Jerusalem Neighborhood Gets ultra-Orthodox Flavor, but 'Nobody Wants the Radicals' There

Some locals consider this a disaster, others say change reflects the capital's gradual transformation from a segregated city into one of mixed neighborhoods.

Haredi families buy up apartments vacated by secular residents, a glatt kosher supermarket opens, and other apartments are turned into synagogues. It's Jerusalem's Gilo Aleph neighborhood, another area in the capital going ultra-Orthodox.

Some local people consider this a disaster, but others say the change reflects the capital's gradual transformation from a segregated city into one of mixed neighborhoods.

Haredim - Alex Levac
Alex Levac

"About 80 percent of the people who've bought apartments here in recent years are ultra-Orthodox," says Alex Greenman, the owner of a local real estate agency. "They've come from the Bayit Vagan and Ramot neighborhoods, not from Mea She'arim" - the hard-core ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in the city center. "And first they make sure Gilo has institutions that suit them."

The tenants at 7 Shayish Street are embroiled in a struggle for their building. It's an apartment complex designed by Israel Prize winner Ram Caspi in the early 1980s, with a tropical-style garden in the courtyard.

An ultra-Orthodox family bought two apartments on two floors and broke down the walls between them. The family opened a synagogue and yeshiva in the first-floor apartment and built a toilet in the courtyard for the students and worshippers. In the other apartment, they broke down a wall to build a balcony.

The other tenants complained to the municipality, which issued a demolition order for the illegal construction. But the Haredi owners petitioned against the demolition and the court temporarily postponed it.

A municipal spokesman said the city's legal department is preparing an indictment. "The city is acting to preserve the neighborhood's cultural identity in keeping with that of the residents," he said. "This includes building public institutions and schools suitable to the neighborhood."

But the incoming family sees things differently.

"We've contributed our home to the neighborhood, while all 14 of us are crowded into three rooms," says Shlomi Maimon, whose family bought the apartments. "We've changed the roof, but apart from that we've done nothing. This isn't Mea She'arim. People live in peace and love, and we hope to continue that way. Nobody wants the radicals here."

According to Eli Harel, chairman of the parents committee at the neighborhood's religious school, "The clothes in the street are leaning in the ultra-Orthodox direction."

Most ultra-Orthodox residents come from Bayit Vagan and Ramot, they all work and are looking for a suitable environment, says Yuval Cohen, owner of the neighborhood mini-market. A few years ago, a glatt kosher supermarket was built nearby.

Until recently, Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox people lived mainly in the north of the city, while secular families lived in the south and Israeli Arabs in the east. Gilo is located in the deep south, on the edge of the city's secular area.

Local people say the ultra-Orthodox families are not hard-core, extreme Haredim. Most are working people, some are newly religious or of North African or Middle Eastern origin, associated with the Shas party. Others are members of the Chabad movement.

These families no longer want to live in all-Haredi neighborhoods in the city's north and center and prefer a mixed environment, says Amiram Gonen, an expert on urban residential trends at Hebrew University's geography department.

In the future, the city will no longer be divided clearly into ultra-Orthodox and secular neighborhoods, but will have mixed neighborhoods, combining religious, secular and modern ultra-Orthodox people, he says.

"There is no such thing anymore as Haredi society, but Haredi societies. It's such a heterogenous society that some of its groups are willing to live far from the Haredi core," says Gonen.

"The secular people always leave when they can improve their living conditions. They're looking for a higher standard, larger apartments," he says.

"At first the Yemenites and the poor were sent to Gilo. They left when they could and were replaced by immigrants from Russia. Now the Russians are leaving and it's the ultra-Orthodox people's turn. If the secular people had stayed and renovated their apartments, this wouldn't have happened."

Jerusalem City Council member Rachel Azaria says the attempt to separate ultra-Orthodox and secular people has failed.

"The Haredi people who come to Gilo want to live in a mixed neighborhood, they want to live in a place where a man can sit beside his wife on the bus," she says. "So instead of separating we must define common living rules in which nobody disturbs the other in the public sphere."