When Baltimore native Elli Fischer drove past Modi'in's Anabeh Park during the Sukkot festival this week, he witnessed firsthand an ultra-Orthodox couple being denied entry due to a controversial new policy that restricts holiday admission to local residents.
Fischer, himself a Modi'in resident, stopped his car and arranged to have the family of five admitted as his guests - but not before arguing with park officials.
"The policy is nothing but thinly veiled anti-Haredi bigotry," Fischer, a writer, translator and ordained rabbi, chided the park officials.
Last week, before the onset of the seven-day Sukkot festival, the Modi'in-Maccabim-Reut municipality decided to close the popular park to nonresidents of the three communities in its jurisdiction, citing "overcrowding." It's the latest volley in a saga that has pitted the municipality against the mayor of the neighboring Haredi community of Modi'in Illit, Yaakov Gutterman, who recently announced that its archaeological sites would be closed to non-Haredi visitors.
Fischer, 36, suggests the new policy is linked to an incident that occurred in the park during this year's observance of Passover, when a female performer at a concert was asked to step off the stage by Haredi members of the audience.
Nothing, he says, can justify the exclusion of citizens - a principle to which many among Modi'in's burgeoning Anglo community are particularly sensitive, he explains. "Americans in particular grew up with the legacy of the fight for civil rights as a part of our cultural DNA," said Fischer, who invoked the images of separate water fountains for blacks and whites in the United States. "I think it very much affects the way that we relate to issues of discrimination and bigotry, whether it's against Haredim, Arabs or African migrants."
Outside the park, a Hebrew sign posted at the entrance advised residents to bring their ID cards "during holidays and vacations." On Tuesday there were brief scuffles at the park's entrance where visitors were asked to produce their IDs.
New York City native Alex Weinreb, the former deputy mayor of Modi'in who now serves as a voluntary city councilman, expressed outrage over the new policy.
"I am embarrassed to be a member of the municipality because of such a wretched decision that in my view is illegal," Weinreb, now an environment consultant, said in a statement that was included in a pre-holiday newsletter that he shared with Haaretz. "I demand the immediate cancellation of this decision." Weinreb said a sign should be placed at the park's entrance welcoming "all residents of the State of Israel during the holiday of Sukkot." He called for stricter enforcement in the park that would "maintain order, prevent vandalism, maintain cleanliness, and regulate overcrowding."
Former Boston resident Reuven Harow - a financial executive who lived in Beit Shemesh before he moved to Modi'in in 2009 - says he knows all too well about secular-religious tensions, citing the Passover incident in the park as a worrisome harbinger. In fact, for him, the large presence of Haredim in the park has become something of an issue.
"It's not a comfortable thing when people come to Modi'in to live freely in their own way and feel sort of oppressed and put-upon," said 42-year-old Harow. "But it's not just the issue of the park," he added. "It's the feeling that we're being invaded."
Asked whether he feels the new park policy is fair, Harow lets out a deep, exasperated sigh. "I think it's wrong, but I'm not sure what's right," he laments.
Meanwhile, Modi'in resident Rachel Green, 42, an Edison, New Jersey, native who immigrated to Israel in 2002, has been following the controversy on the city's Anglo ListServ, where residents have been weighing in, venting and proposing solutions.
Green maintains the new policy is not a Haredi issue and considers the Passover incident in the park "an isolated case."
"People were coming into the park who were mostly outsiders, and they were trashing the park," she said. "But I don't think closing to park to people outside of Modi'in is the solution. Maybe crowd control?"
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