Culture War in Beit Shemesh Heats Up Over Outdoor Gyms

Municipality says eliminated gym for safety concerns; residents say there is religious coercion involved.

The Beit Shemesh municipality has decided to wipe out a free outdoor gym, which the city only recently built at a cost of hundreds of thousands of shekels, for safety concerns, says city hall. But residents, many of them Modern Orthodox, say there is religious coercion involved as part of an ongoing "culture war."

The residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef received the free outdoor gym a few months ago. It cost the city NIS 250,000. Activity on its machines has become a popular pastime for residents, many of them immigrants from English-speaking countries.

Ten days ago, a city bulldozer approached the park. When residents asked the driver what he was sent to do, he said he had been instructed to tear out the machines, but the residents blocked him from taking action. The driver later returned, and they again blocked his vehicle with their bodies.

Some residents told Haaretz they believe the city's new mayor, Moshe Abutbul of Shas, and his secular partners in the municipal coalition have given the town's ultra-Orthodox parties a green light and okayed the demolition in the framework of political haggling. The ultra-Orthodox are not happy with the outdoor gym because it brings women and men together in "immodest" circumstances, say city residents.

Abutbul and his deputy, Meir Balaish, told residents the demolition was decided on because the facilities were unsafe. A city spokesperson said the facilities were earmarked for removal after being mistakenly placed inside a playing area for very young children, and that residents had written the city that this proximity was dangerous. The city residents, represented by attorney Ariyeh Zuckerman, reject this explanation, and complain the demolition was decided on and almost implemented without consulting them.

Responding to complaints that the gym was earmarked for demolition because of modesty issues, an ultra-Orthodox politician from Beit Shemesh said: "This is not true. The demolition was not ordered because of modesty." He did, however, say the mayor has recently received complaints from "concerned" rabbis, who said the gym was offensive. In the meantime, the demolition has been put off until the next town council meeting, scheduled for next week.

The gym issue is the latest hot potato in the long-standing tense relations between ultra-Orthodox residents and their Modern Orthodox and secular neighbors in Beit Shemesh, which on occasion have erupted into violence and rioting.

Abutbul, who was elected in November, secured his victory by forming an alliance with ultra-Orthodox local politicians and with Labor's municipal list and some Likud list members led by Balaish. Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef is considered to be on the seam line separating the city's bloc of Modern Orthodox and secular neighborhoods from the ultra-Orthodox area and is therefore prone to conflict.