Local Government: Best intentions, worst results

Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo neighborhoood  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo neighborhoood
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Like in the various government ministries, local councils are structured with portfolio holders (hence city councilors = ministers) and professional high-ranking civil servants. Ministers bear the responsibility; professionals do the job on the ground.
In the Jerusalem Municipality, the relationship between the politicians and civil servants is usually good; in some cases it is even very good. Occasionally, however, it just doesn’t work, due to lack of trust or very different views and positions.
This is what has been happening at Safra Square for the past two to three years in the city with council member Yaakov Halperin (leader of the United Torah Judaism list). To say that the relationships between Halperin and the high-ranking staff of the Social Services Department at the Community Administration of the municipality, of which Halperin is portfolio holder, are not good is an understatement.
Halperin accuses the staff, namely the director of the department, Bonny Goldberg and her deputy, Tzipi Lefler, of being anti-haredi and lacking understanding of the special mentality and needs of this sector. Goldberg and Lefler, being staff, cannot even reply publicly, but some of their closest assistants agreed to say that nothing could be further from the reality on the ground, and that their only concern is to run a highly professional social services department.
Recently, two cases that occurred in the haredi sector kindled Halperin’s anger so much that he made a move that is at the very least questionable, if not totally unacceptable.
The first case involved friction between the Shekel nonprofit association for disabled and special needs people and a small haredi community in the neighborhood of a daycare center for people with special needs ran by Shekel.
A conflict developed over the association’s use of a facility in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, with each side claiming that the other was disruptive in a facility that doesn’t belong to it. Shekel obtained from the municipality the right to use not only the second floor, which had already been in its possession, but also the first floor of the building, which was to be renovated (through National Insurance Institute support). Previously, the first floor was used on Shabbat by the local community as a synagogue.
Halperin says that while he is aware of the decision to give the place to Shekel, the least that should have been done was to touch base with the synagogue’s management, so that they could start to look for an alternative location.
As a result of this misunderstanding, community members who came on Friday evening to pray and found the place sealed with new locks simply broke the locks. The Social Services Department and Shekel took this act as a threat to them not to use the place. Halperin refused to back the stance of the department. The high-ranking staff considered his refusal a lack of trust in their professional standing.
The second case was related – again – to what Halperin considered a total lack of understanding of the haredi community’s needs. For Goldberg and her high-ranking staff, professionalism is of major importance, and while they are aware of differences between the mentalities of the communities, they stick to professional values and rules – not to mention what they have learned from many years of experience in the field of social services. Halperin is convinced that Goldberg and her staff are motivated to a large extent by their own reservations about, and lack of trust in, the haredi community.
Convinced that there are not enough haredi social workers in the department, Halperin wrote directly to haredi colleges that train haredim for social work, inviting their students or graduates to submit their candidacy to the municipality.
“The fact that I was looking for haredi social workers does not undermine the head of the department’s authority. It’s just because I believe that social workers in the haredi sector should be themselves haredim and know the codes and customs,” argued Halperin.
Among the high-ranking staff of the department, things look totally different, and there is a serious concern that behind Halperin’s initiative lies the will to fill the department with haredi employees to replace them.
Asked why he would not first consult the staff on that issue, Halperin, in a phone conversation earlier this week, answered that “as we do not send Jewish social workers to the Arab sector, there is no reason why the haredi residents should not get social workers who know their mentality and way of life.”