Beit Hakerem - The Last Secular Holdout in Jerusalem

Property purchases have made J'lem's secular 'islands' metamorphose into ultra-Orthodox communities.

It took about a decade for the small north-Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamivtar to change its skin. Now, after most of its well-to-do secular households have been replaced with ultra-Orthodox families, the metamorphosis seems almost complete.

For Yael Bar-On, the decision to leave was made four years ago, when it came time to enroll her 6-year-old son for elementary school. That presented a problem, because by then, the Bar-Ons were among the few remaining secular families in the neighborhood.

"The population of young couples with children had slowly disappeared," she recalled recently. "Only the older residents remained. The neighborhood's kindergarten and its secular schools just kept losing students."

Increasingly, the families replaced those who departed came from Ramot Eshkol, the Haredi neighborhood to Givat Hamivtar's west. Since the latter half of the 1990s, many relatively well-off people from Ramot Eshkol began buying homes in the secular neighborhood.

One secular school in Givat Hamivtar, Yad Hamoreh, has managed to hang on because it was declared a regional school, which allows it to receive students from several other north Jerusalem neighborhoods.

Unlike so many Jerusalem secular families in their situation, the Bar-Ons and their four children did not move to the coast, to the greater Tel Aviv area, although they had considered the possibility. Instead they moved to Beit Hakerem - the neighborhood on Jerusalem's western side that so many secular residents have come to regard as the city's "last secular island," as Bar-On calls it. She and other people living there say Beit Hakerem is the only thing keeping them in the capital, which is becoming increasingly ultra-Orthodox each year.

"Women can wear shorts here, and you can start the car on a Saturday without worrying about disturbing the neighbors," says Ephraim Schlein, a departed Beit Hakerem native who returned there in the 1990s. Many of his neighbors seem to share the sentiment. Schlein even compares the quarter to the boy with his finger in the dyke. By this analogy, when Beit Hakerem falls, there will be no stopping Jerusalem's "Haredization."

The flow of people leaving other Jerusalem neighborhoods because of their increasingly ultra-Orthodox nature has placed a strain on Beit Hakerem's schools. The fact that the area is home to some of the city's most prestigious educational institutions may also play a part in this.

On top of that, the veteran quarter has seen a brand-new secular neighborhood spring up to its east: Ramat Beit Hakerem. This neighborhood has 2,000 housing units, but no schools at all, despite the high percentage of young couples living there. Haim Rubenstein, who oversees Jerusalem's elementary education system, says this is the result of a miscalculation on the part of City Hall.

The new apartments - which come with relatively steep price tags - were expected to attract older owners rather than young couples with children. And indeed, many of them were bought by prosperous older businessmen - who then turned around and rented them out to young couples, he says.

"Still, we're talking about only 30 pupils who have to be sent to schools in other parts of town," he says. Rubinstein nonetheless concedes that Beit Hakerem could use a new school. But in the past few years alone, Jerusalem has seen five secular schools close down in other parts of the city. City officials are understandably reluctant to open a new school at a time when other ones are closing down.

Tali Yogev is fighting the city on this catch-22. She is a member of a forum of parents and educators from Beit Hakerem who organized as a pressure group last year to persuade the city to solve the local education situation. "Distributing pupils from Beit Hakerem to schools in other neighborhoods is not a solution," she says.