Family values

The Yerushalmim party, with one seat on the city council, is preparing a varied line-up to represent the needs of people with young children.

Three candidates from the Yerushalmim Party 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Three candidates from the Yerushalmim Party 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
An Orthodox feminist, an Orthodox social activist rabbi, and a student at the Hebrew Union College gathered last Friday around one of the tables at the Masaryk coffee shop on Emek Refaim Street. It sounds like the introduction to a joke, but the people in question are the first three candidates on the Yerushalmim list for municipal elections, led by city council member Rachel Azaria. And though they represent three different communities, they share a common concern for Jerusalem’s future and its residents.
The three individuals – Azaria; Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, head of the Sulam Yaakov yeshiva and recently elected president of the Lev Ha’ir neighborhood council; and Tamir Nir, a social activist and soon-to-be Reform rabbi from the Beit Hakerem neighborhood – are working together to win substantial representation on the next city council in the October 22 municipal elections. While one might wonder how they bridge what many would consider gaps in their religious and political opinions, the three explain at length that the days of “either religious or secular” are over, and that what most residents expect are reliable representatives who focus more on what makes life in the city pleasant and affordable, and much less on polarization.
“We are focusing on three major issues,” explains Azaria, a mother of four and a longtime religious feminist. “Education, strengthening the neighborhoods’ community life, and issues of state and religion.”
She emphasizes that in her eyes, Yerushalmim’s main area of interest is young families – people in their 30s and 40s with young children, be they religious, traditional or secular. “It doesn’t really matter, they all share the same field of interest: a good and affordable education, decent housing and a less atrocious cost of living.”
While the sounds of Eric Clapton’s “Layla” play in the background, Leibowitz, who grew up in Berkeley, California, during the ’60s, talks about his first encounter with Azaria and her followers about two years ago. He was already living in Nahlaot with his own family and a group of friends, who, like him, were still figuring out how to establish a community of their own in the neighborhood while mingling with the environment.
“At one of the gatherings organized two years ago at Gan Hasus in the city center [during the 2011 protest movement period], I met Marik [Stern, a founding member of Yerushalmim and assistant to Azaria], and we started to develop these ideas I had in mind – like how to organize a community, how to work with the municipality, how to make things move forward and get the public support we needed.”
He and Stern began to meet on a regular basis and focused on the specific problems that Leibowitz and his friends were encountering in their neighborhood.
“We had to find solutions for a wide range of issues – from the need to [establish] public parks for the children in the neighborhood, to more urgent matters, including the [alleged] pedophile cases that were revealed at that time – we didn’t have enough access to the local council, and they [Yerushalmim] helped us a lot.
We sat together and tried to find solutions, and that’s how I met Rachel [Azaria].”
At a certain point, he recalls, “I said to him and to myself, now I’m ready to broaden [our] range, to know more about what [Yerushalmim is] doing in this city. I began to attend meetings of the Yerushalmim board, and later on I attended the city council meetings. At some point, I realized I was no longer just a community rabbi, [acting only] for my own community, but had become an activist for the city at large.”
The main achievement in his eyes was the realization that, through such activity, he could replace the frustrations he was experiencing in his Nahlaot community work – “from knowing that there are so many things to do and not knowing how to proceed” – with a sense that he could be a part of something bigger, that he could access the tools to promote his views and improve things.
“I came to this at a rather late age,” he admits.
“I am now in my 40s. This is something people usually do earlier, but I’m fine with this” – particularly, he adds, since he was raised in Berkeley, “where thinking out of the box is the average.”
At the same time, he continues, “I am also a conservative, I am committed to Halacha, I am very religious, while on the culture side, I do not stand for separate worlds” – a hint that the rock music playing in the background, for instance, is not alien to him.
All three Yerushalmim candidates emphasize that they are “far beyond the issues of religious versus secular.” For Leibowitz, it’s simply a matter of time before people get used to that idea.
“In an American’s eyes, being some kind of hassid and yet modern and involved in general community affairs is not something new anymore,” he says. “After all, it’s all about Jewish issues like social commitment, not a narrow halachic discourse we’re talking about here. But I realize that for native Israelis, it still seems a little strange. I assume it will improve with time.”
Being a city council member also requires making clear decisions, which have not always been easy for Azaria or her constituency. Some of the issues she has promoted have been highly unpopular among many of her city council peers, as well as with Mayor Nir Barkat. In her capacity as an Orthodox woman, she has drawn the ire of the haredi camp and even of those closest to her own community, the national religious. Her fight against women’s exclusion from the public sphere, and her petitions to the High Court in two cases – that of gender separation in the streets of Mea She’arim, and her appeal to get the company that puts the advertisements on buses to allow her picture ahead of the last elections – have won her many supporters from secular and progressive circles, as well as some of the fiercest enemies a politician can get.
One of the controversial cases in which she has been involved is the Cinema City issue. Azaria voted against the planned cinema complex’s opening on Shabbat (in opposition to the Hitorerut movement, which was on a joint list with Yerushalmim in the last city council elections). She, Nir and Leibowitz remark that they stand together, despite their differences, on the distinction between leisure and entertainment, and business.
“We are basically bound by the Gabizon-Meidan agreement,” says Azaria with a hint of impatience in her voice, referring to the agreement allowing cultural, entertainment and community events to take place on Shabbat, but prohibiting businesses or factories to open. “We are well aware of the needs of a population that is not all the same – the First Station [pedestrian mall], for example, is exactly what we have in mind that should be encouraged, while the Cinema City, which from the beginning was not planned to operate on Shabbat, seems to us less desirable.”
Asked whether, as people who have strong ties with Jewish life and tradition, the three of them can truly represent residents whose lifestyle does not involve such Jewish aspects, they respond together with a loud and clear “Of course.”
However, Nir, the only one of the three who is not Orthodox, adds immediately that in any case, “we would always prefer to encourage [leisure] activities that will strengthen the communities, that would be more fitted to our vision – for example, the Beraleh program [a series of activities for young families and children] and not Cinema City. Bringing people to sit in front of a screen is not what I see as my first priority, although on a personal level, I am of course for cinemas to open on Shabbat. But that’s not why I’m needed here. I am afraid that the Cinema City will become, finally, just another mall – that’s not a cultural activity I want to see here for the communities on Shabbat. And beyond that, the so-called secular [members of] society in Jerusalem today are the first ones to seek out a more complex [outlet] for their leisure time – they are mostly capable of opening their minds to some of the most beautiful Jewish messages. We are far away from the old slogans – either religious, or secular and tolerant. Those have become obsolete here, and we can answer that need.
This is the new Jerusalemite discourse, in which Yerushalmim fit.”
Azaria, meanwhile, returns to what seems to be her preferred issue – young mothers and young families, who, she points out, “share the same concerns and have about the same needs, whether they are religious or not.”
Among those needs are shading in public parks, affordable kindergarten prices, decent infrastructure in schools, and the cherry on the cake in her activities in the current council: having public kindergartens run for 11 months a year instead of 10. She says this is her unchanged agenda, and not only does she feel this is where she has the greatest support, “this what people I meet ask me to continue to do.”
A more complicated issue is that of which mayoral candidate Yerushalmim should support, if it supports any.
Azaria, a more seasoned politician, sounds immediately careful. The declaration of Moshe Lion’s candidacy for the next mayor of the city has introduced a new – and delicate – aspect to the campaign, as the haredi factions have raised their demands to join any coalition.
Azaria has had a rocky political relationship with Mayor Nir Barkat. Though she avoids going into the matter today, Barkat did not support her candidacy for deputy mayor two years ago, because of the harsh opposition from the haredim on the city council.
He also dismissed her from his coalition following her 2010 petition to the High Court over the gender separation on Mea She’arim’s streets during Succot festivities.
She remains cautious; at this point, she will not openly declare whom she supports. But of one thing she is certain.
“Things are changing at an incredible pace,” she says, pointing to the “big news” of the previous evening’s council meeting, at which Barkat announced that his longtime rival, city council member Meir Turgeman, would be included in his list for the next council at a realistic spot for becoming deputy mayor.
What bothers Azaria most in this case is that Turgeman has received the neighborhood councils portfolio, a post with which she has personally identified for the past five years.
Still, say the Yerushalmim members, the campaign hasn’t even officially started.
“What we want to make clear in these elections is the same thing we declared five years ago,” says Azaria. “We want to be able to promote and preserve the rights and the needs of pluralistic society in this city. It is not a situation where we are ready to sell ourselves to the highest bidder; [what’s important is] where we can be sure that our mandate, our mission can be implemented.”
Relative newcomers Nir and Leibowitz sound more concerned about the Turgeman development; despite his blunt and confrontational attitude toward Barkat for the last five years, he has nonetheless become an ally overnight. Azaria seems better able to grasp the meaning of the situation, its versatility and the opportunities it may offer – limited though those opportunities may be. In contrast to Azaria, Turgeman is tolerated in the haredi camp. With the situation that Lion’s entry to the arena has created, the odds of getting the haredi factions to accept her presence in the coalition are slim.
The Yerushalmim leader, still cautious, says it is too early to tell.
“We have to see and decide where [in terms of political alliances] we have the greatest chances of serving our constituencies, our voters, pluralistic society, in the best way,” she says. “That is the main issue at stake. That is what we are busy doing now.
We learn the situation on the ground, we hear and we study all its aspects. We will not give up [fighting for] the best education, the best conditions for young families, community life” – though she stresses again that this has not yet been organized into an official campaign.
Nonetheless, she says, “we will be ready on time, with a clear message of what the better option is for this segment of Jerusalem society, and we will be ready to provide answers. That is all that matters in our eyes."