Ray of hope in Beit Shemesh
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Ray of hope in Beit Shemesh

Rabbi rallies residents to keep city open to all

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The skeleton of a shopping mall in Beit Shemesh that has sat idle for five years, because the charedi fear it would encourage the mingling of men and women. Daniel Santacruz

Say Beit Shemesh and one image comes to mind: religious extremism. The city made news recently when seven-year-old Naama Margolis, who attends the Orot Banot school, was spat on by a religious extremist for not being “modestly dressed” in his opinion.

The incident outraged Israel. Politicians and religious leaders, in Israel and overseas, weighed in on the issue.

On Friday, Dec, 23, Israelis watched a Channel 2 television documentary in which a teary-eyed Naaama said she was afraid to go to school.

On Dec. 28, five days after the documentary aired, a rally was organized in front of Orot Banot that attracted more than 1,000 people from all over Israel, including politicians from the Israeli political spectrum. Media crews from the world over were also present. Beit Shemesh was big news.

Rabbi Dov Lipman, a Maryland native who heads the Committee to Save Beit Shemesh, one of the organizers of the rally, said recently that its purpose was to send a message: Violence and religious coercion will not be tolerated in Beit Shemesh and the city should be open to everyone.

Lipman will be speaking at various synagogues in our area next week (see box).

Lipman moved to the city seven years ago. He said that charedi leaders called the rally anti-charedi. Yet nothing was said about the charedi at the rally, Lipman said.

Beit Shemesh activist to speak locally
Rabbi Dov Lipman will be making several appearances in our area to discuss Beit Shemesh. Following is the schedule as of Jan. 23:

Thursday, Feb. 2, 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., parlor meeting, Congregation Ahavath Torah, Englewood: “The Am Shalem Revolution: The bright hope for curbing religious extremism and unifying Israel,” with Knesset Member Rabbi Haim Amsalem.

Friday, Feb. 3, 8 p.m., Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, Teaneck: “Divisiveness or unity: A firsthand account of the situation in Beit Shemesh.”

Saturday, Feb. 4, Hashkama Minyan, 7:15 a.m., Congregation Keter Torah, Teaneck: “What Beit Shemesh can teach us about the future of Israel.”

S’udah Sh’lishit, 4:45 p.m., Bais Medrash of Bergenfield: “Putting aside our differences and working together: The story behind the controversial unity rally in Beit Shemesh, which captivated a nation.”

Motzei Shabbat, 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., parlor meeting at the home of Betty and Arthur Kay, 573 Warwick Ave., Teaneck:”The Am Shalem Revolution: The bright hope for curbing religious extremism and unifying Israel,” with Knesset Member Rabbi Haim Amsalem.

The biggest problem Beit Shemesh faces, he said, is the effort to turn it into a charedi-only city. He blames both the charedi leadership and the city’s mayor, Moshe Aboutbol, of the Sephardi religious Shas Party.

“They call it a charedi city, even though [charedim] are 45 percent of the population,” Lipman said. “The moment they call it charedi from the top, then extremist charedim flex their muscles and want to take control.”

Within that 45 percent, however, said Lipman, is a large number of charedi who want Beit Shemesh to remain a mixed city. “The average charedi doesn’t want violence,” he said.

An example of the control extremists want to exert on the city, Lipman said, is the skeleton of a mall at the corner of two busy intersections in Beit Shemesh that has sat idle for five years. The building, built by a private developer, was to house stores and government offices, including a post office. Extremist charedi, however, vandalized it and prevented it from opening, arguing that it would encourage the mingling of men and women. The city failed to stand up to the extremists, Lipman said.

Three weeks ago, his Committee to Save Beit Shemesh petitioned the Interior Ministry’s National Council for Planning and Construction seeking to halt construction of a charedi-only neighborhood in a newer part of the city. The petition carried 7,400 signatures. Plans for the neighborhood call for 1,800 housing units and 22 synagogues.

Along with its petition, the committee submitted alternate plans for a mixed neighborhood. Lipman vowed that on the day the plan has its public hearing in Jerusalem, now scheduled for Feb. 12, his committee will bring “buses and buses of people” to show their support for it.

“For years, people have complained about the direction of Beit Shemesh [but], instead of complaining we got organized, and hired a lawyer and a consultant,” Lipman said. “We are doing it right.”

Beit Shemesh, a city of about 80,000, is home to several chasidic sects. Since its founding in 1952, it also has attracted immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, and Morocco.

The newest immigrants are from such English-speaking countries as the United States, England, Canada, and South Africa, a majority of whom are college-educated. Beit Shemesh is considered a “soft landing” for English-speakers. It is estimated that 20 percent of the population speaks English as a first language. They are among the most vocal in opposing what they see as the charedi encroachment in the city.

Esther Wolfson, who grew up in Englewood and who has been living in the city for 14 years, praised Lipman and his committee.

“Dov Lipman cares about all the residents and I’d rather have someone like him running Beit Shemesh than who is currently running it,” she said. “He has stepped up to the plate and is doing something.”

According to Wolfson, whose daughter Ronit is in fourth grade at Orot Banot (she was featured in an article in The Jewish Standard on Oct. 16), one of the biggest problems in the city is its mayor, who is interested in advancing only the needs “of a particular population.”

In September,Wolfson told The Jewish Standard, the modern Orthodox girl’s school had just moved into a new faclility and was preparing to begin the school year. Charedi leaders, however, announced that they wanted the building turned over to them for their use. (The building is located at the end of a row of buildings occupied by charedim.) When a group of extremists began their abusive protests, the mayor did not stand up to them, telling them instead that “they could have the school,” said Wolfson.

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Rabbi Dov Lipman, a voice for moderation in Beit Shemesh, brings his case to area synagogues next week. Courtesy Michael Lipkin

“Who has ever heard of such thing?” she asked rhetorically. “His role [as mayor] is to be for everyone.”

In September and October, the protestors hurled epithets such as “shiksas” and “sluts” at the modestly dresses elementary school girls, as well as bags of excrement and other detritus at the school building. After the Dec. 28 rally, however, the protestors stopped coming to the school, Wolfson said. “The message was sent that that kind of behavior near the school is unacceptable,” she said.

Gideon Yavin, a self-described charedi who lives in the Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph section of the city and who works as a corporate and marketing consultant, said there is mutual distrust among Jews in Beit Shemesh.

The charedim, he said, are especially fearful of the encroachment of the national religious. Because the national religious are Modern Orthodox and Zionist, Yavin explained, the charedi see them as having the potential for drawing charedi children into a less rigorous, more secular, lifestyle. In fighting to maintain the insularity and sanctity of the community, he said, the charedi are fighting for their right to practice Judaism their way without interference.

“The media’s coverage of the recent incidents in the city,” he told The Jewsh Standard, “has made the situation worse, because the charedi feel they are being attacked.”

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