Modern orthodox, haredim spar over bus line

Petition brought against Egged for "caving in" to haredi pressure to reduce Bar Ilan bus service.

Dissent over the limits of religious observance on public buses has pitted Rehovot's modern religious residents against their ultra orthodox neighbors. The Rehovot English Speakers Organization (RESO), which has a preponderance of modern orthodox members, is preparing to petition the district court against the Egged bus company and the Transportation Ministry for "caving in", in their words, to haredi pressure to reduce service to a Bar Ilan University. RESO represents the Bermans Shul, Hadassah, Emunah, WIZO, Hitachdut Oleh Britania and AMIT. It is the umbrella organization for English speakers in Rehovot with 350 member families. Barbara Pfeffer, chairperson of RESO said the battle is not limited to modern orthodox. "We are fighting for the rights of the entire community." She said many efforts to reach an agreement outside court with Rehovot's haredi leaders had failed. "We have no choice but to turn to the courts." The petitioners claim the haredim are using the public arena - Egged buses - to launch a cultural war while trampling on the rights of non-haredim to regular bus service. In February 2005, Egged received approval from the Transportation Ministry to reduce service on the 318 bus that connects Rehovot to Bnei Brak via Bar Ilan University and in parallel to create a new line - the 319 - which bypasses Bar Ilan University. The 319 caters to Rehovot's haredi community which travels frequently to and from Bnei Brak. Attorney Menashe Kaplan, a resident of Rehovot who is representing the petitioners, claimed the haredim pushed for the change out of fear for the spiritual dangers presented by Bar Ilan University. "Young haredi people see modern religious men and women talking about Torah on the bus and then watch them get off at Bar Ilan," said Kaplan. "Rabbis are afraid haredi children will be attracted to a secular education." Another supposed haredi claim, mentioned in the draft petition to be brought before the court, is that young women boarding the bus at Bar Ilan are not dressed modestly enough. The petitioners claim haredi pressure, especially from Viznitz and Kretchnev Hassidic sects in Rehovot, brought about the change. Rabbi Natan Weinfeld, a Viznitz Hassid and popular teacher of the daily Talmud page [daf yomi] in Rehovot, said the changes, which he helped initiate, were aimed at eliminating certain severe halachic prohibitions. He refused to elaborate, saying there was a halachic prohibition against publicizing the story because it was slander and would cause a desecration of God's name. Egged spokesman Ron Ratner rejected the petitioners' claim that Egged had caved in to haredi pressure. "We did not give in to pressure from anyone," said Ratner. "We give services to different types of citizens, including the haredim who are particularly dependent on Egged, and we are more than happy to serve them." Ratner said the change, which was done in concert with Bar Ilan University, the Rehovot municipality and the Transportation Ministry, was based on economic considerations. "We were simply answering the needs of the market." Ratner said that eliminating the stop at Bar Ilan made the trip from Rehovot to Bnei Brak significantly faster. The Transportation Ministry said in response that it approved of the creation of the 319 line and the parallel reduction of 318 buses that stop at Bar Ilan because "most of the demands are for a line to Bnei Brak, not to Bar Ilan." Ministry spokesman Avner Ovadia also said that the changes were made in coordination with Bar Ilan University. The spokesman for Bar Ilan University President Moshe Kave said that university management would look into the matter to determine whether the change hurt accessibility. "If there is a blow to accessibility we will seek a solution that is acceptable to all sides," said the spokesman. The vast majority of passengers - 80% during the school year and 90% during the summer months - that travel the Rehovot - Bnei Brak line are haredi. However, about 20 teachers and workers and about 100 students at the university use the bus during the school year. According to the bus schedule posted on Egged's Internet site, while there are ample 318 buses in the morning hours that stop at the university, there is a serious dearth for the return trip. Only two 318 buses return to Rehovot from Bar Ilan, one at 3:20 PM and one at 5:10 PM. In contrast, 319 buses from Bnei Brak to Rehovot pass Bar Ilan without stopping every 50 minutes to an hour from the afternoon until midnight. Still, Rehovot residents have the option of taking the 164 bus that connects Petach Tikva to Rehovot. The bus stops at Bar Ilan every half hour until after 10PM. However, it does not reach the southern parts of Rehovot, rather it stops at the Rehovot central bus station.