Not all sunshine and light in Beit Shemesh

Secular residents are worried over what they see as a haredi takeover of their city.

Bet Shemesh (photo credit: Dov Lipman)
Bet Shemesh
(photo credit: Dov Lipman)
Beyond the extensive media coverage of the violence perpetrated by a small haredi minority, the real issue for secular and national religious residents of Beit Shemesh is less the violence than what is perceived as an ultra-Orthodox takeover of what was once a diverse and ethnically mixed city.
Beit Shemesh, a city of some 80,000 residents nestled in the Judean Hills a short drive from Jerusalem, is for the most part a quiet town. However, that quiet was recently disturbed and brought the city to international notoriety when a small group of extremists affiliated with the Sikrikim (Sicarii) of Jerusalem moved into the mostly hassidic neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet and began harassing the national-religious population of the neighboring Sheinfeld district. This harassment culminated in the public battle over the Orot Orthodox girls’ school, which lay on property that the extremists wanted to make part of their neighborhood.
While most of the haredi residents of Beit Shemesh want to live in peace with their traditional, nationalreligious and secular neighbors, asserts Americanborn Rabbi Dov Lipman, a community activist frequently at loggerheads with the local hassidic and Lithuanian Orthodox communities, the rabbinic leadership has been attempting to wrest control of the city away from the other sectors.
Lipman, who belongs to a more liberal and nationalistic American stream of haredi Judaism, has battled for years against what he sees as the encroaching haredi influence on his town.
Lipman explains that “to claim anti-religious sentiment in Beit Shemesh is false and inaccurate. The issue isn’t haredim coming here,” he says. “It is their sense of being in control here, which has gone through the roof since [Mayor] Moshe Abutbul came into power.”
This claim, echoed by city councilman and secular resident Motti Cohen of the Dor Aher party, is one that is heard throughout the city.
Cohen explains that many secular residents, including himself, initially supported and voted for the mayor, who represents Shas.
“Abutbul positioned himself as representing the interests of all the residents,” says Cohen, asserting that the mayor only puts any real effort into building for certain segments of the haredi population. “He is trying to ‘haredize’ the city,” says Cohen. “We have no problem with building even more haredi neighborhoods; they just shouldn’t be dominant.”
Cohen and Lipman both emphasize that except for the actions of the Sikrikim, there is no territorial conflict in Beit Shemesh outside of the political arena and that there is normally little or no violence in the streets.
Indeed, were it not for the reports in the newspapers, Beit Shemesh would seem positively idyllic. Children and mothers stroll the streets, while the numerous parks and playgrounds are filled with shrieks of delight. However, violence and religious compulsion do exist to a certain degree.
Robert Schloss, a recent immigrant and resident of the mixed suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, an English-speaking middle-class stronghold, says he believes that the neighborhood rabbis, through their communities’ representatives on the city council, maintain strict control over the types of businesses that can operate in the city.
Citing the lack of sit-down restaurants within the haredi neighborhoods and juxtaposing that with the large crowds of black-hatted men and head-covered women in eateries outside the confines of the expanding Orthodox neighborhoods, Schloss, who is modern Orthodox, says that a number of people have asked him why there are no bars, full-service restaurants, outdoor cafes, bowling alleys or movie theaters.
“My answer is based on anecdotal evidence,” he states. “The powers that be do not want these distractions in our environment.”
Lipman agrees with Schloss’s assessment.
“In Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, which is a mixed neighborhood, the rabbis do not let anyone sit in pizza shops. If you tried to sit and eat with your wife in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, it would cause problems. Yes, we live our lives here, but in conformity to these rules and expectations,” says Lipman.
Representatives of the haredi community, however, strongly oppose the claims of the more modern residents.
Rabbi Shmuel Poppenheim, an unofficial spokesman for the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit movement and community leader in Beit Shemesh’s Kirya Haredit neighborhood, says that most of the residents in his community want to live in a mixed city and that most of the major positions in the municipal coalition are held by modern Orthodox or secular Jews.
“The city is becoming more haredi,” he says, but his community is not doing anything to take over the city. The problem, Poppenheim explains, is that the different communities are not used to each other and have developed mutual suspicions.
Poppenheim is known as something of a radical in his community, due to his advocating for members of the haredi community to join the workforce. He has even expressed his support for military service, if not for Zionism, which he considers a forbidden ideology.
“The problem,” he reiterates, “is extremists on both sides.”
MAYOR MOSHE Abutbul is at the center of much of the controversy in Beit Shemesh, especially after local police representatives took him to task for allegedly lying about the police force’s stated ability to defend the girls of the Orot school from attack by extremists.
Speaking with In Jerusalem, Abutbul maintains that he is the “mayor for all of Beit Shemesh” and that under his tenure, building for all sectors of the population has been planned.
According to Abutbul, the neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel, currently under construction, is being built for haredim, while new construction is planned for the nationalreligious community in a neighborhood called “Mishkafayim,” which is to be located next to Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef.
Furthermore, the mayor says, a new mall is being built in the industrial zone at the edge of the city, and a new housing project for secular residents is being planned for the deteriorating city center.
However, Lipman has also objected to the mayor’s characterization of these new projects. Noting that the mayor had previously referred to Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel as not being specifically for haredi residents, Lipman says that “There is construction for dati’im [religious people] here and there – another few hundred. But for the past year, his right-hand man, Moshe Montag, has been announcing 20,000 units for haredim in the hills of Ramat Beit Shemesh. Twenty thousand more than doubles the size of the city! The nerve to claim it is equal when this is all being planned. He mentions the 1,300 in the pinui uvinui in old Beit Shemesh. Those projects never come to fruition, and it is all a smoke screen. And even if they do happen, it takes around 10 years.”
“Pinui uvinui” refers to the practice of finding alternative housing for residents while their buildings are being torn down to make way for newer, higher density construction on the same plots.
Lipman also criticizes the mayor’s taking credit for the mall.
“Do we have any movie theaters for people who want that? How about bowling? They build new retail malls, but ones that fit the rules/guidelines of the ‘holiness of the city.’ Also, he is the one who actually stopped the construction of the mega mall that was supposed to raise the level of the city to new heights with theaters and other things,” says Lipman.
“Even though the coalition agreement calls for expedited haredi expansion, it surely doesn’t intend the exclusion of expansion for the other communities as well,” says resident Shmuel Katz of the national-religious Sheinfeld neighborhood.
Rafi Goldmeier, a local resident and widely known moderateharedi blogger, says that the “character of Ramat Beit Shemesh has changed slightly in dynamics since the early days. In the early days, the dominant sector was the national religious with a strong but small secular presence and a growing haredi presence. Over the years the dynamics shifted, with most of the secular moving away and the remaining secular keeping a low profile, while the haredi sector continued to increase and become the dominant sector in strength, if not in numbers. At the same time, the national religious seem to have been hurt by many leaving for greener pastures in other cities. They do so for reasons not limited to the ‘religious conflict’ alone but also for reasons such as proximity to work and employment opportunities.”
Goldmeier believes that the haredim generally get along “fine” with their national-religious and secular neighbors. The problem, he says, lies in the fact that “extreme elements have become more powerful, finding support from Moshe Abutbul.”
ONE LOCAL politician, however, has indicated that he believes that the conflict over housing allocations will eventually erupt into violence. Richard Peres, a member of the city council representing the Labor Party, says that while the coalition agreement signed after the city elections specified that new building should be divided equally among the secular, national-religious and haredi sectors, the mayor violated the terms of the agreement almost immediately.
“It’s all for the haredim,” he complains. “We need a separation between the haredim and the residents of old Beit Shemesh or there will be a war with bloodshed,” he warns. “We will use what we learned in the IDF to fight them.”
However, Lipman downplays Peres’s warnings. He does say, however, that should the extremists – who do more to terrorize other haredim than the secular residents – attempt any violent behavior in old Beit Shemesh, a secular area, the residents would not act passively as happens in the more hassidic Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet.
Mendy Newman of the moderate haredi Tov party downplays Lipman’s rhetoric in turn. According to Newman, an Anglo resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, most of the issues raised in the press regarding Beit Shemesh are exaggerations, and people on the street get along fine in day-to-day life.
While no one disagrees with the contention that the streets of Beit Shemesh are not running red with blood, the issues, mostly contained within the walls of the municipality, threaten to disrupt the peace of this growing community. The issue of a rapidly growing haredi population, however, certainly warrants attention.
While the majority of the haredim are willing to live in peace, the presence of a small, much more vocal and influential community of extremists does threaten to cause much greater problems down the line. •