Country Club Pool Becomes Focus of Safed’s Weekend Culture War

Secular residents oppose the attempts by their ultra-Orthodox neighbors to have the club closed on the Sabbath.

Gil Eliyahu

On Friday evening in Safed, a group of about 80 ultra-Orthodox men and boys faced off against a similar number of secular men and women in a battle, perhaps the last, for the weekend character of the city.

The ultra-Orthodox were on one side of the eruv – a wire boundary that marks the area in which, according to Orthodox Judaism, Jews are permitted to carry items on the Sabbath – and the secular on the other, in an industrial zone at the edge of town. Suddenly, the Haredim began singing the Sabbath hymn "Lecha Dodi," written by Shlomo Alkabetz, who lived in Safed in the 16th century, and who is one of the city’s most salient symbols. The secular group joined in. Five policeman stood by with nothing to do.

The strange gathering was the latest incident so far in the struggle to keep the city’s country club open on the Sabbath. Traditional posters – pashkevilim – put up throughout the city called on the faithful to attend Friday’s protest. “We will not agree for the Sabbath to be desecrated any longer in the city of the Ari and Beit Yosef,” they read, referring respectively to Rabbi Isaac Lurie and a commentary by Rabbi Joseph Caro, both Safed luminaries of centuries past.

In response, a call was issued on Facebook by secular Safedites to stage a counter-rally.

The operator of the country club, Tzion Hallal, stood in the midst of the secular group and seemed determined to continue the fight to keep the facility open on the Sabbath. However, he told Haaretz beforehand that he would decide by the end of the month whether to fight, or to give in to the pressure to shutter it on weekends.

“If I decide to close, the last [secular] bastion in the city will fall,” he said.

The club, which was founded 30 years ago and is owned by the Safed municipality, has always been open on the weekend. Until about 18 months ago, Hallal said, it had about 100 ultra-Orthodox members and 300 secular or traditional members.

That was when members of Safed’s ultra-Orthodox community began to call for the closure of the facility on the Sabbath – and for its boycott until then. Things calmed down for a while after Hallal promised to close the club on Shabbat, according to representatives of the Haredi community. But they renewed their struggle when they saw he was not keeping his promise. “The Sabbath is our most precious thing and we won’t lend a hand to its public desecration,” an activist, who asked that his name not be used, told Haaretz.

According to Hallal, there are now only five ultra-Orthodox members left and ultra-Orthodox groups from the center of the country, who once came to use the pool, have started to stay away. “So far, I’ve insisted on keeping the place open on Shabbat, it’s a matter of principle for me.” However, Hallal says, the facility is hurting financially and things “might change soon.”

The Haredi activist explained that keeping the country club open on the Sabbath goes against the status quo in the city, because it is the only business open on the Sabbath. “We won’t agree for it to stay open. Keeping the Sabbath [laws] in the city is important to secular people too,” he said.

“The city’s rabbis decided that it is inconceivable for the Haredi public’s money to finance the activities of such a place. Everyone has the right to choose where they want to spend their free time and we don’t have to continue spending ours at the country club,” he said, denying that their actions reflected a culture war.

“I fear for the character of the city,” said Shalom Elbaz, one of the organizers of the secular counter-protest. Elbaz, 25, is native of Safed who defines himself as “keeping the commandments and holding a worldview of ‘live and let live.” If the country club closes on the Sabbath, Elbaz said, “the whole city can shut down; let it be closed up tight on the Sabbath.”

Elbaz said he expected Safed’s elected officials to instruct Hallal to continue operating the club on weekends.

“There were no problems for more than 20 years with the club. What happened? This is a war over the last place operating on the Sabbath. If we give up here, we’ll become Bnei Brak,” Elbaz said, referring to the ultra-Orthodox city in the center of the country.

Viki Alkabetz, an opposition city councilwoman representing the Labor Party, is the only elected official who has so far taken a public stand on the dispute. “The Haredi community is making harsher and harsher demands…I’m not against this community, I want to live together in mutual respect,” she said.

The Safed Municipality said in a statement: “The issue of the country club has been blown out of proportion. The country club has been open on the Sabbath since it was founded. It will continue to operate with respect and understanding and in the interests of the general public as it has been in recent years. Maintaining the status quo in the city is the unified position of all of its leaders and we regret that extreme elements from outside Safed are trying to undermine relations between the secular/traditional and Haredi communities.”