill Street and, of course, at the Warburg Lot.”
Zangwill Street, close to the Taylor Cultural Center owned by the local council, is another point of contention between the parties. Last year, a few attempts to hold events there on Shabbat were successful, but now they have ceased.
“Instead, we organize events outdoors on the Warburg Lot, whether it is a Kabbalat Shabbat with music or screenings of outdoor films at night or anything else we think the residents want and have the right to enjoy,” explains Rembrandt.
One of the projects that have bolstered all these projects and organizations is the “communities” – groups of young adults (mostly students) or young families who live in the same part of the neighborhood (sometimes the same building) and organize their life as a community, almost like the model of the kibbutz.
To date, there are six such groups in Kiryat Hayovel. One of them, called Horech, is located close to the Warburg Lot. In each community, there are about 100 young adults, individuals or families, and their presence is making a difference in many respects. For example, they organized a protest against the high prices of the only supermarket in the neighborhood, which has mobilized many residents.
“In these communities,” says Rembrandt, “members have opened kindergartens, which accept both religious and secular children, as well as a club for youth at risk from the local population or a social club that organizes various kinds of youth activities.”
Asked if the need to lower prices in supermarkets has become a means of cooperation between the haredi families and the young activists, Rembrandt says it has indeed been a kind of bridge.
“It is a mutual interest,” she says. “But when we invited them to join us in protest vigils in front of the supermarket, they proposed that we buy groceries through their online retail centers at very low prices. It was a good start, but it didn’t go on for long. There was not such a similarity in the kind of merchandise we buy, but it certainly improved the atmosphere.
After all, we are all concerned about the same issue – how to make ends meet.”
All the projects are well prepared and launched with the agreement and participation of the local residents of all backgrounds – religious, traditional, secular – who agree to work together for a better environment and share the common concern that the neighborhood remain diverse and does not fall under haredi hegemony.
ONE OF the concerns of the young adults of the communities is the lack of venues for leisure activities in Kiryat Hayovel.
“There is only one coffee shop in the shopping center, and that’s all.” says Rembrandt. “On evenings or weekends, there’s nowhere to go or hang out. We are trying to find a solution for that also. Recently, there was an interesting local initiative, to open a kind of bar near the “Monster” playground, which has just been reopened after extensive renovations. That could be a very good thing for the neighborhood, and we need more.”
In fact, the lack of public facilities for multiple purposes is perhaps the worst problem of Kiryat Hayovel. The plan to construct a large building to house the Mechina and the Secular Yeshiva was expected to partially resolve that problem, but for the moment it is on hold.
“We don’t have facilities for public use,” confirms Gilboa, who sounds much less optimistic than the other activists in the neighborhood. “I doubt that the haredi politicians and activists will easily give up on getting their hands on the neighborhood,” she says.
She adds, “The relatively low cost of housing and its proximity to other haredi neighborhoods make it a perfect target for haredim who have no other housing solutions.”
She says that the support from the city council members of Yerushalmim and Hitorerut is valuable.
“As a resident and local council member, I know that they are sensitive to our requests and needs, but they cannot solve all the problems. The haredim on the city council and in the coalition are very strong,” says Gilboa.