How Beit Shemesh's female mayor is making an impact

Municipal Affairs: A year in, Beit Shemesh Mayor Aliza Bloch is making an impact at home and abroad

ALIZA BLOCH: The most important thing to me in our first year – apart from cleaning the city – was to change the city’s image.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
ALIZA BLOCH: The most important thing to me in our first year – apart from cleaning the city – was to change the city’s image.
Sitting in her expansive office in the offices of the Beit Shemesh Municipality, with her trademark beret perched on the right side of her head, Dr. Aliza Bloch, the city’s first woman mayor, recalls the tumultuous events of the past 15 months, beginning with her upset victory over Moshe Abutbul, the two-term Shas incumbent, in early November 2018, through the completion of the first year of her five-year term as mayor.
“When I look back on this past year, it seems like one very long day, and we are still in this one-day race, to try to meet expectations.”
Bloch’s defeat of Abutbul, which was finalized only after tallying the ballots of IDF soldiers and the disabled, at the time was hailed by many in Beit Shemesh as a turning point in the fortunes of the city, which had become a subject of ridicule among some in Israel due to the strife and division that existed between the haredi, religious and secular sectors of the city. In the immediate aftermath of her victory, a sense of euphoria and jubilation was felt among Bloch’s supporters, who had despaired at the direction that the city had taken during the 10 years of Abutbul’s leadership.
Since Bloch’s ascension to the mayoralty, has she succeeded in fulfilling the hopes, dreams, and expectations of her supporters? Has she been able to balance the needs of the city’s haredi residents with those of the National-Religious and secular sectors? Has she changed and improved the image of Beit Shemesh? How has Bloch, a veteran educator but a novice politician, fared against the more experienced politicians on the city council? Will Bloch be able to fulfill the city’s potential as a central location, conveniently located near major population centers?
ENTERING OFFICE, Bloch immediately found herself at a disadvantage. The haredi parties in the city held the majority of the 21 seats on the city council, and the Likud, Bayit Yehudi and Bloch’s party, Ir Meuchedet (United City), together had only nine of the 21 seats.
In addition, on December 26, a month after taking office, the Knesset dispersed, and new elections were scheduled for April 9, 2019. This greatly limited Bloch’s ability to receive state funding for numerous projects in the city. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to form a government following the April elections, and the September 2019 elections yielded similar results.
Bloch, who was a highly successful high school principal, sees some parallels between the world of education and the political universe. “I believe in people. In education, if you don’t believe in people, you can’t succeed. In politics as well, if you don’t believe in people, you cannot be the head of a city.” Bloch recognizes, though, that there are differences and admits that she was not born into the world of politics, and is learning on the job, day by day.
“The biggest problem of her first year in office is that there is has not been a national government,” says Zvi Wolicki, a veteran Beit Shemesh resident and one of four Likud representatives on the city council. “This affects us in a big way, as we are a city that runs at a deficit. Part of this is the responsibility of the national government.” In the current environment, without a national government, Wolicki explains, Beit Shemesh has not been able to obtain additional financing that the city administration was counting on receiving.
Bloch’s first act as mayor was declaring that the city would be cleaned and beautified. To that end, she added more garbage collection shifts and instituted special cleaning days, where city workers and residents work together to make the city cleaner.
“I chose to start with cleaning the city,” says Bloch, “because the way to show people that I respect them is to provide a clean public space. You can’t feel respectable if you are walking in a garbage dump. I thought that it was important to create this environment.”
Politically, beginning her term with a cleanup campaign was a smart maneuver, because it was the type of campaign that just about everyone could agree with.
“Beit Shemesh was a city that was filled with division and rifts. It would be easy to touch on things that cause struggle and strife. I chose to start with a subject that is shared with everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are hassidic or Lithuanian or Ethiopian or American or secular,” says Bloch. “Cleanliness is important to everyone.”
Bloch herself is very visible on her weekly cleanliness tours to different neighborhoods, accompanied by city workers.
Sara Eisen, who has lived in Beit Shemesh since 1997, recalls Bloch’s visit to her Nofei Aviv neighborhood this past May, which was arranged with the neighborhood’s community infrastructure committee. “She arrived at 7:30 in the morning with her staff, and they walked from one end of the neighborhood to the other, with our list of things that we needed fixed. She took time out from her schedule to walk with citizens on their street and discuss the most pedestrian issues, like gardening and stairs and pipes. She took it seriously.”
Bloch gradually increased the numbers of her coalition on the city council, first convincing Agudat Yisrael to join, followed by the Peleg Yerushalmi faction, next adding Degel Hatorah, and finally in mid-December signing an agreement with Shas. As a result, the entire city council is now one large coalition, comprising the National-Religious parties, the Likud, and the haredi parties. Bloch’s political allies, including politicians from Bayit Yehudi and the Likud, were unhappy that Bloch, as part of her agreement with Shas, ceded control of the city’s religious council to Shas, instead of leaving it in the hands of the Bayit Yehudi Party, which was a part of their original agreement.
Rena Hollander of Bayit Yehudi, who serves as deputy mayor, said at the time, “Unfortunately, the mayor has chosen politics over values. Religious Zionism sees the utmost importance in providing religious services in an enlightened way, while respecting each person and their customs, and therefore we based control of the religious council as part of the coalition agreement. The mayor didn’t bother to let us know about the negotiations or the signing of the agreement itself and completely ignored our agreements with her, while acting dishonestly and behind our back.”
For her part, Bloch says that her goal is that everyone in the city, regardless of one’s religious affiliation, should receive quality services from the religious council, regardless of who heads the council. “I am working carefully to create a situation where everyone will feel that he has representation on the religious council that will provide responsiveness and answers.”
Bloch adds that the city’s ritual baths (mikvaot) will soon have signs listing the phone numbers of rabbis from the Sephardi as well as National-Religious streams of Orthodoxy – not only the haredi ones – who can be contacted with questions on issues of family purity and use of the mikveh. In addition, Bloch wants to appoint a rabbi affiliated with the National-Religious stream to oversee ritual baths in neighborhoods with a substantial National-Religious population.
THE POPULATION of Beit Shemesh is currently 132,000, and Bloch says that it will reach 250,000 in the next decade. The city’s haredi population has been growing steadily, and Bloch is attempting to accommodate both haredi and non-haredi sectors of the population in the building of new neighborhoods. Ramat Beit Shemesh Dalet is being earmarked as a haredi section, and Bloch says that the neighborhood of Neveh Shamir, which will be built in the southern section of the city, will be for the general, non-haredi sector.
In addition, Bloch says that the city will soon be initiating “pinuy-binuy” projects in four of the city’s neighborhoods, in which older buildings are vacated, demolished and then rebuilt, with many more apartments available. Some Beit Shemesh residents are concerned that major renewal projects of this type will adversely affect the infrastructure and space in the city.
Wolicki says that much work needs to be done to convince people from the non-haredi sector to move to Beit Shemesh. “There isn’t general excitement yet among the non-haredi population in Israel about moving to Beit Shemesh. It’s something that we are going to work on this year with the city’s marketing department.”
Everyone who has come into contact with Beit Shemesh’s mayor – friend or foe, religious, haredi or secular – marvels at Bloch’s work ethic.
Yigal Hadad, head of the city’s Shas Party, says admiringly, “She works very hard, all of the time, from morning to night. She is in the office on Fridays and on Saturday nights.”
Miriam Zussman, a community activist on education and welfare programs, adds, “She appears at many events for different activities and groups in the city. She is a real presence in the city.”
Wolicki adds that Bloch’s presence is felt inside the Beit Shemesh Municipality. “The day after there was a change of hands in the city leadership, and you walked into city hall, there was a palpable difference in the approach of city employees to their jobs. All of a sudden, there was a feeling that someone wanted results, and someone was going to check, and they are accountable. That accountability was not there in the Abutbul years.”
Wolicki says that Bloch’s dedication has trickled down to the city employees, and this can be seen from the city’s operational plan for 2020, he says, which he calls “real and workable.”
Outside the city, Bloch has emerged as a political star, both in Israel and abroad. She is bright and approachable, and her appearance and overall approach are in marked contrast to her predecessor.
She recently traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with members of the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. Previously, the Washington Jewish community had been joined in a partnership arrangement with Beit Shemesh, and Bloch traveled to Washington to help renew the relationship.
She adds, “I want to encourage the Jewish communities and organizations to return to Beit Shemesh to see it as a destination that is worth investing in – not as a place to give financial support, but as a place of investment and partnership.”
Wolicki, who accompanied Bloch on the trip, says “the relationship is deepening, and there is a willingness to work with us.”
Through these trips, Bloch is also attempting to improve the overall image of Beit Shemesh, which has suffered in the past. For some, the name Beit Shemesh still conjures images of the widely publicized incident in 2011, when ultra-Orthodox men harassed and jeered girls on their way to school for their “immodest” dress. Others recall then-mayor Abutbul’s comments in 2013 that his “holy and pure” city did not have homosexual residents.
For Bloch, changing the image of Beit Shemesh is an essential step for its future success. “The most important thing to me in our first year – apart from cleaning the city – was to change the city’s image. If you have a bad image, you can’t bring investors and entrepreneurs, you can’t influence education, and you can’t do anything. Today the national media are not busy looking to find another demonstration to cover in Beit Shemesh. We are not in the headlines anymore. And if we are, it is for positive accomplishments. The city is quieter and calmer.”
ONE OF THE ways that Bloch is trying to attract investment in Beit Shemesh is by promoting the city’s central location and overall potential.
“Beit Shemesh is in the center of the country, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv,” she says. “We don’t have the traffic jams and density of Tel Aviv. We have an excellent labor force, with tens of thousands of talented residents looking for work. We are near nature and the forest.”
The city is working on several tourism-related projects, including building a hotel near the southern entrance to Beit Shemesh, below the archaeological site of Tel Beit Shemesh, where the ruins of an ancient Canaanite and Israelite town were discovered. Tel Beit Shemesh will become a park, though Bloch says it has not been decided if it will become a national park or a local park. In addition, plans are under way to build a camping site for tour groups near the Tel Yarmut National Park, which is located south of Beit Shemesh.
Wolicki, who is reestablishing the tourism department in the city council after a lapse of many years, echoes Bloch, saying, “Beit Shemesh is strategically located. You are 45 minutes from everywhere, in the center of the country. If you were on a Birthright tour or a Christian Evangelical tour, and you wanted to visit Beit Guvrin National Park in the morning, why leave Jerusalem at 7 a.m., when you could leave Beit Shemesh at 8:30? I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to be here.”
In addition, Bloch hopes that plans to build a branch of Hadassah Medical Center, which were announced last month, will not only bring needed medical services to the burgeoning area, but will bring more people to live in the Beit Shemesh area itself.
As Bloch begins the second year of her five-year term as mayor, she points out that solving the problems and issues that confront Beit Shemesh will take some time. “If someone thought that on the day after we won the election, all of the potholes in the roads would instantly be fixed, all the gardens would turn green, and everyone would speak more politely to one another – they would be mistaken.”
“We have made a great change in the structure of the city. We are far from where I want us to be, but that’s why a term is not for just one year. We have a way to go.”
Adds Hadad, “It is very difficult to see concrete results in the first year of a mayoral term. She is planting many seeds, and we will see the results in the future.”
Some of Bloch’s plans will succeed, and others may fail, but she will continue working throughout the long day of her mayoral term.
“In order to bring great change,” she says, “I have to do many things.”