Unity and diversity

New educational, cultural center being built to serve, strengthen the national-religious community in Beit Shemesh.

Beit Shemesh center 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beit Shemesh center 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The national-religious community in Beit Shemesh is feeling confident that the acrimony and violence it experienced last fall, which was widely reported in national and international media, has come to an end and that their neighborhoods will now remain peaceful.
Indeed, a new, 1,000-square-meter multi-purpose educational and cultural center on the state religious Orot school’s Ramat Neria campus is slated for completion by the end of 2013, and supporters say it should solidify the religious Zionist presence in that area.
The building will be adjacent to the Orot Elementary School, where extremists in the bordering haredi (ultra- Orthodox) neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet taunted schoolgirls and damaged school property exactly a year ago.
The center is a project of Sha’alei Torah, a religious-Zionist network of Torah-based communities that, according to its literature, was established in 1988 “to bring about real, long-term change in Israel’s social and geographic peripheries.” The Orot schools in Beit Shemesh are under the Sha’alei Torah umbrella.
Part of the motivation behind the extremists’ actions last year was a desire to obtain the school building – a municipal structure – for their own schools.
However, the building housing the new educational and cultural center does not belong to the city.
It “will always belong to Sha’alei Torah, because we’re building it with funds raised for this purpose,” says Jordana Klein, a spokeswoman for the network. The municipality has already authorized the land on which the center is being constructed, for Sha’alei Torah’s use.
The center will constitute “a stabilizing factor for the dati leumi [national religious] community,” Klein states.
Rabbi Rahamim Nissimi, Sha’alei Torah’s executive director, affirms this.
“It will strengthen the dati leumi position by establishing strong roots,” he says. “You can see that they’re now building more [homes, shopping malls and businesses] in the surrounding area and that people feel positive about their future. Thank God we succeeded last year in quashing the negative situation; otherwise, it would have been terrible.”
Until recently, “people had been worried,” Klein says. “They wondered: Is the city becoming haredi? Will the dati leumi have to leave?” But instead of taking last year’s attacks lying down, the religious Zionist leadership organized protests and defended their right – and the rights of all of the area’s residents, including a significant secular population – to live in freedom and tranquility without having to move away. The area has been quiet now for many months, and the elementary school girls have been walking to school without facing insults and threats.
According to Klein, the secular and national-religious communities “handled the conflict with grace. The demonstrators didn’t call for revenge.
They called for peace and respect, and I feel that we have reached that place.”
She notes that “there seems to be some awareness in the haredi community that conflict won’t serve their community,” and she acknowledges that the extremists represent a tiny yet vocal minority among the haredi population.
“I’m not privy to what goes on inside,” she says. “But the point of conflict has passed. Since things have calmed down, people have found ways to live together with respect and tolerance.”
According to Sha’alei Torah literature, the new center “will serve as a cornerstone of the national religious population in Beit Shemesh as well as a beacon of hope for the underprivileged youth population in nearby neighborhoods.”
It will be accessible not only to the approximately 900 pupils attending the Orot elementary schools – one for boys and one for girls – but also to those from other schools and varying backgrounds.
Among the buildings facilities will be a gymnasium for school and after-school sports, an assembly hall and a center for educational testing, remedial education and support services. The hall will be used for school ceremonies, prayer services, community events and performances.
The support center will also serve as a memorial to Rikki and Rachelli Menora, former students of the Sha’alei Torah girls’ high school who were killed in an airplane accident on July 13, 2010, along with their grandfather and cousin.
Their mother, Sima Menora, created a foundation in the girls’ memory, known as DROR (Hebrew for “freedom,” and an acronym for Derech Rikki v’Rachelli, “the path of Rikki and Rachelli”). The nonprofit organization’s stated goal is “empowerment of girls and young women.” In keeping with this, the center will provide evaluations, personalized tutoring, remedial education, educational support and therapies – for both girls and boys, as well as new immigrants.
Klein explains that one of the Menora sisters benefited greatly from an educational evaluation and strategic support, which is why the center is such a fitting commemoration.
Plans for the new center have been in the making for at least three years, according to Nissimi.
Both he and Klein stress that Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul has been completely supportive of the undertaking. Architectural plans are “complete and ready to go,” Klein says.
Also missing in Beit Shemesh, according to many residents, is recreational programming for teens and young adults, many of whom often travel to Modi’in or Jerusalem for lack of facilities in their own city. Klein discusses the possibility of using the new building for these purposes as well.
“If we have the funding, we would be happy to have the premises available for us 24/6,” she says. “We’re very flexible about meeting the needs of the community and working with donors to get the projects going that they like.”