Neighborhood rights and wrongs

Can the secular and religious residents of Ramat Aviv find common ground, or are they destined to suffer the same fate as those in Jerusalem?

haredi ramat aviv 248.88 (photo credit: Oren Klass)
haredi ramat aviv 248.88
(photo credit: Oren Klass)
In the country's capital, the decision to open the Carta parking lot on Shabbat has sparked a series of riots by haredim. Last Saturday, MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) declared that relations between the secular and haredi populations had reached a "severe crisis." But clashes between the two sectors are not unique to Jerusalem. In Ramat Aviv, the continuing influx of haredim to the traditionally secular area is causing a rise in tension between them and their non-religious neighbors. Over the past few years, Chabad members have begun renovating public buildings and institutions in Ramat Aviv. A movie theater was converted into a kollel. Billionaire Lev Leviev, who is observant and owns the Ramat Aviv Mall, ensured it would be closed on Shabbat. And a center belonging to the Histadrut Labor Federation now functions as a Chabad kindergarten. These changes have raised concern with the city's secular residents, with a single issue at the center of the debate: the character of the neighborhood. The ultra-Orthodox "come with [a] purpose, they are well organized, and they have a target - the secular Israeli public," MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) tells The Jerusalem Post. While the non-observant protest the proselytization and and increasing restrictions they face from the orthodox, the haredi community argues that it has the same right as any other group to live there. "I'm not against someone who is religious, as long as they don't force their practices on me," says Dani Borten, a superintendent at the Alliance High School in Ramat Aviv, speaking on his own behalf, not the school's. "Now, in the neighborhood, I can see tensions starting. If we don't do something, there will be problems." Alliance High School sits next door to the converted Chabad kindergarten, Bereshit, which opened nearly eight years ago. Alliance pupils are among those who have been approached by Chabad members, who try to convince them to become more religious, according to Principal Varda Kagan. She has never witnessed this first-hand, she says, but a group of parents brought the issue to her attention. Chabad members take up positions in front of the school as pupils leave, encouraging the secular high-schoolers to lay tefillin and handing out flyers promoting religious observance, Kagan says. "We choose to cope with the criticism through the path of peace and open dialogue," Yossi Ginzburg, head of the Chabad Yeshiva in Ramat Aviv, tells Metro. "Representatives of Chabad make Judaism accessible to the people, through opportunity, direction and knowledge. But the rest is their own free choice." Fewer than 25 percent of Ramat Aviv oppose Chabad's move into the area, Ginzburg says. He adds that all Chabad's programs are created in response to the community's needs, and the organization has received requests to develop and expand its activities. The Chabad House in Ramat Aviv first opened some 20 years ago. Horowitz compares the situation in Ramat Aviv to a secular organization moving into Mea She'arim. If such an organization were to begin approaching religious members of the community, distributing leaflets advocating secularism, "there is no way they would be able to operate," he contends. Horowitz says he supports the rights of secular residents. But this struggle shouldn't be viewed as a fight against the haredi community, he notes, rather as against "illegitimate and illegal actions taken by some specific haredi organizations." One such action was the founding of the Bereshit kindergarten, Horowitz says, arguing that the haredi group had taken over a public building and transformed it into a religious institution, in violation of the building's zoning. The kindergarten administrators have been renting the space while in search of a permanent site, either in the current location or somewhere else. Since a kindergarten must have at least 30 enrollees to be recognized by the government, Bereshit has submitted a list to City Hall of 50 children who attended the kindergarten over the past four years, says Hagit Carasso, head teacher at Bereshit. Carasso denies claims that children were being bused in from Bnei Barak to attend the kindergarten in Ramat Aviv, saying that Bereshit has an enrollment of at least 30 local families. "Just because I wear long sleeves and a long skirt doesn't mean that I have less of a right to live in the area," Carasso says. "And if we live here, we need to have at least a [religious] kindergarten, if not a school, as well." Meanwhile, Shauli Zohar, 28, says it's not difficult for him, as an Orthodox Jew, to live in Ramat Aviv. He sends his three-year-old son to Bereshit, and says he has never experienced problems. He adds that many secular children also attend. "There isn't a lot of bonding between the religious and secular," Zohar admits. "But I don't think there's tension." Tel Aviv-Jaffa council member Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) says there is no demand in the neighborhood for the facilities that the haredi community has opened. "What they are doing is definitely part of a bigger purpose," she says. Zandberg offers her support to the secular community by attending their action-committee meetings, the most recent of which was held two months ago. "[The ultra-Orthodox] are trying to take over neighborhoods or at least to have a presence in a place that is known and famous for its secularity," Zandberg says. "They're saying that it's their civil right, their free right, to settle and live wherever they want. There is no law that prevents this, but it is also the right of the secular population to stand up against it and to try and keep the nature of their neighborhood as they would like to see it." Yifat Ilan, 38, who is religious, says it wasn't until the last few years that she felt a strained relationship between secular and haredi residents. She has lived in Ramat Aviv since she was two. When walking down the street - Ilan dresses modestly - she has been occasionally approached by secular residents, who have shouted at her, "Why are you moving here?" They see her as a representative of the entire Chabad organization. "Sometimes I think this issue will never be solved," she says. "But maybe the public will realize, with time, that what we need is to come together as a community and let the tensions subside." Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, where the religious-secular tension at the time this article went to print was still running high, finding a way for both sectors to live together is proving elusive. A main issue is the amount of available housing. "This problem creates an impossible reality, which forces haredim to live in secular neighborhoods," says Merav Cohen, a spokesperson from Hitorerut B'Yerushalayim (Awakening in Jerusalem) Party. The movement was founded a year ago to cater to Jerusalem's secular youth. While Jerusalem's haredim continue to move into the city's more secular areas, the housing shortage is pushing the secular community out into surrounding suburbs, Cohen said, adding that the only way to resolve secular-haredi tension is to open up dialogue between the two sides and increase the amount of housing available. Indeed, Ramat Aviv residents might be wise to look at the rocks flying and trash bins burning in the capital as a warning of what could happen in their own neighborhood, if the current dispute between secular and haredim is allowed to persist.