Some light in the darkness

Chabad celebrated the anniversary of the liberation of its founder, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.

Schneur Zalman of Liadi (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Schneur Zalman of Liadi
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Last week, Chabad celebrated the anniversary of the liberation (from Russian Czarist prison) of its founder, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. Every year, this is a week of celebrations, gatherings, teachings and an opportunity for Chabad followers, in Israel and abroad, to learn more about the revered rabbi’s teachings.
Since the number of Chabad followers seems to be increasing annually, new venues are added every year to answer the growing demand for these gatherings and conferences. And that was the reason behind the controversial gathering scheduled to be held at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, a stronghold of the secular.
In Jerusalem, however, the events didn’t seem to pose a problem, including the request for gender separation at the gatherings (which, to oblige, are held on separate days). That is, until it came to the Ginot Ha’ir Community Center on Emek Refaim Street, which serves the residents of the German Colony, the Greek Colony and Rehavia.
The German Colony’s small but growing Chabad community also wanted to hold such a celebration. Ya’acov Halperin, a representative of Chabad on the United Torah Judaism list on the city council, was outraged to find that the request of the Chabadniks to hold a gathering at Ginot Ha’ir last week was rejected by its director. The reason? The community center refused to be part of an event in which gender separation would be implemented.
Chabad is not, to put it mildly, the most revered sector in the haredi community, and the internal schism over the messianic message of part of the movement has not improved matters. But the refusal to permit the gathering on the grounds of opposing gender separation, as required by all ultra-Orthodox sectors, was something that no haredi representative could disregard.
To complicate matters further, Shaike El-Ami, the popular director of Ginot Ha’ir (which is not only a community center but also a local neighborhood council), is the favored candidate for the position of head of the culture and leisure programs at the municipality. One might think that on these grounds, such a candidate would have been very cautious not to draw too much attention – especially negative attention – from at least 13 city councilmen, representatives of the haredi sector.
Well, in fact, El-Ami is very much aware of the sensitivity of the situation. It’s just that perhaps for the first time, at a delicate point in time, someone decided not to play his part but rather state firmly but respectfully what he could and could not allow.
Instead of just saying no to the request for gender separation and likely incurring a lot of anger on one side while becoming the hero of another (the activist groups fighting what they regard as haredi hegemony in the capital) and thus doing nothing to foster mutual respect, El-Ami chose another path. He suggested to the Chabad group that they hold their event in the Ginot Ha’ir hall as a private event, not a joint event of the community center and Chabad.
In this way, El-Ami responded to their legitimate request to have an event suited to their needs but, at the same time, could genuinely say that under his watch the community did not allow a gender-separate event to take place within the framework of its programs. As residents of the neighborhood, the Chabad group has the right to use Ginot Ha’ir for its cultural purposes; but on the other hand, as a pluralistic organization, Ginot Ha’ir would not host such an event.
With that decision, El-Ami proved that he is a truly pluralistic person and director. He could easily have won the support of the various groups of activists who are against haredi hegemony in Jerusalem. But he understood that although the Chabad event could turn out to be a trigger for anti-haredi action, he courageously decided to bring it down to a simple matter of rules. If it was to be gender-separated, then it would be a private event – but one that has a legitimate place in the neighborhood like any other event or group.
In a time of hasty accusations and exploitation of any move to enhance the opposition, this is indeed admirable.