Notes From the ultra-Orthodox Underground

While mainstream Israelis protest the high cost of housing in tent camps around the country, in the subterranean parking lots of high-rise apartment buildings in Jerusalem, Haredim are living in improvised dwellings.

About two years ago, R. decided to leave Jerusalem. At the time she was raising her nine children in a small three-room apartment in the heart of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. It was crowded, but she didn't complain. It was important for her to live near her family and her female friends. It was important to her husband to be near the Hasidic institutions where their children were being educated. But when the legs of her 18-month-old baby began to protrude from the bars of the crib in the parents' bedroom, she knew there was no choice.

"I had no place to put the baby," says R., who is in her late 30s. "The older one, who is 3 years old, was already using the baby bed, and the children's room was too crowded."

Parking lot dwelling in Jerusalem (Alex Levac)
Alex Levac

Aside from the baby's crib, three additional beds were made up in her and her husband's room every evening. The three older girls slept in the living room - on the sofa and on mattresses spread on the floor in the evening. When the older, 15-year-old son came home from the yeshiva, they put a folding bed for him opposite the front door, because "he didn't want to sleep with the girls," she says. From the moment he closed his eyes, at about 10 P.M., she says, "we were under house arrest."

R., who asked not to be identified, says that even when she was caring for an infant, she was always thinking about another child. And, aside from the bathroom - wasted space, unfortunately - there was nowhere for another crib. And what about the next one? And the one after that?

It wasn't an easy decision to start anew. Indeed, R. describes it as an "earthquake." But after one year of living in a rented apartment, they sold the small apartment in Jerusalem and purchased the rented apartment in Betar Ilit with a small mortgage. "Today I'm living in a palace," she says. "I still have almost no furniture. Just let me be able to see the tiles on the floor. But socially I'm cut off."

R. is now in the midst of hunting for an apartment for her eldest daughter, who recently got engaged. As is common among Hasidim, the parents from both sides pay the mortgage, usually for the first two years, with the burden divided equally between the two families. That's meant "to enable them to finish studies, to concentrate on each another and to build their relationship as a couple in peace and quiet," according to R.

How will she be able to handle an additional mortgage? It's not clear, unless she takes "desperate measures," as she puts it - meaning selling her apartment again and moving to a smaller rental apartment. That is a solution adopted today for lack of choice by some ultra-Orthodox parents, in order "to give the children something," she explains.

In the meantime, R. still hasn't found a suitable apartment for the young couple. In Betar Ilit, south of Jerusalem, for example, 45 extremely small, three-room apartments were on offer, at what she considered an astronomical price: about NIS 700,000 ($200,000 ).

"In spite of the high price, over 1,000 people made offers on them, and they were snatched up," she says.

She was already emotionally prepared to see her daughter move away from her and live in the north. But her husband objected: "He doesn't want our daughter to live in a place where there are only members of our circle [in a Hasidic enclave]. It's not healthy. He wants varied surroundings [as in Betar Ilit's more diverse community]."

"There's no end to our housing problems," R. adds. "When I married, 20 years ago, we lived under the stairs. What has changed since then? We used to laugh and cry together with the neighbors. We looked out on the parking lot."

In one of the capital's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, in several huge middle-class apartment complexes, a kind of underground city of illegal apartments has materialized in the buildings' spacious parking lots and storerooms. A week ago rows of doors to such apartments could be seen on the third and fourth levels of underground parking garages. To open the doors of their "homes," tenants needed to squeeze between cars parked nearby. Some have left furniture, toys and bicycles - anything that doesn't fit into the small housing unit - in the parking lots, as though marking out territory. The car owners do them a favor and try not to park in front of the door.

Tenants of these improvised dwellings, which average 25 square meters, estimate that there are dozens in each complex. In most cases, the owners live upstairs, in spacious apartments with nice balconies, and it is they who took the initiative to create the subterranean flats: With a small investment they turn their storerooms and parking spaces into apartments. The construction is illegal, of course, but it can yield a nice rent.

One such underground complex looked like a ghost town on a recent morning - a strange, dim place, where sounds of welding could occasionally be heard, and where water and filth have accumulated. Toward noon, tenants returned home from various pursuits and stood chatting with the neighbors.

Meanwhile, this "city," in the Romema neighborhood, is expanding and businesses are opening up in it: On the underground floor of one building, next to a row of garbage cans, there's a day-care center; on another, a clothing store. There are also offices: an accountant, teachers of halakha (religious law ), etc.

A resident explained that the municipality occasionally sends an evacuation order, which causes panic.

"I have an apartment, but there are debts on it and I can't live in it," she said. "I rent it out and live on the difference between my rent here and the rental money I take in." She is a mother of two, her husband is a yeshiva student and she doesn't work. The monthly rent for the apartment, barely a room and a half, is $650 (about NIS 2,000 ) without utilities.

Compared to her neighbors on the other side of the building, she's lucky: In her underground apartment, she has a tiny sukkah-balcony that overlooks an open-air parking area, and which lets in light and air. In some of the apartments the windows face a ventilation shaft. Her children, she says, stay at home most of the day. In the afternoon they go out to the park.

Her next-door neighbor says the only thing that bothers her about the apartment is that people ask: "How can you live here?" She says it's the only way she can afford to live in Jerusalem, but soon she'll have to look for another home for her growing family. If she doesn't find something at a reasonable price, she will return to her native country, England.

Increasing 'schnorr'

The Haredi public is growing substantially. At the same time, its per-capita income is on the decline, in comparison with the general public. Above all, "there's a greater need for apartments for the children, and therefore everyone has the same problem," says Yechezkel Rosenblum, an attorney and representative of the "Tov" movement in the Israel Bar Association, who specializes among other things in handling housing problems in the Haredi sector. He adds that, "the Haredi public felt the dimensions of the housing crisis before everyone else. It feels it more strongly."

Beneath the surface there are, in fact, some changes taking place. These include a decline in the community's birth rate, and an increase in the number of men leaving the study houses to acquire an education and to work - but these are slow processes with no immediate effect on poverty-stricken families, or parents who have to purchase an apartment for their children.

"If once it was clear that parents purchase apartments for their children, and anyone who didn't give the children an apartment was an exception, today it's starting to be accepted that this doesn't happen," Rosenblum explains.

But that's not what A. says. He is a Gur Hasid whose children are approaching marriage age, who claims that "if the other side has nothing to give, there's nothing to discuss." A. says that the phenomenon of Haredi schnorrers (a Yiddish term for people who scrounge money ) - emissaries who raise money for local educational institutions and yeshivas in Jewish communities abroad - has expanded, and today there are many private individuals who go from house to house trying to collect money for their own children.

An Internet surfer who calls himself Etnahta, and who apparently lives abroad, discussed the problem this week on the Haredi forum Behadrei Haredim: "In spite of the profound recession here [the United States], the Israeli schnorrers have recently multiplied in an unprecedented manner. I can't recall so many schnorrers from all circles and of all ages as there have been recently. In general, there's a new phenomenon, by which young men - rather than their fathers - claim that they are arranging their own marriages, and so come to schnorr. It started two years ago and has turned into a real deluge."

Why haven't attempts to build Haredi tent cities in Elad, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as part of the current protest succeeded? R. thinks that "it would be a desecration of God's name if Haredim join, because it would give rise to condemnations [from other protesters], which have already been heard." But from afar, she says she supports the protest movement that is emerging out of Tel Aviv, and hopes that the effort will bring salvation to her too.

Rosenblum says that the nature of the current protest does not suit the Haredi sector. Says Aharon Yakter, a building contractor from Bnei Brak: "I don't know any Haredi woman who would go sleep in a tent. They won't split up their families." Nor is there any rabbi who would permit such a protest. "If there were a different [type of] protest, people would join," Yakter is convinced.

One evening last week he saw his childhood home while walking around the Rothschild Boulevard encampment. During his youth he used to play here, at the corner of Sheinkin Street. In the 1970s and '80s, a lively Haredi community lived in Tel Aviv, especially in the heart of the city around Rothschild. Gur Hasidim had been living in the city since its early days, and they built a large number of shtiebels (small synagogues that conduct prayers around the clock ). The previous Belzer rebbe, Aharon Rokeach, settled in the area even before the establishment of the state. A Gur heder (a school for primary school-age boys ) was located at the corner of Sheinkin. The girls studied at a Bais Ya'akov seminary near the marketplace.

When the children grew up and apartments had to be purchased for them, Yaktar recalls, Tel Aviv was too expensive, so they bought in Bnei Brak. After that the city's Haredi population lost its young people: After they inherited their parents' apartments, and the central Tel Aviv area became trendy, they sold them to the highest bidder.

Yaktar speaks of those years in Tel Aviv with nostalgia: "I grew up here until the age of 18. They never yelled 'dos' [a derogatory term for the ultra-Orthodox] at me. We had good neighborly relations. Secular neighbors came to my bar mitzvah and brought gifts. We bought at the same grocery store, they used to give us a corner of kosher products. If a girl in pants walked in, it was no problem."

Inwardly, Yaktar is critical of what he calls the parve (bland ) nature of their protest. He saw the actors, the storytellers, but when he returned at midnight, he says he noticed that the place was abandoned. The protest seems too refined to him. He thinks that the Tel Avivians on the boulevard don't know the real meaning of a housing shortage.

"People ask me, for example, to turn a 23-square-meter storeroom on the roof into an apartment for a young couple," he explains. "Or to add a garbage room to a building's gas-tank room. I arranged a kitchen corner with two sinks, dairy and meat, a tiny room and a living room. When they have to separate boys and girls, they'll move. Meanwhile the young couple buys an apartment in the north and rents it out. They say, 'We have no choice, we'll suffer for two years and we'll save.' Or they take 90 meters and divide it into four apartments. They charge NIS 2,500 rent for each. It's a matter of supply and demand, but I often see that those who rent out the apartments don't get rich. They also have an apartment to pay for."