New kids on the block
An ultra-Orthodox, right-wing yeshiva set up on the grounds of an old synagogue in Ramat Hasharon is prompting protests from the neighborhood's well-heeled residents. The municipality now admits proper permits were never obtained
Avi Adler (53 ) and Sigal Barak (49 ), both veterinarians, live in a one-family home in the Morasha neighborhood of Ramat Hasharon with their three children, a cat and a dog. They've lived there for 17 years."We're mainstream," says Avi. "We've never been active in a party or movement, and we don't want a revolution."
Behind their home is a 30-year-old synagogue. "We've never had any problem with it," he continues. "They have celebrations there, and there's some praying on Saturdays and Yom Kippur. It didn't bother us."
Three years ago, their tranquility was disrupted. "Different sort of people showed up at the synagogue, people who looked different and weren't typical of the neighborhood," says Sigal, who grew up in Ramat Hasharon. "At first there were 10, filtering in one at a time. Then 20, and now a few dozen."
"It was strange," adds Avi. "Suddenly the lights in the synagogue were burning 24 hours a day. The noise was intolerable. There was lots of singing and shouting."
They soon learned that the small neighborhood synagogue that once "barely drew 10 old men," had turned into a yeshiva attended by dozens of loud young men that also had a kitchen and dining room.
The couple met with Ramat Hasharon Mayor Itzik Rochberger, who promised their quality of their life would not be affected. The following day, they were surprised to see the director of the yeshiva, Netanel Siman Tov, at their door. "We're not used to having people like this here on a daily basis," Sigal says. "He had this sort of permanent smile on his face, but the things he said scared me a bit."
Siman Tov offered to help: He would send an expert to measure the noise level and pay for double-glazed windows on their home, or even erect a wall around it. "I don't live in the West Bank and I don't need a protective wall," Sigal replied. "I want to go out into my garden."
In the meantime, the noise level kept increasing. "On Fridays and Saturdays it was unbearable," says Avi. When other neighbors began to complain about the problem, the couple understood they were not alone. Eighty people signed a petition that was sent to the municipality. They did not receive a response, and it soon became clear that the directors of the yeshiva had a close relationship with the municipality.
The yeshiva, it turned out, belonged to a right-wing religious organization called Sha'alei Torah, which has hundreds of members throughout the country. Its Internet site says that it has "succeeded in leading a genuine social revolution." The group is headed by Rabbi Rahamim Nissimi, who is active in the Habayit Hayehudi party and was the first demonstrator jailed for blocking roads during the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The declared aim of the organization's Ramat Hasharon branch is "to spread Torah, faith and Jewish culture among all sectors of the population."
Organization documents show that it has received NIS 160,000 from the Ramat Hasharon municipality in recent years, enabling it to run educational activities in nurseries and schools, as well as in community centers around the city. In response, the municipality said that the all decisions regarding funding are carried out legally by a professional committee.
Siman Tov, 30, who represents Sha'alei Torah in Ramat Hasharon, moved to the city seven years ago together with several families from the Mitzpe Jericho settlement where he was raised and educated. "We'd had enough of ghetto culture, where each group lives among its own," he says. "Although this is the way we grew up, we have chosen to raise our children differently." He and his wife live in Ramat Hasharon with their four children.
The purpose of their move, he says, was "spreading Torah in the Dan region" of central Israel. In an interview he gave to the Rosh Yehudi circular two years ago, Siman Tov said that "the Dan region is the nerve center and focus of decision-making [in the country]. So being able to wield influence there has a direct effect on the image of the state of Israel." He added: "I need crazy people. We are looking for people who are crazy about doing this. Only crazies need apply."
Today, he is quick to allay the fears of neighborhood residents. "Trying to encourage people to become religious? Religious coercion? Absolutely not," he said this week. "We came here to strengthen Jewish identity in Ramat Hasharon. Whoever thinks that the Bible is the sole property of the religious is reinforcing the ghetto mentality. It's a stigma we need to get rid of."
He categorically denies allegations made by some residents that his yeshiva houses so-called "hilltop youth" - extremist rabble-rousers from West Bank settlements and outposts. "Some of them are indeed from Judea and Samaria," he responds. "But there are a quarter of a million legal citizens there. Why make it a derogatory term?"
He keeps letters of support and praise for his educational activities - from the Education Ministry, teachers and even the police - in a thick binder. "This is hilltop youth? Yes, they have ear locks, but I don't recall that it's illegal to grow ear locks and wear a large yarmulke in Israel," he says.
Three months ago, Adler and Barak petitioned the administrative court to remove the yeshiva permanently. They allege that the yeshiva has occupied the synagogue illegally, violating the building code and creating safety problems in the process, and that its activities disturb the residents and affect their quality of life.
In response, the Ramat Hasharon municipality said that the yeshiva was established without a permit, and that it has closed its dining hall. It added that it attaches great importance to preserving good relations between religious and secular residents of the city, but that it will not allow the neighborhood's peace to be disturbed. The court has ordered the city to resolve the matter by mid-month.
The protest against the yeshiva is being led by the Be Free Israel movement, which has noted that the Ramat Hasharon incident is only one example of a phenomenon affecting all of Israel. "The problem is not the yeshiva itself, but the municipalities, who for political reasons abandon the citizens and allow these groups to enter neighborhoods, carry out missionary activities and change their character," said Miki Gitsin, the movement's director, who is leading similar battles in other Israeli communities. "The fact that the Education Ministry supports these activities and allows tradition to be taught by extremists is quite disturbing," he added.