Jerusalem's secular residents have won an important victory in an ongoing battle against ultra-Orthodox groups over the fate of an open field in Kiryat Hayovel. Mayor Nir Barkat announced last week that the contested tract of land in the southwestern neighborhood of the capital would be used for a yeshiva - a secular yeshiva, that is.

The large barren field in Kiryat Hayovel has, in recent years, turned into a flashpoint between secular and ultra-Orthodox groups. The neighborhood has become a symbol of secular opposition to the increasingly Haredi character of Israel's capital.

The first shot in this kulturkampf was fired in the summer of 2008, toward the end of Uri Lupolianski's term as mayor of the city. The municipality - under Lupolianski, a Haredi mayor - decided to set up caravans on a large plot of land in the neighborhood, to provide preschools for Haredi children. Secular residents argued that the addition of Haredi preschools would accelerate the transformation of Kiryat Hayovel into an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

Esther Kirmaier, who spearheads secular protests in Kiryat Hayovel, recalls the moment when the residents began to fear for the future of the neighborhood.

"On a Thursday, tractors leveled off the plot, and they were supposed to bring the caravans the following Sunday. On Friday we held a residents meeting and on Saturday we set up a protest booth. On Sunday, trucks were not allowed into the area," recalls Kirmaier, who also chairs the Labor Party's Jerusalem branch.

"Until that weekend, fears about the neighborhood becoming ultra-Orthodox were not serious. People didn't really think there was a threat. I too said that what was happening wasn't so bad," says Kirmaier.

But the prospect of preschools being set up for Haredi children galvanized the secular residents into action. Protesters prevented the pre-fab nursery school buildings from being brought into the neighborhood. But the plan to establish the Haredi preschools in Kiryat Hayovel remained on the books. Since that weekend, the plot on Kiryat Hayovel's Warburg Street has remained the focal point of secular protests in the neighborhood.

Outdoor films and World Cup

Over the years, dozens of events have been staged at the site, to mark it off as secular space. Among other things, films were screened outdoors on the plot, and alternative Shabbat activities were held there. In the summer of 2010, residents watched the World Cup final on the plot, and recently trees were planted on it. Last week, Barkat released a statement saying that the plan to establish Haredi preschools on the plot would be scrapped. "The use of public areas in different neighborhoods should be tailored to the outlooks of their residents," the statement explained. "This approach promises good services, and minimizes friction between different population sectors."

Barkat decided that facilities for two institutions are to be built on the site: a pre-military program, established at the initiative of neighborhood residents, as well as a "secular yeshiva."

The yeshiva is designed for young people who have recently completed their military service. It will accommodate 15 pupils who live together for four-month periods, while studying religious texts, as well as theater, philosophy and music, and doing community service. "This is an academy for Jewish studies and humanities, and also helps young people become acquainted with Jerusalem," says Ariel Levinson, who heads the yeshiva's beit midrash (study hall ). "This plot of land was known as an area of contention, but our mandate is to unite people," says Levinson.

The yeshiva is currently located in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Kerem, and will move to Kiryat Hayovel as part of the agreement. The institution was established two years ago by a group of teachers, in cooperation with the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, the local community center and Yuvalim council of Jerusalem. One of the goals of the program is to entice young post-army Israelis to come to Jerusalem and develop a connection to the city.