Less than two months after some 200 members of Beit Shemesh's heavily Anglo national-religious community demonstrated in front of city hall against the mayor's alleged favoritism for his Haredi constituency, the Shas politician appears to have retracted the two decisions that provoked the outrage. While some celebrate his about-face as "success," not everybody believes the power struggle is over.
Ongoing tensions between the two camps have reached news heights in June when Mayor Moshe Abutbol blocked the allocation of a plot of land to a young congregation led by English-speaking immigrants, which planned to build its first synagogue. Earlier this month, however, Abutbol apparently changed his mind.
"The municipality of Beit Shemesh has come to an agreement with the dozens of residents who have begun to move into apartments in the new neighborhood, about, on the one hand - the need to apportion space for their synagogue, and on the other - setting aside a place for the synagogue for the majority of the neighborhood's residents, who have not yet begun to live there," municipality spokesman Mati Rosenzweig told Anglo File this week. The municipality's policy "remains unchanged," he added, in that it "views the needs of all residents as equal."
In June, Rosenzweig had said the city did not find it appropriate to give the plot, which he called the "only public area in the neighborhood," for a synagogue when only 30 apartments out of a planned 700 were inhabited in the new neighborhood, called Nofei Hashemesh.
Congregation Nofei Hashemesh considers the city's sudden change of heart "a very significant success," its president, Jason Schwartz, told Anglo File. "The mayor and certain members of the city council have now expressed their support and have given us a location to put up a temporary structure within the Nofei Hashemesh community for a shul," explained Schwartz, who moved here from New Jersey in 2008. "At the same time, the city is bringing our request for a permanent site back to the municipality land allocation committee, where we believe it will be approved as we had originally anticipated."
The mayor also recently came under fire for reassigning a plot dedicated to a national-religious hesder yeshiva, which combines religious studies with army service, to Haredi institutions. This week, however, the yeshiva's director, Chagai Goldschmidt, told Anglo File his institution renewed negotiations with the municipality. While unwilling to confirm rumors the yeshiva and the city had reached an agreement, he said there were "signs" the yeshiva would be able to start erecting a building soon.
Just a few weeks ago, the city's Rosenzweig had told Anglo File the yeshiva's current location would serve their needs "for the coming years." This week, he said the municipality "awaits the yeshiva's official authorization" from the Defense Ministry, "at which time a proper and fitting place for it will be allotted."
The Nofei Hashemesh Congregation, half of whose members are native English speakers, is led by Rabbi Shalom Rosner, a popular Modern Orthodox leader who left his teaching position and pulpit in New York two years ago to head the new community. Some 60 member families gather for services and lectures in a local school and the rabbi's basement. Building of temporary structure started last week, Schwartz said, adding he hopes to hold High Holy Days there.
"Over the last few weeks we have seen real teamwork," Rabbi Rosner told Anglo File this week, "with all elements of the city council working to advance our interests." Schwartz, who was instrumental in organizing the demonstration a few weeks ago against the municipality, also spoke of "a newfound effort to work together toward the positive advancement of Beit Shemesh."
Schwartz added: "It's now our responsibility as citizens of Beit Shemesh to allow them to show that they will keep their word and work for the betterment of all demographics." Rabbi Boaz Mori, the head of a local national-religious yeshiva for English speakers, says the recent developments show Mayor Abutbol is indeed adopting a new policy. If in the beginning of his term, he might have favored Haredi institutions, he is now "trying to be a mayor for all citizens," Mori told Anglo File.
"I don't think that he's anti-national religious," the New York native, who moved to the city over a decade ago, said. "To a certain extent, the mayor had to please his constituency, the people who voted him into office, and therefore he immediately granted a lot of things to the Haredi community and because of that was ignored by the national-religious community. I think that now he's balancing things out."
Jacky Edry - the number-two man in the city council's largest opposition faction BeYachad - told Anglo File Abutbol has understood "he can't always fight" and has chosen instead a "path of peace." But a number of Beit Shemesh residents are skeptical about the municipality's backtracking. "The tide is definitely not turning," said Shalom Lerner, who heads the predominantly national-religious BeYachad. "The pressure helps, but it's still an uphill battle." The mayor only gave up on his opposition to the Nofei Hashemesh shul because "they had no legal leg to stand on," said Lerner, who was born in the U.S.
"The mayor is still pushing a Haredi agenda," he added, citing a letter in which the municipality's director-general, Matityahu Chutah, wrote that "actually, the population of the city of Beit Shemesh is Haredi in nature." Rosenzweig, the city's spokesman, told Anglo File that Chutah was referring to "the city's new neighborhoods [that] belong to ultra-Orthodox and other observant religious sectors."
Jonny Klompas, a Johannesburg-born Beit Shemesh resident, is also skeptical. If the national-religious community's recent successes show anything, it is that "any progress for our community... is unfortunately going to involve a hard and long fight," he said. "If there's a little victory here that's very good, but until I actually see them building the shul I would say, 'what's the next step, what's the next potential place for them to sabotage it?'"
David Stern, the editor of the local Connections magazine, also feels Beit Shemesh will for now remain "a vicious battleground" between the two communities. The victories regarding the Nofei Shemesh shul and the hesder yeshiva are merely "tactical" and while welcome "should be viewed as such," the U.S.-born journalist said. "The long-term health of this city will be determined by the willingness of the Haredi coalition to show that they can promote significant non-Haredi building and achieve a healthy and respectful balance between the two communities."
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