Visions for a new Jerusalem
Secular residents see tiny rise in number of kids enrolling in non-religious public schools as the possible start of a new demographic trend in the capital.
After 15 consecutive years of declining enrollment in Jerusalem's secular public schools, this year 109 more children were enrolled in the city's secular elementary schools than last year.
The change is negligible in a city the size of Jerusalem, but secular people hope it signals a trend. "We have to keep watching it, but this definitely indשicates a rise in the number of young secular couples with children in Jerusalem," said Dr. Maya Hoshen, head of the research team at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, which compiled the figures.
The reasons secular people give for staying in Jerusalem or moving there rarely have to do with work, education or proximity to family. Some express it in terms of "love" for the city, or because it is the Zionist thing to do.
Shem and Gal Shemi are such a couple. Secular, in their mid-30s and parents of a three year-old, living in Jerusalem "was not a very logical thing to do," as Shem, a lecturer in philosophy and employee at a testing center, puts it. "People who move to Modi'in find themselves in a place where everyone is alike and it's terribly boring. What's beautiful about Jerusalem is its complexity, the mosaic."
"We left Jerusalem nine years ago and lived in Modi'in for two years, but we didn't find what we were looking for," says Gadi Orbach, who lives in the Katamonim neighborhood with his wife and three children.
Orbach, who was born in Jerusalem, says native Jerusalemites miss "something about the air, the atmosphere."
He also says the Jerusalem education system is better than the one in Modi'in. "We also felt that even if there is something missing that we want, we can create it." In fact, the Orbachs are part of a group that has founded a new Orthodox school in Katamonim.
Tali and Yaron Lipschitz also bucked the trend and moved from Modi'in to Jerusalem.
Tali says that despite the advantages of Modi'in, like a bigger apartment and lots of young people around, "It's interesting here, and that's what I missed."
None of those interviewed mentioned the increased ultra-Orthodox presence in the city as a problem, which lined up with the study's finding that economic or employment-related reasons are usually cited as reasons for leaving the city. The Lipschitzes live on Palmach Street, which has become Orthodox, though not ultra-Orthodox. "On Saturday we say 'Shabbat shalom' to the neighbors, get into our car and drive off; it's not a problem. But we do feel a bit special," Tali said.
In 2001, 13,886 children were enrolled in the capital's secular public schools, but migration out of the city brought down that number to 11,024 by last year. Now, surprisingly, the number is up by 109 to 11,133.
The number of Orthodox - but not ultra-Orthodox - children in the Jerusalem school system has been on the rise for several years.
The figures seem to contradict, if only slightly, the image of Jerusalem as being increasingly ultra-Orthodox.
There is still migration from the city - some 7,500 people left in 2011. But a comparison of that data with school enrollment statistics show that most of those leaving the city are young ultra-Orthodox families heading for ultra-Orthodox exurbs like Modi'in Ilit, Beitar Ilit and Elad.
One reason for this glimmering of a secular return to Jerusalem may be the return of a secular mayor, Nir Barkat, to City Hall for the last three and a half years. Another element encouraging secular residents is the proliferation of secular social organizations in recent years - Awakening, New Spirit and the Jerusalem Center for Young Adults, for example.
Yet another new trend is that of secular and modern Orthodox families joining together in community life in neighborhoods such as Katamonim and Baka, which have become magnets for secular families.
A list of Hebrew acronyms and terms have developed to describe the endless shades of religious observance as well: datlash - formerly religious; datlap - sometimes religious; "transparent skullcap," etc.
Rabbi Uri Ayalon, a Conservative rabbi, has become a leader of the capital's secular community through the organization Yerushalmim.
Ayalon cites still another reason for the secular mini-trend in the capital: The collapse of the housing market in the United States, he says, has stopped the sale of properties in Jerusalem to American Jews, while purchase and rental prices have stopped rising.
Ayalon says last year's uptick in the number of secular children in the school system does not surprise him. "There is no doubt the secular population is beginning to raise its head. They feel less oppressed. People want to be with winners. The moment they feel, 'my people are here,' and not because they have no choice, it has an impact," he says.