Beit Shemesh residents decry ‘haredi only’ area

Panel claims high number of synagogues, lack of high-rise buildings indicate area is designed for ultra-Orthodox.

haredi women in Beit Shemesh_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
haredi women in Beit Shemesh_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
The Committee to Save Beit Shemesh submitted a petition on Thursday to halt the construction of a new neighborhood in Beit Shemesh it says is designated for haredim.
The group lodged the appeal with the National Council for Planning and Construction of the Ministry of the Interior. It claims that the proposed neighborhood, currently called Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel 2, is being designed specifically for the ultra-Orthodox sector and will change the demographic balance of the city.
“The appellants, representing the interests of thousands of residents of Beit Shemesh, are requesting that their city be saved... from the joint plan of the central authorities and the municipal authorities to designate Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel 2 for the ultra-Orthodox population alone, without having received a governmental decision [to that end] and without lawful authority,” read the appeal, which was lodged against the decision made by the Jerusalem Regional Committee for Planning and Construction.
Rabbi Dov Lipman, who heads the Committee to Save Beit Shemesh, pointed to an official document from the Construction and Housing Ministry dated September 2009 that he said indicated the neighborhood would be geared to the haredi population.
The document was addressed to Beit Shemesh City Councilman Moshe Montag of the haredi Degel Hatorah party who holds the city’s housing portfolio.
“In light of the possibility that that [Ramat Beit Shemesh] Gimmel 2 will be populated by an ultra-Orthodox population, an evaluation has been conducted of the program for public spaces [in the neighborhood] in accordance with the character of this population,” the document read.
The letter recommends that the Beit Shemesh Municipality approve the plans for public spaces in Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel, which provide for numerous religious establishments and educational institutes such as yeshivot, mikvaot (ritual baths) and synagogues.
Lipman told The Jerusalem Post that “at the very least, the document shows that the original plans for the neighborhood were designed for the ultra-orthodox sector.” The Committee to Save Beit Shemesh is a community group seeking to address the encroachment of radical haredi elements upon parts of the city.
Municipality spokesman Mati Rosentzveig sharply criticized the appeal and said that it was causing unwarranted argument and unnecessary delays.
“The thinking behind the submission of this appeal is that if they repeat the same lies over and over again, eventually those lies will be accepted by the public as true,” he told the Post.
“The mayor, the municipality administration, the Housing Ministry and the Israel Lands Authority have all openly said that the market is open to everyone,” he continued, labeling the claims of the petition “false and spiteful.”
Lipman emphasized that his organization “is not opposed to the construction of housing for the ultra- Orthodox in Ramat Beit Shemesh, but demands that an entire neighborhood not be designated from the outset for just one sector.”
According to Lipman more than 7,400 people have submitted objections to the plans for the new neighborhood.
The committee is also arguing that there are other flaws in the plan, stating that areas of natural beauty will be despoiled by the new construction and that plans for the city lack sufficient transportation infrastructure.
The committee hired a city planner to submit an alternate plan which would overcome these issues and design a neighborhood which would accommodate different sectors of the population as well as the ultra- Orthodox. The alternate plan was submitted as part of the appeal.
The petition the committee submitted to the National Council for Planning and Construction claims that the nature of the plans for the new neighborhood illustrates how it is being designed specifically with ultra-Orthodox residents in mind.
Attorney Rafi Ettinger, representing the Committee to Save Beit Shemesh, pointed to the 22 synagogues being planned for Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel 2 amid the proposed 1,800 housing units. Speaking to the Post, Ettinger claimed that this number represents a higher ratio of synagogues per unit than would be found in neighborhoods designed for a broader population.
Additionally, the petition points out that the absence of high-rise residential towers also indicates that the neighborhood is being designed for the ultra-Orthodox since that population will not use an elevator on Shabbat. The large number of plots designated for educational institutes also points to an ultra-Orthodox market, the petitioners say, since all haredi schools are gender separate, requiring twice as many school premises as secular neighborhoods.
Ettinger also claimed that the close proximity of residential housing units to each other and the small number of open and green areas also reflect plans to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox who are less concerned with such issues.
Rosentzveig rejected these claims and said that the petition was being filed because the opponents of the plans “have a ‘hatred of haredim’ problem and are simply afraid of market forces.” He argued that the severe lack of classroom space in the older Beit Shemesh neighborhoods has led to the current situation in which 300 classrooms are held in prefabricated caravilla-style buildings, a problem which the plans for Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel 2 try to avoid.
“When plans were submitted for [Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel 1, which is now under construction, it was originally slated to be one-third for the secular community, one-third for the national-religious and one third for the ultra-Orthodox,” Rosentzveig said.
“But because of opposition by the same people, the High Court of Justice eventually outlawed any predetermination of neighborhoods for specific sectors, and so this time the municipality guaranteed that it would not intervene and allow contractors to build as they see fit.
“It’s the same opponents this time round and they know that there is not much chance for these ridiculous appeals, they want just want to delay the neighborhood and get media attention,” he added.
The Committee to Save Beit Shemesh says that it only took the issue to court because, it claims, the municipality had reneged on the agreement and the neighborhood was being reserved for the ultra- Orthodox.
Rosentzveig also noted that plans were also being advanced in the municipality for the construction of 1,300 units in the city’s Bialik neighborhood for the general population as well as 330 units near the entrance of the city, also for the broader population.