Can You Pray in a Secular Neighborhood?

At the end of Hantke Street in Jerusalem there lives a monster, a huge, thorny monster, and from within its maw are three bright red tongues that for many years have been spewing little children into the sandbox below. The children are entertained by "Hamifletzet," the famed symbol of the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, but the adults are focused on other monsters, some real, others imagined.

One camp warns of "anti-Semitism," while the other of an "ultra-Orthodox takeover." Everyone is sure there will be a no-holds-barred battle, until one side emerges victorious and tranquility is restored.

The current war theater is a small, old house with cracked plaster walls and sealed shutters in the middle of the long, busy street. A few dozen young Haredim who recently moved into the area meet there in an apartment to pray on Shabbat. They have the permission of the apartment's owner, who lives in the United States, and his Haredi tenant, and they follow the customs of the Lithuanian yeshivot.

What the worshippers describe as an innocent assembly has become another chapter in the bitter battle between ultra-Orthodox and secular. Now, for the first time, the dispute will be adjudicated in court.

For 50 years this neighborhood in southwest Jerusalem has been home to a diverse population: blue-collar workers, civil servants, immigrants from Europe and North Africa, university students and professors, non-observant, traditional and national-religious Jews. But the influx of Haredim into Kiryat Hayovel has created frequent flare-ups that often require police intervention.

Such was the case nearly three weeks ago, when several secular residents burst into the Hantke Street home during Friday evening prayers. Haim Waldman, one of the organizers of the services, said he was surprised by the secular opposition.

"For two years we've been holding this minyan in the neighborhood, in various homes, and only on Shabbat," Waldman said. "Two months ago we started praying here and it didn't bother anyone. But there is small handful of people that is trying to enflame Kiryat Hayovel for no reason. Two weeks ago they came into the home and started harassing us in the middle of prayers. They decided we are taking over Kiryat Hayovel," Waldman said.

"I have nothing against religious people," Sarit Bar, who lives with her family on Hantke Street, said Monday. "For years I've had a religious neighbor and we get along fine. The problem is that the Haredim are extremists, and we are terribly afraid. This is a pleasant neighborhood, I grew up here, but the population here is changing. I find that on Saturday mornings, when I drive past the dosim [a derogatory term for religious Jews] they look at me in a hostile manner. Tomorrow they're going to start shouting 'Shabbes,' and the next day they'll start closing the road" to vehicular traffic on the Sabbath, Bar said.

Some of those who interrupted the services are active in a local secular residents organization whose members says seeks to preserve the neighborhood's secular character. Over the past year they removed a few mobile homes that had been placed on Warburg Street without a permit, to serve as a Talmud Torah (boys' school) for the ultra-Orthodox.

For two years residents have also been fighting the creation of an eruv, an arrangement to create an area where observant Jews may carry objects outside their homes on Shabbat. Nearly every week members of the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit sect erect poles and wires, and secular activists remove them. These struggles played a role in the last election, which brought Mayor Nir Barkat into office.

Barkat, who created a broad municipal coalition, from Meretz on the left to the Haredim, is trying not to make waves. But the city's counsel, attorney Yossi Havilio, is squarely with the neighborhood's long-time, secular residents. After hearing their complaints, which were confirmed by Meretz council members, Havilio requested an injunction against the services. He told the Local Affairs Court that the services violated the building's designated purpose as a residence.

Last Friday, shortly before the onset of Shabbat at sunset, Judge Tamar Bar Asher-Zaban issued an interim order "to cease all use of the property as a house of prayer of any sort and kind." Both sides presented their final arguments on Sunday, and a final ruling is expected shortly.

The legal question at issue is the definition of a synagogue. The lawyer for the ultra-Orthodox group, attorney Rephael Stub, told the court that there is no synagogue here, but rather something "temporary and provisional that has none of the characteristics of a synagogue," and therefore the prayers are not an unauthorized use of the building.

The renter, Nachman Orlanchik, added, "If I invited friends to play backgammon, that wouldn't make it a backgammon club."

Speaking for the other side, Havilio said, "If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck." He showed the court photographs a neighbor had given him showing signs pointing to the men's and women's sections as well as a Torah scroll brought in for Shabbat morning services. Residents testified that every Shabbat about 40 people come to the house, and some of them complained of noise and nuisance.

The atmosphere in the courtroom reflected the tension in Kiryat Hayovel. On Sunday Stub accused Havilio and the complainants of anti-Semitism, while Havilio responded, "I only want to enforce the law. Maybe someone is trying to turn this into a culture war, but not us," Havilion said.

Nevertheless, Havilio did attribute his focus on the case to the fear of a "slippery slope" in the mostly secular neighborhood.

"It is obvious that the Haredim want to move into Kiryat Hayovel as they did in Ramat Eshkol," the chairman of the Meretz city council list, Pepe Allalo, said outside the courtroom on Monday. "It is a well-planned process - today there isn't a single secular person in Ramat Eshkol. That is what will happen in Kiryat Hayovel if we don't fight. If there is no verdict I predict serious battles. All the bleeding hearts who say we must live together don't know what they're talking about. I've never been an extremist regarding the Haredim, their needs must be met, but there are two different cultures here and one is harming the other. Each must keep its distance from the other," Allalo said.

Outside the courtroom, an argument developed between Waldman and Allalo. "Even if they do prevent us from praying," Waldman said, "this whole struggle hurts the secular the most. It's a boomerang, because secular people are afraid of struggle and Haredim aren't. This war has been forced on us," Waldman said.

"When you were a little boy I led the fight for Bar-Ilan Street [over vehicular traffic on Shabbat and Jewish holidays on the major Jerusalem thoroughfare], and thanks to that the compromise has been maintained to this day," Allalo said. "Why? Because the Haredi side also realized it was getting dangerous. In the end, in Kiryat Hayovel they will also come to understand this is dangerous," Allalo said.

Stub said that in the wake of the interim order issued last week, services will be held in a different apartment. "I am telling you, nothing is going to help," he said.

"If a synagogue is opened in a different apartment, we will behave just as we did this time," Havilio replied.