How This City Became Israel’s Model of Jewish Religious Tolerance

Haaretz uncovers Modi’in's secret

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Modi'in in central Israel. Built from scratch 25 years ago, it recently topped a survey to find the most religiously tolerant city in Israel.
Modi'in in central Israel. Built from scratch 25 years ago, it recently topped a survey to find the most religiously tolerant city in Israel.Credit: \ Moti Milrod
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Nir Barkin, the senior rabbi of the Reform congregation in Modi’in, considers himself a lucky guy. Most of his peers in other Israeli cities have to beg and plead with the local authorities to get permission to use some temporary space for their annual High Holy Day services. And any concessions beyond that usually require drawn-out battles in court.

By contrast, the Reform community in this central Israeli city not only has its own respectable synagogue, it also has its own school. And it’s all funded by the municipality. Considering that Israel doesn’t officially recognize any Jewish movements aside from Orthodoxy, that’s quite a big deal.

“I definitely get equal treatment in this city,” says Barkin, a former kibbutznik who has served as a rabbi in Modi’in for the past 15 years. “I wouldn’t say I’m the favorite child here, but neither am I the kid who gets left out. When the mayor holds an annual toast at his office to welcome in the Jewish new year, I get invited, too. Some people aren’t so happy to see me there, but so what?”

A recently published, first-of-its-kind ranking found that Modi’in — built from scratch 25 years ago halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv — is the most religiously tolerant city in Israel. It came as a surprise to many Israelis who naturally assumed the title would go to the more cosmopolitan and hip Tel Aviv.

Rabbi Nir Barkin at a wedding in Modi'in.Credit: Courtesy

But not Barkin, who explains why he believes this city, of all places, made it to the top of the list.

“It’s a combination of bottom-up and top-down forces,” he says. “In terms of bottom-up, when Modi’in was founded it drew people mainly from two places — Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Those who came from Jerusalem were fleeing religious indoctrination, while those who came from Tel Aviv brought with them liberal values. The meeting between these two populations created this bottom-up force pushing for more open-mindedness.”

“As for top-down,” he says, “Modi’in has had three mayors thus far. They’ve come from different parties, but all three of them have shared a liberal take on matters of religion and state.”

The municipal ranking was published by Be Free Israel (also known as Israel Hofsheet), an organization that advocates for religious freedom and pluralism. In determining the ranking, the group looked at issues under the control of local governments such as whether stores are open on Shabbat, whether public transportation operates on Shabbat, whether options for nonreligious burial exist, whether the LGBT community and non-Orthodox congregations receive municipal support and funding, and how much power is exerted by the local religious council. The ranking included 24 cities.

Although Tel Aviv has many more restaurants, shops and theaters open on Shabbat than Modi’in does, Modi’in beat out Tel Aviv in two key criteria, which pushed it to the top. It offers residents civil burial services, and it has no government-sanctioned Orthodox religious council operating within its jurisdiction. Instead, religious services are provided directly by the municipality.

A cemetery in Modi'in. The city is unusual in offering civil burial services.Credit: \ Moti Milrod

Different forms of Judaism

According to Shaked Hasson, the public advocacy director of Be Free Israel, the fact that Modi’in started from nothing so recently gave it an advantage over existing cities. “It’s much easier, for example, to decide from the outset that you’re not going to have a religious council operate in your municipality than to shut down one that already exists,” she says.

Haim Bibas, currently serving his third term as mayor, didn’t grow up in a Reform or Conservative home, but he says he has no problem accepting different forms of Judaism.

“My motto in life has always been to live and let live,” says the 49-year-old mayor who was raised in the northern development town of Beit She’an and speaks fondly of his two Moroccan-born grandfathers, both of them Orthodox rabbis.

It’s the reason he has fought against government attempts to close down businesses on Shabbat through recently enacted legislation, he says. And it’s why he allots funding for special bus lines out of the city on Shabbat (albeit, only at certain times of the year).

Modi'in Mayor Haim Bibas. “My motto in life has always been to live and let live,” says the 49-year-old.Credit: Jorge Novominsky

“Pluralism is very important to us in this city,” he says. “We do everything to make sure nobody feels discriminated against or forced to do something against their will.”

About 95,000 people live in Modi’in and, according to Bibas, about one-quarter of them are religious, another quarter can be broadly defined as “traditional,” and about half are what Israelis typically describe as “secular.” Bibas, a long-standing member of the ruling Likud party, describes himself as “a traditional-secular Jew.” The city has drawn a healthy share of immigrants from English-speaking countries; the mayor estimates they account for about 5 percent of the population.

According to Barkin, the Reform congregation of Modi’in, known as Yozma, has about 1,000 members. That includes families with children attending its school and day care center, members of its synagogue and participants in its informal education and social justice programs. The Conservative movement has three smaller congregations in the city but no school of its own.

In addition to traditional-style Orthodox synagogues, the city also has several progressive Orthodox congregations, in which women fill more active roles. Along with standard, state-funded public and religious schools, Modi’in also has a mixed religious-secular school, called Yachad, considered a flagship of pluralistic education in Israel.

Yachad, Modi'in's mixed religious-secular school, which is considered a flagship of pluralistic education in Israel.Credit: \ Moti Milrod

Ofer Glanz, among the city’s original residents, was a founder of Shachar, a party that champions religious pluralism and focuses mainly on education. His successor, Moshe Levy, today serves as deputy mayor.

Glanz finds it somewhat strange that his city is considered such a model of religious freedom. “I would say that Modi’in doesn’t promote freedom from religion as much as it promotes the freedom to practice religion as you wish,” he says. “When there’s a critical mass of people here who want to do something a certain way, this is a city that flows with them. But it’s very different from Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is truly a secular city. Modi’in is not.”

If Modi’in, unlike Tel Aviv, offers its residents nonreligious burial services, that’s thanks to a decision that was made very early on, Glanz says. “It was one of the first issues that came up when Modi’in was founded,” he recounts. “Some of the local rabbis turned up their noses at the idea, but they didn’t do a whole lot to prevent it.”

As former head of the Shachar party, Glanz held the education portfolio in the city for six years. The fact that both the Reform and pluralistic schools receive city funding is no coincidence, he says, but rather the outcome of a deliberate policy adopted in the early days.

“When Modi’in was founded, one of the things we feared was that different groups would move in and try to create facts on the ground through their schools,” he says. “So we decided there would be no private schools. Everything would be subject to public oversight. And once enough people came forth saying they wanted a certain type of school, we would provide them with the funding.”

Glanz believes that “one of the greatest achievements” of the city — a decision by its first mayor — was to resist pressure to create an independent religious council. “In most cities, these religious councils are just a means for creating jobs and recipes for bureaucracy,” he says.

If Modi’in has evolved into a model for religious tolerance, its sizable English-speaking population is at least in part to thank for that, Glanz says. “These are people who understand what pluralism is about and do not consider it a dirty word,” he says.

The Reform congregation of Modi’in, known as Yozma, which has about 1,000 members.Credit: \ Moti Milrod

Diverse, to a point

Josie Glausiusz, a British-born science writer, moved with her family to Modi’in from Ra’anana, a city north of Tel Aviv, three years ago. The big draw for her was Darchei Noam, one of the Orthodox egalitarian congregations in the city. “We had friends who had moved here, and we came to visit them one Shabbat and really liked it,” she says.

But to her it’s still not the perfect place. “I like the fact that Modi’in has a very diverse Jewish population, but ideally, I’d like to be among people of other religions as well, and there are no such people in this city,” Glausiusz says.

Josie Glausiusz. “I like the fact that Modi’in has a very diverse Jewish population, but ideally, I’d like to be among people of other religions as well.”Credit: Courtesy

Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, has been living in this city for 15 years. He believes that its openness and tolerance on religious matters are part of a more overriding philosophy. “Since its early days, this is a city that has focused on providing the services its citizens need, and that means being as pluralistic as its citizens want to be,” he says.

But the results of last October’s municipal elections, he believes, suggest a growing fear among residents that the trend could be reversed. “Modi’in Free, a party dedicated to promoting religious freedom, went up from one to three seats in the last election,” he notes. “That’s a big increase, and it says to me that people here are worried.” (All told the city council has 19 seats.)

Shaked Hasson, the public advocacy director of Be Free Israel. The fact that Modi'in started from nothing so recently gave it an advantage over existing cities, she says.Credit: Ori Kol

Avi Elbaz, who heads Modi’in Free — currently the only party in the opposition — doesn’t believe the city deserves its newly won accolade. “It’s just not true that we’re the city with the most religious freedom in Israel,” he says.

“Anyone who put together a ranking that says we are simply doesn’t have their facts straight. They should come here on a Friday night, and then they’d see what a ghost town this is. Maybe there are a few places open, but it’s a drop in the bucket. It’s nothing like Tel Aviv. What’s more, the religious parties are gaining more and more control here.”

Bibas, the mayor, makes light of these accusations. “I’ve always fought to keep places open on Shabbat, but I can’t fight people who don’t want to keep them open,” he says. “It’s up to them. If they’re not keeping their shops open, that means it doesn’t make financial sense for them to.”

Comparing Modi’in to a city like Tel Aviv isn’t fair, he says. “We’re a city with barely 100,000 residents, and Tel Aviv has half a million, so obviously, many more places will be open there.”

As for charges that the religious parties are gaining more control in the city, he notes that only three members of the current city council are religious.

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