Modern Orthodox, haredim spar over bus line

Egged cuts down service to Bar-Ilan University after ultra-Orthodox complaints.

egged bus 88 (photo credit: )
egged bus 88
(photo credit: )
Dissent over the limits of religious observance on public buses has pitted Rehovot's modern Orthodox residents against their haredi 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 Bar-Ilan University. RESO claims that haredi elements in Rehovot, especially the Viznitz and Kretchnev hassidic sects, forced Egged to create a new line - the 319 - that skips Bar-Ilan University on its Rehovot-Bnei Brak route. The haredim complained about immodestly dressed young women who boarded the bus, according to RESO. The haredim were also concerned about the negative influence on young haredi men and women exposed to modern Orthodox students pursuing secular studies, RESO said. The haredi community discourages secular studies except in special, haredi settings. In contrast, Bar-Ilan University, though established and run with strong religious influences (male lecturers must wear a kippa, students have mandatory courses in Jewish education), provides complete academic freedom. In parallel with the creation of the new bus line, which took place in February 2005, Egged also drastically cut the number of buses serving Bar-Ilan University. This was because the haredim, who make up the vast majority of bus passengers between Rehovot and Bnei Brak, stopped using the old line - the 318 - once the new one was created. As a result, there was no economic justification for maintaining so many 318 buses. RESO, which represents the Bermans Shul, Hadassah, Emunah, WIZO, Hitachdut Oleh Britania and AMIT, 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 to accessibility to Bar-Ilan University," she said. Pfeffer said that it took over a year for RESO to avail itself of the courts because it had attempted, unsuccessfully, to reach an agreement with Rehovot's haredi leaders. "Now, we have no choice but to turn to the courts," she said. 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. Wienfeld also hinted that petitioning the secular district court was prohibted according to Jewish law. 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," he said. Ratner added that eliminating the stop at Bar-Ilan University made the trip from Rehovot to Bnei Brak significantly faster. The Transportation Ministry said in response that it had approved of the creation of the 319 line and the parallel reduction of 318 buses that stop at Bar-Ilan University 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 Kaveh said that university management would look into the matter to determine whether the change hurt accessibility. "If there is a blow to accessibility to the university, we will seek a solution that is acceptable to all sides," said the spokesman. The vast majority of passengers that travel the Rehovot-Bnei Brak line are haredi - 80 percent during the school year and 90% during the summer months. 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 Web 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 University, one at 3:20 p.m. and one at 5:10 p.m. In contrast, 319 buses from Bnei Brak to Rehovot pass the university 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 Petah Tikva to Rehovot. The bus stops at Bar-Ilan University every half hour until 10 p.m. However, it does not reach the southern parts of Rehovot, but rather stops at the Rehovot central bus station.