The way they were

Beit Hakerem residents are trying to avert the threats of urban sprawl and population change in their tranquil neighborhood.

beit hakerem 248.88 (photo credit: Maya Spitzer )
beit hakerem 248.88
(photo credit: Maya Spitzer )
A well-known joke among secular residents of Jerusalem considering moving to the center of the country goes that the Beit Hakerem neighborhood is best suited to them: It is still largely populated by secular residents and is close to the road to Tel Aviv - in case the area is taken over by haredim. But many a true word is spoken in jest. Beit Hakerem is indeed close to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway and is inhabited mainly by secular residents. Once a modest workers' quarter, today the quiet neighborhood is considered one of the most attractive in Jerusalem, offering the best living conditions and a highly developed education system. However, recent developments have put a pall on this pastoral picture. These include the inconvenience caused by the roadwork for the light rail, the lack of public transportation and the fear of an eventual haredi influx. The fact that the new mayor, Nir Barkat, lives in Beit Hakerem has given quite a few of the residents hope that things will improve, while others believe that having religious members and even haredim in his coalition will not allow Barkat to fulfill all his neighbors' wishes. Once an independent neighborhood, created to serve as a home for Zionist pioneers, Beit Hakerem (the House of the Vineyard) and its additional quarters - Givat Beit Hakerem and the latest one, Ramat Beit Hakerem - have turned into what is considered the last stronghold of secular and well-to-do residents of the city. The question of how the modest little neighborhood, created in the early years of the 20th century to house hard-working Zionist socialists, changed into one of the most luxurious, upper-middle-class neighborhoods remains a mystery. Regarding the "secular stronghold," not all its residents agree on the definition. "I would rather say that it is the last stronghold of secular tolerance," suggests former city council member Anat Hoffman, head of the Israel Religious Action Center, who recently moved there from Baka. "Above all, I would say it is the only place where the secular are not ashamed or apologetic for being so." In regard to the mayor being a resident there, "It is as if his personal address is part of his message," says a high-ranking employee at Kikar Safra. "Not in Rehavia like Teddy [Kollek] or luxurious Old Katamon like [Ehud] Olmert. And, of course, not one of the haredi neighborhoods, like [Uri] Lupolianski's Sanhedria, but Beit Hakerem, the modern and secular [neighborhood], suited to those whom Barkat wants to represent the most: young families, educated, secular or at most traditional [residents] - those he wants to keep from leaving the city." "Beit Hakerem is simply the last station before Mevaseret or Modi'in," says Rafi Avidan, head of the local neighborhood administration. But it is no longer the strong, well-to-do class it used to be. We now have different residents, especially since the construction of the new part, Ramat Beit Hakerem, which is an unusual mixture of both the wealthy and very young couples who are just scraping by." SITUATED ON a hill on the western side of the city, Beit Hakerem is surrounded by other neighborhoods: Kiryat Moshe in the north; Yefeh Nof and the Jerusalem Forest in the west; and Givat Ram at its east. In the 1960s and '70s, Beit Hakerem was widely sought after by students. The Hebrew University had established its new location in Givat Ram (after the campus on the Mount of Olives became out of reach since 1948), thus allowing the students to save transportation fees by walking down the wadi that separated the calm neighborhood from the university campus. Upon the creation of the State of Israel, the leaders of the small, self-administrated neighborhood decided to become part of the city's municipality, and Beit Hakerem became the western neighborhood of Jerusalem with, since the early 1960s, Kikar Danya at its center. Today, Beit Hakerem is one of the most coveted neighborhoods. Despite all the urban development the city has undergone, it has remained a calm neighborhood with very few tall buildings. And above all, it is appealing because it offers what is considered the best education available in the city, with 25 kindergartens, four elementary schools and three of the leading high schools and junior highs in the city. This includes the prestigious Leyada High School. Barkat made his first inroads into politics by rallying to make registration for that school open to all residents of Jerusalem. "This is a very special neighborhood," says Avidan. "What we offer here in terms of education receives so much praise that every year we have to refuse many applicants. But people won't leave the neighborhood, so you can see them every day driving their children to and from Beit Hakerem, registered in other areas but still living here. We also see the grandchildren of veteran residents who return here. They are willing to live in small apartments; but it is the level of the education system that dictates the order of priorities of the residents. We are well aware of it, so we pay attention to all the things that have made Beit Hakerem so highly praised. For example, the trees. We now have 14,000 trees. We do not allow high-rises or extra construction on a given plot of land; it preserves the neighborhood." Avidan is particularly proud of how well the special character of the neighborhood has been preserved: "We have managed to avoid tall buildings and towers, and we respect the old look, with low buildings surrounded by gardens. It is one of the special aspects of Beit Hakerem, and we do a lot to maintain it." This is true. Besides the seven-story building in Kikar Danya, high-rises are not to be found. And even in the newest part of Ramat Beit Hakerem, the tallest building is no more than eight stories. Still, a plan to build four towers - two of 18 stories and two of seven stories - at the entrance to the neighborhood on Sderot Herzl, close to the hotels - is still looming on the horizon. "We are a group of residents, mainly from Rehov Hazon Zion, who decided to oppose this project," says Bezalel Chaimovitch. "We presented our objections to the local planning and building committee, and we are determined not to surrender to this ugly project that will change the character of our neighborhood." Benjamin Heymann, a lawyer who represents the group of residents, says that the problem lies in the concept behind it. "In the master plan presented by the municipality, tall buildings are permitted along the main streets in the city, such as Sderot Herzl. So the plan is to build what seems very high in local terms - 18 floors - although from one side it will look lower because of the slope of the hills. But this is not the major issue. What we found out is that this project includes parking garages - which is very important - but the parking garages are not underground but reach the third and fourth floors, again from the hillside, so the open green spaces that should be created there according to the law will be some green leaves placed on the roof of the parking garage. This is absolutely not what the residents need or want to have in front of their windows." Heymann adds that the whole concept regards the streets as a separate unit from the rest of the city, which in his view is a terrible mistake. "If you look at Sderot Herzl alone, then okay, it makes sense. But Herzl is part of Beit Hakerem, a quiet neighborhood in which tall buildings are not appropriate, and that was not taken into account by whoever devised the master plan." Regarding the chances of the opposition, Heymann says he believes that ultimately some changes regarding the parking and open spaces issues might be made, but he does not think that the building project itself will be canceled. The opposition was presented by the Chaimovitch group (about 30 residents), the local neighborhood administration and eight additional residents or groups of residents. The plan was approved a few months ago by the local planning committee chaired then by Yehoshua Pollack and presented to the district committee at the Interior Ministry. A debate scheduled for last week was canceled, but Heymann seems convinced that the chances to introduce some changes are fair. BEIT HAKEREM has remained a middle- and upper-middle-class mostly secular neighborhood, with just a few religious Zionist families. Over the years, a few more synagogues were added (including one Conservative and one Reform), but the general atmosphere of a strong secular neighborhood had always been preserved. That is until the haredi-secular issue reached them, too. "For the moment, it is mostly fear," says Hedva Almog, a former producer at Israel Radio and a very active resident. "We are shivering with fear that this neighborhood will fall into the hands of the haredim like all the other neighborhoods in the city." What Almog and her many comrades in the neighborhood are referring to is, firstly, the plan to build a second mikve in Beit Hakerem, regarded by the opponents as a sneaky way to open the door for haredi residents, who are the only ones who would supposedly require the ritual bath. The mikve issue began a long time ago, during Ehud Olmert's term as mayor, when a plan to build 10 synagogues and two mikvaot in the neighborhood was approved by the municipality, despite fierce opposition by the residents. As a result of the struggle led by the residents and with the support of the neighborhood administration, the original plan was reduced to two synagogues and two mikvaot. "The national-religious residents here are part of the neighborhood, and it is obvious that they have religious needs," says Almog. "Synagogues are more easily acceptable, since it is well known that quite a lot of traditional [Jews] attend services, at least on the High Holy Days. But a mikve is another thing. You don't go to a mikve on Shabbat, so you don't need it to be built in the center of the neighborhood, easily accessible even on Shabbat when you don't have public transportation. A mikve can be erected on the slopes of the hill facing us, beside Shaare Zedek, close to Bayit Vagan, and still serve the religious residents of Beit Hakerem." [In fact, Orthodox women make every effort to go to the mikve on Friday nights. - P.C.] Adds Avidan, "A group of residents tried to cancel the reduced plan, went to court but failed, and we remained with the last plan. Now the first mikve is ready [on Rehov Hashahar] and has been opened, and the actual issue at stake involves the location of the second mikve: Will we be able to keep it out of the neighborhood or not? And frankly, we all understand that it means much more than a specific mikve here or there, thus the deep concern of the residents." AVIDAN SAYS that at a recent meeting between the residents and Mayor Barkat, which many members of the city council and the mayor's deputies also attended, the general feeling was that the residents' claims were heard with a great deal of sympathy. Regarding the possible outcome, Avidan refuses to speculate. But Almog says that among many of the residents, the feeling is that despite Barkat's sincere empathy and dedication to transparency, the chances are not so good. "The coalition has its rules, we all know that, and that is why we are shaking in our boots." Deputy Mayor David Hadari (Habayit Hayehudi) says they have it all wrong. "Who says only haredim use the mikve? Do you know how many so-called secular women go to the mikve? Well, quite a lot. In any case, there are clear rules for building a mikve. It needs at least 600 visitors per month - and believe it or not, we have figures that prove that more than 600 women go to the mikve in that particular neighborhood. The thing is that we're talking about Beit Hakerem as if it were one neighborhood, but it's not. We have the old Beit Hakerem, including Givat Beit Hakerem, with the new mikve finally opened on Rehov Hashahar. And now we need another one for the residents of the new part, Ramat Beit Hakerem, where quite a large number of young religious couples have moved in. It's allowed for by law, and all this talk about haredim coming in following the mikve is nonsense. Haredim do not move in unless they have their own religious structures: haredi synagogues, Talmud Torah for the children, seminaries for their girls and yeshivot for their young men. None of these exist in any part of Beit Hakerem, so I suggest that we all calm down." Still, the final location for the second mikve is yet to be decided upon and, according to Avidan, one of the suggestions of the residents, next to the Shaare Zedek Medical Center, is still relevant, depending on what the municipality decides. "My feeling is that it is not an unfounded fear," says one resident, who preferred not to be identified. "First let's decide if we are one large neighborhood or two separate ones. If we are one neighborhood, as the municipality has been telling us for years, we don't need two mikvaot, let alone one. And secondly, who decides what to do with our money?" WHETHER HAREDIM are planning to move into Ramat Beit Hakerem or not, the public transportation issue remains a serious problem. Public transportation has become a sort of nightmare, and the worst is that all the residents share the feeling that nobody really cares about them. "From whatever point of view you look at it, it looks bad," says Almog, who has recently become part of a lobby group of residents who fight for better solutions for parking and public transportation. "Since the construction of Ramat Beit Hakerem, we have been suffering terribly from lack of parking. So many more residents and no additional parking lots - no wonder the situation is so tough." Eti Avrahami, the head of the action group, sounds tired and a little desperate. "My husband and I moved to Ramat Beit Hakerem eight years ago. The kids were grown, so we decided to leave a particularly noisy part of Talpiot for this neighborhood, which seemed so promising." Apart from her strong opposition - despite being attached to "warm Jewish traditions and values" - to the additional mikve and her fear that haredim might move in and change the atmosphere, Avrahami is much more concerned about the lack of buses serving the neighborhood. "We feel like second-class citizens here. Because of the light rail, they canceled the No. 14 bus and instead we have the 50, which comes by once every 50 minutes. Otherwise, we have the No. 5, which comes from Har Homa but ends its route at the central bus station, and from there we have to take another bus. Imagine us, people in our 60s, going to shop at Mahaneh Yehuda, with our baskets full and heavy, forced to get off one bus, wait for another, pay again for our tickets and drag ourselves home, exhausted!" According to Avrahami, for the moment the only hope is the new mayor. "We met with Barkat and most of the city council members and his deputies. Barkat promised to help; at least he listened to us. We liked it when he said that he wouldn't hesitate to stop the light rail project. He seems to really care about the residents. We asked for his help before he was elected mayor, a little more than a year ago. He invited us to the city council meeting to hear mayor Lupolianski's decision regarding his request - but the mayor canceled the meeting when he heard we had come, and the proposal was never debated. Then we met with deputy mayor Yehoshua Pollack and municipality director-general Yair Ma'ayan. Pollack promised that within two weeks he would solve the problem. His idea was to open Rehov Avizohar, a tiny little one-way street so that bus No. 50 would pass there every 15 minutes. We were asked to bring 1,000 signatures of residents who would accept this solution. It caused a lot of tension between the residents of Beit Hakerem and those of Ramat Beit Hakerem. We brought in the signatures, but the bus was never scheduled to pass there, and we are still stuck with No. 5, forced to change buses and pay twice. It's outrageous!" For the moment, the final decision is expected from a special committee created at the municipality, but Avrahami says that nobody at Kikar Safra is willing to give the residents any information regarding the committee's meetings or rulings. "This is not true," responds Barkat's spokesman, Evyatar Elad. "This week an additional meeting was held that included residents' representative Eti Avrahami, as well as the mayor's representatives, City Hall experts and the transportation master plan team. A number of alternatives were suggested to and by the residents, which will be evaluated over the next few days." Almog, who is also an active member of the community TV team of the neighborhood, "Telekerem," has produced a large number of features on the history of Beit Hakerem, where she has been living for more than 40 years. She says her activism - whether on community TV or as a member of the action committee for better public transportation - are her way of expressing her attachment to the neighborhood. However, Almog fears that Beit Hakerem might, slowly but surely, change its nature and appearance and become just another area hemmed in by tall buildings. Or, worse in her eyes, another neighborhood taken over by haredim. But perhaps the most realistic - and also more optimistic - view is Avidan's. "We need more classrooms, we need urgent solutions for public transportation and we need to be ready to fight against any plan to build high-rise buildings here, and it's not always easy," he says. "But I can say that until now we have managed to do well: We have succeeded in preserving the special architectural look of the neighborhood. Despite the lack of classrooms, people are still moving in and want to stay here. As for Ramat Beit Hakerem, true, not all the newcomers there are well-to-do families, but they are mostly young couples and I think that ultimately, they will strengthen Beit Hakerem and that's important. And let's not forget that the new mayor lives here, and he is aware of and very attentive to the residents."