First female mayor of Beit Shemesh: There is strength in acceptance, love

After her exciting surprise win, the city’s new female mayor tells us about her plan to rise above religious struggles and create a richer, more varied Beit Shemesh that represents everyone.

NEW MAYOR Aliza Bloch at her victory rally. (photo credit: FASSY KRAUS DIGITAL)
NEW MAYOR Aliza Bloch at her victory rally.
(photo credit: FASSY KRAUS DIGITAL)
‘When I came to live in Beit Shemesh, I didn’t know anyone,” says Dr. Aliza Bloch, describing her anonymous arrival in 1992 with her husband, Aharon.
“We had decided that we wanted to live in a heterogeneous place. We wanted to raise our children in a place where they would meet different kinds of people – religious and secular, Ethiopians and Americans.”
Some 26 years later, having defeated incumbent Moshe Abutbul by 533 votes in an epic mayoral contest, Bloch has lost her anonymity. Her smiling visage, with her trademark beret jauntily draped over her black hair, has appeared in newspapers and websites around the world. She has arrived.
Bloch, who will take office on November 20, recalls Beit Shemesh of the 1990s.
“I came to a very small city, a friendly development town with the characteristics of a small town. It was a place where gaps and disparities existed between immigrants and veterans, between Ashkenazim and Moroccans. Since then, the population has increased more than fivefold, and the demographics have changed.”
She maintains that in many ways, Beit Shemesh today reflects the different populations and concomitant conflicts between these groups.
“We have issues between immigrants and veterans; disputes between haredim and secular; struggles between rich and poor; and the question of absorption and integration of immigrants into the society. All of the social issues that confront this country are found here.”
Beit Shemesh, in Bloch’s view, represents a microcosm of Israel’s social fabric.
“Beit Shemesh is a challenging place, but there is great opportunity,” she declares.
In recent years, the city’s social fabric has weakened, with numerous struggles between ultra-Orthodox elements and secular and religious Zionists, exclusion of women from the public sphere, and ugly graffiti instructing women to dress modestly when entering certain neighborhoods.
Beit Shemesh has been under haredi leadership since 2008, when Abutbul, a member of the Shas Party, was first elected. In October 2013, he won reelection in a bitter campaign marred by allegations of irregularities and wrongdoing. After the courts ruled election fraud had been committed, a second election was held in December that year, in which Abutbul again won, defeating his opponent by fewer than 800 votes.
Abutbul’s tenure as mayor was marked by increased tensions between haredi and national-religious elements in the city. Numerous allegations of corruption, preference in establishing haredi-only neighborhoods, and overall inefficiency were rife. There was growing unrest and dissatisfaction, even among haredi constituents, who were unhappy with the quality of services being provided, from poor design of roads to the lack of mikvaot (ritual baths) in certain neighborhoods, to substandard educational services.
Despite the dissatisfaction, as the 2018 election approached, few seemed to think that Abutbul could be defeated – least of all by a female, national-religious candidate. Yet, in the country’s greatest municipal upset, Bloch defeated Abutbul, due to a combination of Abutbul’s overconfidence and neglect of other sectors, as well as Bloch’s masterful campaign strategy.
Assaf Fassy, Bloch’s campaign manager, and Roni Rimon, the campaign’s chief strategist, realized that a negative campaign waged against the haredi sector would lead to defeat.
“Running a negative campaign is not Aliza’s way, nor is it ours,” says Fassy.
Fassy and Rimon made a strategic decision to run a positive, inclusive campaign, and to avoid negative campaigning at all costs.
“The other side [Mayor Abutbul] attempted to drag us into a religious war with all types of statements, in many different ways, but we were determined not to react to it at all,” he explains. “We feel that this was one of the most important factors in our victory. Aliza represents everyone.”
Managing the needs of all of the different groups in Beit Shemesh will not be easy, yet Bloch plans on continuing her inclusive campaign when she takes office.
“I am certain that it can be done,” she asserts. “As part of my campaign, I held parlor meetings in Russian, Amharic, French and with haredim. Beit Shemesh is a mosaic of different groups, and we need to approach these differences as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle. We have an opportunity to create a richer, more varied life in Beit Shemesh, and that is why I’m here.”
BEFORE ENTERING politics, Bloch was best-known as an energetic and able educator. She headed Branco Weiss High School in the city for 16 years and transformed it from a small junior high school to a 1,500-strong high school that boasts an almost 90% passing rate in Israel’s annual matriculation exams. She was awarded the National Education Award in 2011 and received her doctorate from Bar-Ilan University in 2016.
Her care and concern for others that she displayed as a high school principal augur well for Beit Shemesh residents. At age 42, nine months pregnant with her fourth child, Bloch greeted arriving students at the entrance to Branco Weiss school, rain or shine, each morning between 7:30 and 8 a.m. Her dedication extended beyond the students and faculties, as she frequently met with members of the cleaning staff, inquiring about their general welfare and their interactions with students. For Bloch, the cleaning crew, security guard and secretaries were all valued parts of the overall administrative staff.
In her pronouncements and plans for the city, she projects a successful administrator’s no-nonsense air of efficiency and competence. When asked if being an educational administrator qualifies one to be mayor of a city of 120,000, she bristles and says, “Management is management. The ability to understand the situation – to understand the specifics, to work with people, to set goals and move forward – in that respect, they are very similar. The ability to see the small details in the big picture is all part of management.”
She feels that educators who are capable managers and administrators are uniquely qualified for public service.
“A qualified individual who comes from the educational world is someone who understands people and processes, is sensitive to people’s needs, can lead and work with a staff. I would like to see more educators in key positions in public life.”
BLOCH DRAWS both her industriousness and ability to accept people as they are from the examples set by her parents. Her family came to Israel from Morocco in 1963 and settled in Kiryat Gat. Born in 1967, she was the first sabra in the family.
“I grew up in a home that gave us the strength to accept us as we are, with much love, and with a father who worked extremely hard. We grew up to be hard workers. In our house there were no formalities or excessive honor. My parents were down-to-earth. This is something that I want to bring to the office of mayor – to be down-to-earth, to speak candidly and directly.”
Bloch relates that her grandparents, who were observant, nevertheless respected and accepted others who chose a less observant path. Both her mother and her grandmother, she says, were opinionated, strong women, and undoubtedly, this quality was passed on to her as well. She speaks reverentially of her late father, a merchant, who she says, “was a man of Torah in the deepest sense of the term,” and whose liturgical skills were unsurpassed.
As the first woman mayor in the history of Beit Shemesh, she does not think that a woman mayor will look at things differently than a man.
“In the end,” she says, “it is a matter of people, not men or women. People are different – it’s not just men versus women.”
She says that her personal heroes – apart from her parents – are the many students that she has encountered throughout her educational career.
“When you see how a difficult student who challenged you has reached an amazing place and has achieved great things, it is a tremendous learning process as an educator. More than the teachers and lecturers, my real learning has come from my students.”
Bloch’s supporters in Beit Shemesh have largely been in a state of euphoria since her victory. Yet she realizes that once she takes office, she will need to produce results. What will she do first? She answers firmly and directly.
“First, we will quickly clean and beautify the city. Next, we are going to encourage entrepreneurs to invest in Beit Shemesh, to bring industry and hi-tech and turn it into a modern, attractive city that can become an economic powerhouse. Third, we are going to create a model educational system in the city, in terms of both building and development.”
As the interview draws to a close, Bloch, speaking with the experience of having lived in Beit Shemesh for 26 years and having worked closely with members of the English-speaking community in her campaign, says, “I want to encourage English speakers to come to Beit Shemesh, because it is an amazing place. It has great potential and we have the ability to create something special.”
While for some, Beit Shemesh is associated with unpleasant memories of extremism, hate and intolerance, she says, “The story of Beit Shemesh means that we need to stop looking at the stigmas and the externals.”
THIS PAST Saturday evening, Bloch hosted a triumphant victory rally (a “Bloch party”) for hundreds of her supporters in Beit Shemesh. The hall was festooned with blue, green and white balloons; the jubilant atmosphere was more akin to a wedding or bar mitzvah than a political gathering. In her address, she emphasized that she does not consider herself as representing one specific group.
“I am representing all of the sectors of Beit Shemesh – the haredi, the secular, the religious, the immigrants and the veterans, the old and the young,” she told the crowd. Had these words been delivered by a common politician, they would not have been taken seriously. Coming from Bloch, however, these remarks were considered honest and sincere.
Noting that she is about to begin her mayoral journey, Bloch concluded her remarks by reciting the traditional wayfarer’s prayer, in which the traveler beseeches God to protect “against enemy and ambush, from robbers and wild beasts.” While Bloch’s enemies over the next five years will likely be of the political variety, one can’t help but wish her well in repairing and renewing the fabric of Beit Shemesh. The trip will undoubtedly be eventful.