A ray of sunshine for embattled Beit Shemesh

Coexistence group seeks to stimulate dialogue following strife between Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox.

haredi women in Beit Shemesh_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
haredi women in Beit Shemesh_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
The wave of intercommunal strife that has engulfed the country in recent weeks has led to a flood of political and media prophecies foreseeing the imminent and apocalyptic collapse of our society.
Suburban Beit Shemesh, in particular, has become one of the centers of the unrest, where a microcosmic fault line has developed between the ultraconservative haredi community in one part of town, and the more modern world of the national-religious and Anglo-haredi community abutting it.
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Attempts, frequently abusive, by extremist segments of the ultra-Orthodox community to hermetically seal their neighborhood off from the outside world, have of late been challenged by a carefully coordinated – and some say provocative – campaign from the other side of town to fight back against this phenomenon.
So the swiftly arranged initiative of one of the Jewish Agency’s flagship programs, Partnership 2gether, to heal the fractured town, is welcome news.
“We’re trying to get moderate voices from all communities to talk and then to move beyond that and take action,” said Gideon Vennor, director of the Beit Shemesh Partnership 2gether program. “Extremists are getting all the headlines at the moment, so this is the time for the moderate majority to take action.”
To this end, the Beit Shemesh branch of Partnership 2gether, run by a joint steering committee of representatives from communities in South Africa, the greater Washington, DC, area, the Mateh Yehuda region in Israel and Beit Shemesh itself, has issued a public call in the Beit Shemesh press for ideas for intercommunal projects to promote dialogue and “social entrepreneurship.”
The Partnership 2gether program is designed to link Jews abroad with communities in Israel and serve as a conduit for the exchange of ideas.
According to the Jewish Agency, it involves 300,000 members of 600 Jewish communities around the world, and across 90 regions in Israel.
Having published the call for proposals 10 days ago, Partnership 2gether will pick three of the best ideas by the end of the month and begin to take them forward. The Jewish Agency has provided NIS 35,000 in seed money for each project.
Speaking about the recent tensions, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said the only solution was dialogue.
“We are one people and cannot keep ignoring one another... At the end of the day, all the different communities and segments of the Jewish people and of Israeli society must learn to communicate with one another,” he said.
Vennor also emphasized the importance of the initiative.
“We’ve been the flashpoint of inter-societal conflicts of late, but it’s a wider issue than just Beit Shemesh. The importance of secular and haredi communities living together in harmony is going to come up around the country and we want to make Beit Shemesh a model for how to address these problems.”
The goal, Vennor explained, was not simply to engage in dialogue but to develop programs that would address real communal needs, whether it was projects for at-risk youth, environmental protection initiatives, building or repairing neighborhood infrastructure or other similar projects.
“There are enough people here who are interested in dialogue,” Vennor said, rejecting the idea that the town had become irreversibly polarized.
The response to the call for proposals had been very positive, he continued, and pointed out that people from all the communities – secular, national-religious and ultra- Orthodox – had sent in suggestions.
“The idea is that instead of each segment of the city solving issues on its own, we can come together to resolve local problems. This should be the hallmark of normalcy and a model for the way things can and should happen,” Vennor said.
The Partnership 2gether board has also met with Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbol to discuss the potential for an annual conference there, akin to other city-branded conferences held in Herzliya, Caesarea and Sderot, to promote tolerance and cooperation.