On a mission from Vizhnitz

Shlomo Rosenstein was not exactly pleased when his rebbe sent him to join the city council, but he has received quite an education in Kikar Safra.

Egged no.5 298 (photo credit: Sybil Ehrlich)
Egged no.5 298
(photo credit: Sybil Ehrlich)
While the city council is on summer vacation, Corridors of Power will bring readers a series of interviews with their elected representatives. We have decided to begin with first-time city councilor Shlomo Rosenstein, a Vizhnitz Hassid on the Yehadut Hatorah list. Rosenstein counts among his municipal achievements the institution of Egged's "mehadrin" bus lines, offering haredi communities segregated public transportation to and from Jerusalem at a discounted rate. Rosenstein was born in 1971 in Rehovot. His family later moved to Bnei Brak, where he studied at the Ponevezh Yeshiva. At 20 he married Feigi, a special educator who heads an institution for remedial studies. They have seven children, including twins aged one-and-a-half, and live in Tel Arza. Rosenstein became principal of the ITRI school for boys at the age of 28 and now serves on the school's national board. His father served in the army, as did his two brothers. Rosenstein himself was exempted from duty at the age of 27, when he left the yeshiva. His exemption was likely granted, he surmises, because at the time he already had a wife and five children to look after. Rosenstein says that army service should be compulsory for everyone except for those who dedicate their life to Torah study. "Those who do not study all day long should serve in order to be equal in rights and duties and to allow all of us to be part of a real society. "I am ready to go to the army at any time, should they change their mind," he adds. How did you come to join the city council? It was not my decision. I was chosen and sent by the spiritual leader of Vizhnitz, my rebbe, who called me and announced that he had decided to send me there. Did you want to go into politics? I was miles away from politics. In fact for me, on a personal level, it was a terrible thing. I have been involved in pedagogy all my life. I hope I will be allowed to get back to education issues. I was not interested in this job. I didn't seek it out and I very much disliked the idea from the beginning. So why didn't you refuse? When the rebbe decides something you cannot really refuse. It was not easy at home either. My wife was also unhappy about the decision, but the rebbe called us to him and and said words that strengthened us and here I am - the representative of a great and holy movement, the Agudat Yisrael movement. I'm on a special mission for the Vizhnitz rebbe, to represent and help my community. Is it true that haredim who are sent into politics are in fact those who are not 'great Torah scholars'? There may be something to that… of course Torah study is above all else. On the one hand it's flattering to be a public representative of your community, but for me, going to the municipality instead of devoting myself to studying and a life of contemplation and learning felt like a drop in my status. When I was chosen for the job I was not learning at the yeshiva - though I was still very involved in education and writing - but a shlihut (mission) is a shlihut. So how did you feel upon arriving at Kikar Safra? A bit like going into exile. I really hope it will not be for too long, but it's not for me to decide. What was so difficult? It's painful for me to feel like a guinea pig, to represent my community among people who are not my friends, who are not close to me, where I don't really feel at ease. You mean the encounter with secular people? Not only. You will be surprised, but these negative feelings are caused by all kinds of people I meet in this job. I also mean other haredi members of the city council - people whose attitude and performance are a real embarrassment for us all. I was very disappointed to see how lowly some people can behave and also it was painful to realize that I would not be able to do the things I really wanted to do here, to understand that the "big changes" I wanted to introduce are not realistic. Like what? Like the fact that nobody is ready to admit that haredim might also have cultural needs. The usual attitude is 'you burn garbage cans, you do your strange things at the end of Succot [Simhat Beit Hashoeva], you don't need more money' - these are things I've heard on more than one occasion. On the other hand, when one of them [secular city councilors] wants us to pay for some obscure cultural event, they consider this real culture that deserves real public money. We, of course, are supposed to approve it in the name of 'culture.' The fact that according to the budgets we receive, it seems like haredim have no need for culture, art or sports is unbearable for me, but I haven't been able to improve the situation. You must be aware that usually people think that haredim receive much more funding than other citizens? I am aware of it, but what can I do if it's not the situation on the ground? For example, because we want to preserve our traditions, my children do not receive free education and I have to pay for every hour of sport or art they want to do, unlike secular kids, who receive it for free - or almost for free - in the framework of [public] school programs. People think we take the public's money, but let me tell you that I, and many others in my community, have to pay about NIS 25,000 to NIS 30,000 a year to give our children all they deserve in terms of education and extra-curricular activities. I also hoped to change this situation. Tell me about your duties as head of the Appropriations Committee. When I first began, they all - city council members and civil servants - expected me to continue they way it had been: a kind of non-engaged rubber stamp for the requests presented to the committee. I immediately decided to change the rules of the game. I want to know exactly where the money goes, why and how it is used. If I am not satisfied with the answers I receive, I do not hesitate to question the decisions and to call for another committee meeting. It was hard at the beginning, but I can tell you that now, after almost four years, it works. It works so well that you never authorize funding for the Open House - not even for its cultural and social activities. There are hundreds of support groups functioning in the city. They deal with all kinds of needs, illnesses and problems. I don't mind the gay and lesbian community members going there for support. But these groups are not funded and budgeted by the municipality and shouldn't be. I know exactly what their agenda is: to encourage people to come out of the closet and openly declare that they are homosexual. It is not the municipality's responsibility to support that. I will never finance the organization's provocations. Was it a mistake to elect a haredi mayor? I have lots of doubts regarding this issue of a haredi mayor. The fact is that when there is a secular mayor, at least we have the privilege of banging on the table!