Still waters run deep

An NIS 1 million mikve planned for Tzur Hadassah is polarizing a young, mixed and fragile community.

tzur hadassah 298 (photo credit: )
tzur hadassah 298
(photo credit: )
The proposed building of an NIS 1 million mikve (ritual bath) in Tzur Hadassah has opened a Pandora's box of fears and suspicions which threaten to tear apart the fabric of secular/religious relations in this Judean Hills community of 4,000 residents. Tzur Hadassah is an overwhelmingly secular community that has grown tremendously over the last few years. The number of households has increased by 30 percent since 2002, and the community is expected to grow by another 1,000 residents over the next three years. But infrastructure development has not kept pace with the housing boom. Tzur Hadassah, with some 1,500 children, does not have a community center or any other place for youth activities. It also lacks a commercial center and has no health clinics. And there is no mikve in Tzur Hadassah, either. For religiously observant women, the ritual bath is the cornerstone of what is known as "family purity," the way in which a Jewish woman must conduct her life. For many years, the Ministry of Religious Affairs routinely budgeted money for the building of mikva'ot and other religious institutions. The Ministry was dissolved in 2004, but before its dissolution, Ministry officials allocated NIS 1 million for a mikve in Tzur Hadassah. Today, the Ministry of Housing is responsible for the implementation of this allocation. Some residents are enraged. On November 25, 2005 opponents of the mikve, stood near the community's only grocery store and gathered the signatures of some 700 residents on a petition against the project. The petition claims that the allocation of funds for the building of the mikve will mean that there will be no money for "more urgent" public projects, such as a community center, well-baby clinic, or sports center. The petition further notes that there are mikva'ot in the neighborhing communities of Betar Illit, Mevo Betar, and Bar Giora. "To spend so much money on a mikve and to say that it is our greatest need is ridiculous," declares Zehavit Blumenfeld, who organized the petition. "If the majority of residents are secular, why build a mikve in Tzur Hadassah? Why doesn't the Ministry of Housing think about our real needs for instrastructure?! The mikve will be a white elephant that no one will use." Blumenfeld believes that the allocated funds could be diverted to other public purposes, and says that at least two other communities have already done so. In Ashkelon, she found out, the city decided to build a public library with the funds that had been designated for a mikve. But there are significant differences between these other communities and the situation in Tzur Hadassah. First of all, the decision in Ashkelon was taken before 2003, when new regulations were introduced to prohibit local authorities from using government allocations designated for a specific project for any other purpose. Confirms Meir Viezel, head of the Mateh Yehuda regional council, "The money is only for a mikve in Tzur Hadassah. In a letter I received on December 22, 2005, the Ministry of Housing informed me that the money cannot be used for anything else." Furthermore, and more substantively, the decision in Ashkelon to reallocate the funds to the library was made by the municipal council. In contrast, on March 27, 2003, the Tzur Hadassah local committee, an officially elected body which serves as the community's local authority, voted 6-0 to approve the use of the funds for the mikve. "It was a public process to get the mikve," says Yitzhak Kerem, acting chair of the Tzur Hadassah local committee and chair of its religious affairs committee. "We carried out a survey in 2002-2003 and found that families in the neighborhood where the mikve is planned wanted it. According to our estimates, more than 200 women will use this mikve. We drew up our own petition in support of the mikve and more than 300 families signed." The claim that the women from Tzur Hadassah can use the mikva'ot in neighboring communities does not hold water for Kerem. "Our women cannot use them on Friday nights, since doing so involves going outside the eruv [a halachic definition of space on the Sabbath -G.L.] In fact, the lack of a mikve in Tzur Hadassah was noted in the 2002 State Comptroller's report." Kedem explains that going to the mikve is a very private act that women "do not advertise." For reasons of practicality as well as modesty, most women generally go to the mikve at night, when they do not want to walk long distances in the dark. In particular, he says, "The Sephardim are very sensitive to the privacy issue. Originally, we though of building the mikve together with the Sephardi synagogue, but the community vetoed it for modesty reasons." Finally, Kerem also contends that the Ministry of Housing has approved NIS 490,000 for improvements to the local sports hall. So if the money is only for the mikve and cannot be used for anything else and if other funds have already been allocated for other public facilities - what is really going on? In order to comprehend the issues at stake, the history of the community and the ethnic and secular-religious tensions Israel faces today need to be understood. The community of Tzur Hadassah began as a regional school in the late 1950s. Moshe Tuboul was the housefather of the school. The first family in the community, the Tubouls arrived in 1960. For seven years, they were the only family living there. Recalls Yossi Tuboul, Moshe's son: "Peple were afraid to live here because this was a border area. There were no roads, no electricity, not even a regular supply of water. We bought our bread off the back of a delivery truck." Following the Six Day War, Tzur Hadassah was approved for settlement. The first people to move in, according to Tuboul, were environmentalists from the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel. "They liked the place because it was isolated," he says now. By 1974, there were 10 homes. But the homes belonged to the Jewish Agency and the residents were only allowed to rent them. They were not permitted to buy the homes they lived in until 1983. The community really began to grow after 1990, with the advent of the "Tunnel Road" that brings the community closer to Jerusalem. The majority of the residents have come since then. Today, the community consists of three neighborhoods - the old section, where long-time residents and many of the secular residents who came at the end of the 1980s live; the Valley, a fast-growing new neighborhood populated largely by young couples; and Har Kitron, with more upscale homes. Tzur Hadassah offers families relatively low-cost housing, open space and quality of life. This is one of the community's drawing cards that, despite a lack of public infrastructure, has succeeded in luring many young families from Jerusalem in the last few years. There's another drawing card, too, says Rabbi Ofer Shabbat-Beit Halahmi, rabbi of the Tzur Hadassaah congregation for Progressive [Reform] Judaism. Many Tzur Hadassah residents left Jerusalem because of the increasing haredization of the city. "They bring their experiences from Jerusalem to Tzur Hadassah. Also, Tzur Hadassah is next to [the haredi community of] Betar Illit. Secular residents see Betar Illit and are afraid of its lifestyle." Yet despite its purportedly secular character, Tzur Hadassah has four Orthodox synagogues and one Reform congregation. And four of these five synagogues are about to obtain proper premises. The Reform synagogue and the Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogue, plus the Orthodox synagogue in Har Kitron are all building using private funds. But the Ministry of Housing has also allocated NIS 700,000 towards the building of an Orthodox Sephardi synagogue -- a move that has elicited hardly a peep in protest. Yet in December 2005, Blumenfeld sent a letter to the Ministry of Housing declaring that, "The building of a mikve in the community constitutes a direct threat to the secular character of the community and to us, the residents." So why is the construction of the synagogues not controversial, while the building of the mikve is seen as a "direct threat" to the secular character of the community and its residents? Dr. Tamar Elor of the Hebrew University's Anthropology and Sociology Department says that while she is not familiar with the specifics of Tzur Hadassah, she is familiar with secular objection to mikva'ot. "The controversy seems to be connected with secular perceptions of the mikve," she notes. "For secular residents, many of whom do not have a good understanding of Judaism, the synagogue is okay. It is a place they might use on Yom Kippur or where they might have their son's bar mitzvah. But the mikve is another story. It is more of a symbol of Judaism and haredization. They will never use it. In their minds, it is one step beyond the synagogue and linked only with Orthodox use." In support of Elor's thesis, Ilan Halperin, president of the Reform synagogue, contends that construction of the mikve is the first stage of a "slippery slope" into haredization and religious coercion. "If it [the mikve] is the first thing to be built, this is a signal that Tzur Hadassah is a community for the Orthodox," he warns. "People want to keep the open pluralistic and liberal character of our community. They are not looking to have it turn into a place where soon there will be demands to close the streets on Shabbat. And we have already heard rumors of such demands. This is a red flag. We came to live here because we wanted to be in an open and accepting environment. Tensions and misperceptions between Sephardim and Ashkenazim are another reason that the issue of the mikve is so volatile, Kerem, who has written extensively on Sephardi heritage and culture, contends. "For Ashkenazim, religion is generally an either/or proposition," he explains. "Either you are religious or you are completely secular...they don't see the traditional Sephardi population here as needing religious services. They don't know that there are at least 400 such families in Tzur Hadassah. Most of those using the mikve will be traditional Sephardi women," he predicts. Rabbi Dov Ben-Ya'akov is a resident of the Har Kitron neighborhood and a member of the board of the local Orthodox synagogue. He, too, claims that many of the women in his neighborhood have asked that a mikve be built. "I was surprised at the demand," he acknowledges. "There is a large number of traditional families, and the mikve would definitely be used on a regular basis." However many women of whatever ethnic background might chose to use the mikve, Kerem contends that the construction of the mikve is an issue of civil rights and the use of public space, irrespective of the numbers. "This is a Jewish country and one of the cornerstones of Judaism is the laws of family purity. As a Jewish state, it is the government's responsibility to provide Jewish institutions and religious services. The mikve is a religious function that needs to be provided - just as a community provides kindergartens or schools." Says Ben Ya'akov, "Tzur Hadassah is very mixed and everyone tries to get along. But pluralism means that each one should allow the other what he or she needs. If some residents need a mikve, then it should be built. Anything that is in opposition to legitimate needs can be divisive." Progressive Rabbi Shabbat-Beit Halahmi agrees - but clarifies that the concept of pluralism should embrace all streams of Judaism. To date, because he is a Reform Rabbi, Shabbat-Beit Halahmi has not been able to refer his congregants to the official mikva'ot. "I just wish that this mikve will be truly for the entire community and that I, too, would be able to bring my congregants to it. Unfortunately, there is no equality before the law in religious matters. But ultimately, before The Holy One Blessed be He we are all equal. Rabbi Attorney Gilad Kariv, the associate director of the Israeli Religious Action Center of the Movement for Progressive Judaism, sees two sides to the issue. Agreeing with Shabbat-Beit-Halahmi, he says, "The State of Israel allocates millions to build religious institutions, but to date, not one building has been for a non-Orthodox community. They are all given to the Orthodox. This discriminates against the needs of secular citizens and liberal Jews who want non-Orthodox services. This flies in the face not only of equality for all citizens but also Supreme Court decisions. It prevents non-Orthodox communities from operating properly. Half of all Reform congregations in Israel, even after years of existence, are still meeting in basements, caravans and other makeshift locations." On the other hand, Kariv also thinks that the question of need must be addressed. Noting that construction of mikva'ot has often been used by the political parties as a way to gain votes, he states, "There should be some kind of survey or check to see if a mikve is really needed in Tzur Hadassah." Hagai Agmon-Snir, Director of the Jerusalem Inter-Cultural Center points to the strident opposition to the mikve. "If the story were somewhere else in the world, we would be amazed and appalled that there would be a majority group who would oppress a minority group's rights. Here in Israel however, this is the kind of issue that weighs on our feelings and tunes in to our fears. Here the secular feel that they are the oppressed minority; they are the underdog. Rabbi Levi Cooper, Rabbi of the Hatzur Vehatzohar Orthodox synagogue in Tzur Hadassah, director of the Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish studies, and a regular contributor to the Jerusalem Post, feels that there are many misunderstandings and questions about priorities. "I am interested that this not become an issue that divides our community. I want a mikve, but not at the price of division," he says. To help bridge the divide, Cooper held a meeting at his home last month, to which he invited the "anti-mikve lobby." "I think we had very fruitful discussions and the meeting contributed to building things in a positive way," he says. "I believe that people recognized that there can be different priorities, but this should not divide the community." Agmon-Snir says that this is the only way and cautions against the kinds of tensions that have troubled other communities such as Ramot. "The issue seems black and white in Tzur Hadassah, but it isn't. The only solution is community dialogue that's creative. [You need to] put all the statistics on the table, open it up for discussion, have transparency, spread it out and find creative solutions. When things are open people aren't afraid that they are being deceived." It would be sad to see what is happening in Ramot happen in Tzur Hadassah, he warns. "In Ramot, the haredim and the secular populations - both strong - fight so much with each other about how to use public space and public money that there is nothing there, no entertainment area, nothing. It's a pretty screwed situation." The only ones who benefit from this situation, he says, are the authorities. "Of course, the authorities love it, because it means that they don't have to provide anything." He concludes, "People think it's a win-lose situation. The religious win, and the secular lose. But it can be a win-win or lose-lose situation. If the community loses the ability to communicate with each other, loses their solidarity, than it's a lose-lose situation. And the price is very heavy. On the other hand, if dialogue is opened, and a compromise is found, both sides can win.