Praying for a solution

Modi'in's synagogues are finding it increasingly difficult to survive.

moddin 88 (photo credit: courtesy photo)
moddin 88
(photo credit: courtesy photo)
In the past month, the Modi'in-Maccabim-Re'ut Municipality has issued two administrative closure orders and one eviction order for three different synagogue congregations in this city of 60,000. The timing of the orders - right before Tisha Be'av and during the war when the congregations were hosting refugees from the North and many congregants had been called to the army reserves - has raised the ire of some religious residents. It has also spurred an Internet campaign accusing the municipality of, at best, insensitivity and, at worst, a vendetta against the religious public. On Sunday, July 30, the municipality posted a closure notice outside the Merkaz Modi'in Synagogue, the city's oldest and one of its largest synagogues, located on Rehov Nahal Paran. The order forbade entry into the building, citing building safety violations. This order followed a similar one issued by the municipality to the Kol Ya'acov Synagogue over a building addition. The Kol Ya'acov order did not close the entire synagogue, however, only the addition. And, in mid-August, the Rambam Synagogue, known as the French minyan because its members are mainly French olim, was evicted from the Yitzhak Rabin Tzome'ah High School, where it had been meeting for the past four years, without any alternative arrangements having been made. Modi'in, situated halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is one of only three planned cities in Israel (the other two are Arad and Karmiel). Billed as "Israel's City of the Future," it is designed to eventually have a population of 250,000. Modi'in's cornerstone was laid in 1993, and the first residents moved into the city in 1996. Despite being a planned city, Modi'in suffers from a serious lack of infrastructure and public buildings - schools, kindergartens, commercial centers and synagogues. The city currently has some 40 minyanim (congregations) but only six synagogue buildings, leaving most of its congregations in makeshift facilities. When it first started, the religious public made up only 12 percent of the population. Today, it is 20 percent, a growth the city's planners did not take into account. "The problem in Modi'in is that the rate of population growth has far outstripped the rate of construction of public buildings and infrastructure," says advocate Sigalit Handsher-Farkash, a member of the Modi'in-Maccabim-Reut city council from the Modi'in Ahat (One Modi'in) party. "The city suffers from a serious lack of public buildings and not just synagogues." Handsher-Farkash blames the Israel Lands Administration, which she claims markets the land to builders without checking if there is a public budget to meet population needs. With respect to synagogues, Handsher-Farkash explains that whereas government money for their construction once came from the now defunct Religious Affairs Ministry, it is currently channeled through the Brodett Committee, a government committee that budgets projects according to various municipal criteria. "But when the government cuts back its budget, it also cuts the money for Brodett," she continues. "So money to build synagogues is cut. There is no connection between the size of the religious population and the budget from Brodett. As a result there is a growing gap between synagogue needs and government-funded synagogue building in Modi'in." This has forced congregations to seek improvised solutions and to raise funds on their own to build. In addition, the religious population in Modi'in is not evenly dispersed throughout the city but rather concentrated in certain neighborhoods. The city's founding fathers built all the religious kindergartens on one street and situated the religious elementary schools, ulpana and Bnei Akiva in the same general area. "The municipality created a religious ghetto," Handsher-Farkash notes. "When the religious population is so concentrated there is a far greater need for synagogues in one area. That is why we have synagogues in trailers, schools, kindergartens, etc. Whatever was built was a case of too little, too late... I think the municipality could have acted with more sensitivity [with respect to the closure and eviction notices]." Rabbi David Lau, Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Modi'in, is upset by the municipality's treatment of the issue. "I feel that maybe the city does not understand our needs. Instead of trying to work things out, the municipality just closed Merkaz Modi'in. This is not the way. It gives people a bad feeling. And with respect to the Rambam synagogue, why couldn't the city have found a new place for the congregation before evicting it? The mayor was in France encouraging aliya and asked this congregation to absorb the new olim. We have a large public here that wants synagogues, not just the religious. The non-religious public also uses synagogues for kaddish (prayer for the dead) and bar mitzvas. We want to continue to build synagogues." Michael Sedley, a member of the Merkaz Modi'in Synagogue, says there is a perception that the municipality does not support the religious public, and the way Merkaz Modi'in was closed only reinforces this. "No prior warning was given and no attempt was made to discuss the issues before the [closure] order was posted," he says. "The municipality was obligated to send at least two warning notices. No such warnings were sent. The first our congregation heard about the closure was when it was posted. Yes, it is true that we do not have all the necessary safety permits and the city was within its legal rights to issue the order. But we have been functioning in this building for the past two years with the full knowledge and tacit approval of the municipality." Last year, Sedley explains, when the nearby Tze'irei Modi'in Synagogue burned down in an accidental fire, Mayor Moshe Spector asked Merkaz Modi'in to take over its activities. "And the mayor even came to the synagogue when we had our Hachnassat Sefer Torah [Torah scroll dedication] ceremony. Plus we had told the municipality that we would complete all safety requirements before Rosh Hashana." Due to the lockout, Rabbi Lau's July 30 weekly shiur (Torah lesson) had to be held in the street. On Tisha Be'av, some 200 people were forced to pray outside under plastic sheeting. Merkaz Modi'in was founded in 1997 and today has seven daily minyanim and several daily shiurim in addition to Rabbi Lau's weekly shiur. For its first seven years, the synagogue met in various school buildings. Two years ago, it moved into its current premises - the basement of what eventually it is hoped will be its synagogue building. The building project was undertaken, according to Sedley, based on NIS 750,000 in funding promised by the city council in February 2002 under the previous mayor. This allocation was canceled in December 2004 after the current administration entered office, leaving the synagogue strapped for funds to complete construction. After meeting with the Modi'in fire department, the Merkaz Modi'in synagogue was able to get a temporary, one-month permit to reopen. It had to open an additional exit from the building and install a sprinkler system. It still needs some NIS 200,000 to meet all additional safety requirements by Rosh Hashana. The Rambam Synagogue was founded four years ago and has approximately 100 member families. Two months ago, the congregation was told that the school it was meeting in needed the room and that it could move to another location within the same school. Three weeks ago, the congregation was told it would have to leave by mid-August. No arrangements were made for alternative space and the synagogue is now homeless. In response to these events, the religious community organized a mass pray-in on August 17, across from the municipality, attended by some 200 people. Mayor Spector was invited. He joined the group in praying and was given the third aliya to the Torah. The Modi'in-Maccabim-Reut municipal spokesman's office told In Jerusalem: "The municipality encourages the opening of synagogues... But at the same time, the municipality has a very strict and uncompromising policy with respect to safety in public buildings. Mayor Moshe Spector is the mayor of all the citizens of Modi'in-Maccabim-Reut - and operates within the framework of the municipality's existing financial resources to provide the general public's needs. It should be remembered that there is a serious lack of public buildings in general and synagogues in particular. "Synagogues and mikvaot (ritual baths) have been built in every neighborhood in accordance with budgeting from the Brodett Committee. In addition, this year the municipal budgeting committee has recommended allocating land for a number of synagogues and the city council has approved this." With respect to Merkaz Modi'in, the spokesman's office noted that: "Merkaz Modi'in was closed because of safety violations that endangered those praying in the building and only after it was sent warnings and the violations were not corrected. The closure order was issued according to law out of fear for the safety of the public. Following a tour of the building a number of stages were agreed upon [to correct the violations], some which have already been carried out and some of which will be carried out in the coming weeks." As for the funding the municipality promised and then canceled, the spokesman's office noted that: "In February 2002, the previous city council approved a special development budget, totaling NIS 1,920,000, for constructing two synagogues on the plot. The amuta [non-profit association for building the synagogues] was supposed to transfer NIS 1,170,000 into this development budget and the city NIS 750,000. The amuta did not transfer the money. Therefore, in December 2004, the development budget was canceled by law and no longer exists." According to the spokesman, the Kol Ya'acov Synagogue added a building addition that was supposed be inspected and approved by a construction engineer to get the required city approval. The congregants brought a form signed by an engineer. But when the municipal engineer questioned him about specific safety violations, he withdrew his approval. The addition was deemed to be unsafe and was closed. The Rambam Synagogue, in the words of the spokesman, "has been meeting in classrooms of the Yitzhak Rabin School. The school needs these classrooms for the coming school year and the congregation was warned last year that this would happen. The municipality is hard at work trying to find an alternative place for the synagogue's activities."