The Unorthodox ultra-Orthodox Mayor of One Israeli City

Haredim want to live well, too, insists Yisrael Porush, mayor of the ultra-Orthodox town of Elad. He’s overcoming a land shortage by forging ties with the Arab town next door.

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Porush's father, Meir, is seen in a car during mayoral elections in November 2008.
Porush's father, Meir, is seen in a car during mayoral elections in November 2008. Credit: Sebastian Scheiner, AP
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

Elad is probably a typical Haredi city, as far as the population is concerned, and the density of housing. But although unemployment among the ultra-Orthodox is notoriously low, Elad takes pride in having an employment rate of 86% (women) and 64% (men). As the mayor, Yisrael Porush, put it: “The residents want to live in a modern city with a high quality of life.”

Porush, 36, is a cool mayor. There’s no other word for this frenetic character, who scurries around day and night to improve his city, and breaks every myth held by non-observant Israelis about ultra-Orthodox wheeler-dealers. Porush is scion to a dynasty of Haredi wheeler-dealers – his grandfather was Menachem Porush, the mythological Agudat Yisrael Knesset member, and his father is Meir Porush, another veteran MK. Yisrael Porush deviated from family tradition and defied not a new myths the secular think about the observant, in order to turn his city Elad into a different kind of Haredi city, a modern, prosperous one, and there’s no inherent contradiction in those words.

How Porush deviates from the Haredi norm with his behavior is a story he can tell himself. He spends nights in clubs in Petah Tikva, where he finds dropouts from his city and brings them home, to make sure they don’t run riot on the bus. Back in Elad, he brings them to the roof of the mayoral office where he plays guitar and gives them alcohol, so they drink under his supervision, rather than in the clubs. If any show improvement in their behavior, they get a job at city hall.

He brings that same fighting spirit to his war against building violations. Because of their awful crowding, the Haredi cities tend to suffer from planning chaos. Not in his town, Porush announced, and even set out to vanquish one particularly well-known construction scofflaw. When that character died, since Elad has no funeral home of its own, Porush financed a 24,000-shekel burial site for the man in a next-door city. As the grateful family was accompanying the man to his grave, bulldozers were tearing down the illegal structure.

Winner of a turbulent race

Porush was elected about two years ago, after an especially turbulent mayoral race. Although Elad has a Sephardi majority and Shas chairman Arye Dery threw his weight behind the Sephardi candidate, heaven forbid an Ashkenazi princeling, Porush overcame his rival because of the horrible state of the city.

When the state began to build special cities for the Haredim in the 1990s and 2000s, there was basically no urban planning. The state basically tossed the Haredim into ghettos – Beitar Illit, Modiin Illit, Elad, Emanuel – but didn’t think about industrial zones or the cities’ economic balance. The result is heavy unemployment, partly because they don’t want to work and partly because there’s nowhere to work, and vast deficits

Until Porush, Elad had been running a deficit of tens of millions of shekels a year. The government even appointed it a special auditor. The residents were unhappy with the deterioration of their city and were charmed by Porush’s promise of change.

His first step was to fire the city’s entire top brass and to hire new people. His second was to find resources for the city – from donations to better management, to bring it to the break-even point.

Elad is the most promising of the Haredi cities, being located within the Green Line and very near the relatively large employment centers of Modi’in and Petah Tikva. But they’re not suitable to all, such as mothers with lots of kids who need to work.

Elad has 48,000 residents and 1,600 births a year: 63% of its people are aged 19 and up. It has 223 kindergartens, 25 Talmud Torah elementary schools for boys, 27 for girls and 27 yeshivas for boys. Its educational needs are huge and its resources to finance them are limited.

Porush brims with initiatives for employment and ways to increase the city’s resources. Elad is home to just about every Haredi employment venture imaginable: a placement program for Haredim, a program to teach computer use (on offshoot of the Administration College), an 012 call center and a Haredi software development center called Rabbi.dot.net.

Porush also negotiates with neighboring authorities to expand the city’s employment zones. He already reached accords with the South Sharon regional council to share income from a nearby quarry and income from establishing a new employment area. He’s also entering an employment zone partnership with the neighboring Arab town Kafr Qasm.

Want more? Porush is turning an archaeological site within the city into a park with a zoo, including for special education, and to introduce Haredi youth to environmental issues. Green issues are also dear to Porush’s heart: He proudly notes that the city has 55 playgrounds, 15 traffic circles, recycling bins, institutions for culture and leisure, and a large amphitheater. A community culture and sports center with a swimming pool is under construction after Porush managed to raise 80 million shekels for it.

Thus Elad has become a relatively clean, prosperous Haredi city, with high employment. Psst – about 40% of the men there serve in the army and even (shhhhh!), study for matriculation exams has sneaked into some of the boys’ schools.

He doesn’t hide his goal – for as many of the city’s residents as possible to work. But like other Haredi cities, Elad was erected precisely to house Haredim, without thought of their parnusseh. Thus it has zero land to develop employment areas, hence Porush’s moves with neighbors; it has no land even for a cemetery, let alone for the development of commerce. There is exactly one entrance to the city, though a new road is being built that would facilitate the development of business inside town.

Ending discrimination

Altogether, Elad, has less than 3,000 dunams of revenue-generating area. That averages 0.06 dunam per resident, compared with 0.31 in next-door Shoham or 0.71 in Rosh Ha’ayin.

Porush is determined to uproot the discrimination against Haredi cities and, belatedly, the state seems to be waking up. The Haredi community grows relatively fast, and the Housing Ministry is working on a plan for its housing over the next 20 years; that community alone will need some 200,000 housing units in that time.

The main recommendations are to wedge the Haredim into existing housing, or new neighborhoods in general-use towns and only to build special Haredi cities on the margins. The idea is to integrate them into general society, so Haredi neighborhoods in mixed towns sound like the best solution. If the Haredim recoil at living as a minority in a mixed town, or the non-observant mayors balk, the recommendation is to make their crowding even more intense – but for that to be viable, employment solutions have to be found.

“It’s true that the designated cities create a Haredi ghetto,” Porush agrees, and even admits that many of the Haredi cities suffer from poor management. But although the state will have to stuff even more Haredim into the existing cities, “something good is happening here,” he says. “Haredi cities have to grow and develop, on the base of economic and employment balances. In landscaping and cleanliness, Elad could compete with any city in Israel, and that’s part of the change that Haredi society is undergoing. The people want to live in a modern city with a higher quality of life. But for that, the cities need sources of income.”

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