Brand new Beit Shemesh community breaks new ground

As Beit Shemesh's non-haredi population shrinks, Nofei Shemesh, a national religious community under construction, hopes to tip the balance.

ramat Beit Shemesh 224.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ramat Beit Shemesh 224.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For many North American Jews, the concept of the rabbi at the center of synagogue life is almost self-evident, but in Israel the vast majority of congregations are not serviced by rabbis; rather, rabbis who have a paid government position service entire neighborhoods or cities. Rabbi Shalom Rosner hopes to change this as he leads a brand new community in Beit Shemesh called Nofei Shemesh. The charismatic Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi, who is making aliya this August, wants to reinvent the role of Israeli rabbi in the American image. The concept behind Nofei Shemesh, which abuts the well-established national religious neighborhoods of Sheinfeld and Nofei Aviv, is to have a plan for the establishment of a community before the first residents have moved in. "This will be a kehila [community] based on Torah, ahavat yisrael [love of the Jewish people] and Eretz Yisrael," says Rosner. "It will be a kehila built around a rav [rabbi], where shiurim [Torah classes] play a major role, where members of the kehila can come to the rav with shailos [questions]." Rabbi Seth Kadish, an educator who has been active in trying to create more "open" religious communities, says that political realities have made such a model nearly impossible to implement. "In the United States, every synagogue asks for the participation of the congregants, but here in Israel, they don't want to hear any input because the control is from the top down, rather than the bottom up." Kadish has tried to build a community that is independent from the rabbinate in his Karmiel neighborhood, but says that over the past years the situation has "gotten worse," with the haredi chief rabbis torpedoing efforts by the national religious to hire their own rabbis and run their own synagogues. "The only way you can get a rabbi who isn't beholden to the system is if you start from scratch," says Kadish, adding that the government funding of religious institutions makes it impossible for all but the wealthiest communities - Caesarea, for example - to hire against the wishes of the local rabbinate. "The other possibility is in neighborhoods which are heavily English-speaking and heavily religious," where community involvement is the expected norm from inception, he explains. Nofei Shemesh is just such a project, with a heavy dose of Anglo input going into every stage of the planning process. The draw of Beit Shemesh, for Zionist Anglos as well as haredim, is its location, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with convenient rail and bus transportation to each. In that respect, Beit Shemesh is directly competing with Modi'in, another city whose fortune has risen as prices and lifestyle issues in the nearby metropolises have brought in new demographics. But whereas Modi'in is largely secular, with a national religious minority, Beit Shemesh has taken the opposite tack, with large populations of haredim and a strong national religious community. The rapid transformation of what was once a city primarily composed of secular or traditional Jews into a magnet for the strictly religious has generated apprehension among non-haredim about Beit Shemesh's future. Above Nofei Shemesh are the established neighborhoods of Sheinfeld and Nofei Aviv, while across the valley are the neighborhoods of Ramat Beit Shemesh, which has become a nexus for haredim fleeing the overcrowded conditions of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. Dr. Lee Cahaner, a Haifa University researcher who has written a doctorate on the phenomenon of new haredi cities, cites three factors as to why haredim are flocking to new centers such as Beit Shemesh. First is demographic pressure, with haredim marrying younger and having more children than their secular counterparts. That puts pressure on existing population centers, which is coupled with the low income of haredi households who cannot afford spiraling housing costs in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. Third, the haredi communities are very organized, allowing them to buy into an area on a large scale, as they have done in Beit Shemesh. "Beit Shemesh can today be considered a haredi city, with haredim making up 40 percent of the city two years ago, and their numbers having certainly grown drastically since," says Cahaner. The phenomenon of migration patterns in haredi society goes back at least 40 years, explains Cahaner, when haredim first began to move to cities such as Rishon Lezion, Rehovot and Petah Tikva - which were then recently converted agricultural settlements that still had plenty of cheap housing. Later came a wave of migration to Israel's development towns, from Hatzor Haglilit in the North to Yeroham in the South, with Ashdod the trend's biggest success. The current wave, which began in the Nineties (after an unsuccessful attempt with the Immanuel settlement in the Eighties), is that of new haredi cities founded on the outskirts of established cities - the first example being Betar Illit, a southern suburb of Jerusalem. In the case of Ramat Beit Shemesh, haredim came not to a tailor-made city but to an appendage of an existing city. When Ramat Beit Shemesh was first being developed, then housing minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer tried to block haredim from taking over Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef and Gimel (with Bet originally intended for the religious demographic). Today, all the neighborhoods of Ramat Beit Shemesh are dominated by haredim. AS THE haredi population continues to expand in Beit Shemesh, the city's politics have also changed. Shas and United Torah Judaism are the largest parties in the municipal council, and Moshe Abutbul (Shas) has announced himself the city's first haredi candidate for mayor. Abutbul has made a point of appealing for the support of non-haredim in the upcoming election, but many are wary of haredi influence. Cahaner surveyed Beit Shemesh last year, finding that 50% of haredi men there were declared "Toratam umanutam" (Torah scholars with no other profession) and that a large percentage of haredi women were housewives. "In all, this is a poorer population with a large number of children and particular needs [especially educational and religious institutions] that can be a burden on a city which was not planned for that sort of community. "To a large extent, there is a feeling that this is a 'city within a city,' with Ramat Beit Shemesh geographically removed and the behavior of the haredi society keeping it distinctly apart - in its institutions and in its communal services, as well as its connection to Jerusalem's haredi society." Cahaner says she has no doubt that as more haredim move into Beit Shemesh the trend for secular Israelis will be to move out. "From in-depth interviews carried out in Beit Shemesh, it is clear that the first to move out were the secular Israelis, and after that the national religious, who moved to Modi'in and other communities." "Ramat Beit Shemesh, originally intended for the general population, now has less than a 1% secular population, a national religious minority and a haredi majority." Secular and even national religious educational institutions are closing and being turned into haredi institutions, she adds. A significant new community of national religious olim, as envisioned by Nofei Shemesh, could help balance the continued haredi expansion. "Anglos are appreciated by the entire community. Both the haredim and the secular sector see these people as a positive" influence on the town, says municipal council member and mayoral candidate Shlomo Lerner. From the municipality's perspective, a community of working, tax-paying and peaceful olim is a boon. Lerner, himself a native English speaker, hopes that institutions such as the Torat Shraga Yeshiva for Americans, which will be joining Yeshivat Reishit Yerushalayim in Beit Shemesh in the near future, as well as a planned hesder yeshiva for Israelis, will help buttress the national religious community's standing in the city. Non-haredi Beit Shemesh residents interviewed were generally positive about relations with the haredi community, but many expressed reservations about the direction the city is taking. Stories of stones being thrown at cars driving on Shabbat, or remarks made to women not dressed according to accepted haredi standards, along with newspaper reports about haredi protests, have generated an image of a town being overrun by extremists. Miriam Naiman says that's a gross misrepresentation. According to the Beit Shemesh region coordinator for Nefesh B'Nefesh, the haredim of Ramat Beit Shemesh and the Kirya Haredit enclave in Beit Shemesh itself generally stay apart from the general population, and when they do meet, relations are cordial. "If you are dati-leumi [national religious] like me, you go to the Sheinfeld shopping center and you see people like yourself or to the Left [less observant] of you," she says. Naiman is quick to point out the strong selling points of the Beit Shemesh community, particularly for new olim, which have made it one of the top "three or four" sought-after communities. She boasts about the city's excellent schools and health services, the learning center available to children who need homework help and copious offerings of Torah classes. Regarding the trouble caused by "a very specific population in Ramat Beit Shemesh," Naiman says the municipality has been working with rabbis and members of the various groups to prevent further incidents. Moshe Montag, a haredi Bet Shemesh council member, agrees that Bet Shemesh is attracting many haredi families, who found the city met their specific needs, but says that is not having a negative impact on the quality of life other residents. "This issue [of haredi protests] is not a central issue," he says. "It's only certain peripheral groups; no rabbi supports throwing stones, God forbid. Generally, when all the parties sit down to talk, everything can be worked out." Montag cites as an example a school that had been national religious which was in a neighborhood that turned haredi. "We made sure that an alternative site was built for the school, and then once the national religious school moved to its other location, a haredi school took over the building. It was a conclusion that everyone was happy with. THE IMAGE that Beit Shemesh has gained in the media as being overtaken by fanatics has done little to stem the demand for housing there. Beit Shemesh's popular listserv ( is filled with desperate requests for leads to housing opportunities, and much of Nofei Shemesh has already been snatched up even before the long awaited opening of the first houses this August. "People really like each other in Beit Shemesh," says Naiman. "It's really not a controversial place." One person working to keep it that way is Sharon Raanan, a Nofei Aviv resident who formed the Committee Against Violence last summer after a number of "very negative" incidents occurred in the city. Raanan says Rabbi Dov Lipman, who lives in the national religious Sheinfeld neighborhood, has been successfully persuading haredi leaders to adopt a "live and let live" approach to the less strictly observant and secular who live in abutting neighborhoods. One resident mentioned an instance where haredi rabbis were convinced to refrain from protests on Shabbat not for the sake of community cohesion but on grounds of not disrupting the Oneg Shabbat (enjoying Shabbat) of the neighbors. Raanan says her group has thankfully had little work as incidents began to calm down some six months ago. The committee is now concerned with the outcome of November's upcoming mayoral elections. "Beit Shemesh is at a crossroads. We can either become Bnei Brak or Ra'anana - and the right mayor will determine that," she says. Raanan says that while the group has not yet endorsed any candidate, she feels that the right mayor will stem the tide of haredization, maintain the demographic status quo and ensure that haredi restrictions do not encroach on the lifestyles of other residents. Lipman, who himself dresses in the haredi garb of suit and black hat, says his perspective on haredi-national religious relations was generally positive. "The secular and [national] religious families in Beit Shemesh welcome the arrival of haredim who want to live peacefully and in coexistence," wrote Lipman in an e-mailed message while on a trip abroad. "In my neighborhood, Sheinfeld, there are some haredim in the same buildings where we live and they are wonderful neighbors who are friendly and do not try to interfere with anyone's lives. "The issue that has developed has been with the extreme haredim who are interfering with people's lives." Lipman agrees with Cahaner's claim that violence from extremist haredim has caused some Beit Shemesh residents to move away, but says others are "emboldened not to go anywhere and let them take over the city." Lipman believes that the presence of a large English-speaking community both on the national religious and haredi sides of Beit Shemesh has had a significant positive impact on relations. "The Anglos have taken the lead on these [coexistence] initiatives. We are not moving anywhere else and we are determined to change the climate even with the extremist haredim. On the haredi side, Anglo haredim tend to be more moderate and they are also having a very positive effect in terms of demonstrating that a person can be haredi but also peaceful and tolerant of the way others live their lives."