Yerushalmim Party Celebration

6 Nisan 5775 (Mar. 26)   Chanoch Ne’eman

On Wed. night, the 25th of March I attended the victory celebration of the Yerushalmim Party, whose chairwoman, Rachel Azaria, was elected to the Knesset with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party.
The gathering was in celebration of attaining a Knesset seat, as well as the resulting switches in the City Council. The Yerushalmim have two seats on the Council. Mrs. Azaria was serving as one of the City’s paid deputy mayors. Tamir Nir, the second Council member, will now take over the Deputy Mayorship. And Rabbi Aharon Leybowitz, who was the third candidate on the Yerushalmim ticket in the last municipal election, will now sit on the Council in Mrs. Azaria’s place.
All three were at the celebration, as well as many supporters and well-wishers. As a Jerusalem resident who takes interest in city affairs, I went to report on the event and learn about their plans.
Mrs. Azaria, a young Jerusalem mother, speaks quickly in both Hebrew and English. She was born in Jerusalem, her mother immigrated to Israel from America. (Mrs. Azaria had to give up her American citizenship now that she is entering the Knesset). Mrs. Azaria is an observant Jewess. She does not cover her hair, but she is shomer shabbat and mitzvot, and every time I have seen her in public, wears skirts. The Yerushalmim movement is made up of Jewish Jerusalemites of various levels of mitzvot observance, and they take as their banner the cause of religious pluralism in the city. As such they have worked to counter what they see as certain “extreme” efforts of Haredi groups to further what the Yerushalmim call religious coercion.
I first heard Rachel Azaria speak at a course on the city budget I took in the summer of 2012. As one of two City Council members who spoke to the class, Mrs. Azaria said you can not judge the budget by the printed budget alone. Most of her talk was anecdotes on budget item episodes.
During the last City Council, Mrs. Azaria held the portfolio of pre-school age children (Gil HaRach in Hebrew). She spoke about kindergartens. We had learned from another speaker in the course that Jerusalem has a unique education situation, in that there are a lot of students, some 225,000, and they are in a wide variety of school systems, probably more than most places in the world. There are the state religious schools, the Arab schools, the independent religious schools, etc. Mrs. Azaria said her daughter was in a city kindergarten, and there were some 35 children in her class. In the same neighborhood, she noticed that Chabad was proposing opening three kindergartens, each of which would have between 17 to 21 students. She looked into this to see how it could be.
She learned that the Chabad kindergartens function as amutot, non-profit organizations. They get money from the city to run kindergartens, and they are required to have at least 17 children in a class. They are given the same money as the other kindergartens, but they can choose how to spend it. They therefore open more kindergartens with less students each. They pay their teachers less than the city run schools, and instead choose to spend the money on transport and other things which attract people to their kindergartens. Also, she said, since they don’t have use of city school buildings, they are given money to rent premises. Often the amuta will choose to buy a property and use the rent money to pay the mortgage. Thus, over the years, the amuta comes to own the property.
I personally didn’t think this was so bad, and that perhaps that it showed that the private sector can run a better school than the government. Indeed, this is why a lot of non-observant parents choose to send their children to Chabad kindergartens.
Related to kindergartens, Mrs. Azaria related an incident which occurred with one of the city budgets. There was some fuzzily defined item on the budget for a place in a Haredi neighborhood in Ramot. Mrs. Azaria researched the item and discovered that there was a certain property there which they intended to use for eight separate kindergartens. She brought the item to the attention of Mayor Barkat who was shocked it had almost slipped through unnoticed.
The second item Mrs. Azaria spoke to us about was mikvahs (ritual baths). As a religious person, she is in favor of mikvahs, but was concerned that the Haredi council members were trying to build mikvahs with city funds in places where there was little demand for them, i.e. a small observant population. She called this “marking territory”, – trying to prepare new neighborhoods for an influx of observant residents. She noted that many of the existing mikvahs were over-used and in need of repairs, and that she felt money should be directed to that instead of building new ones in non-observant neighborhoods. I could hear that, but the non-observant neighborhoods were close to observant ones and could help with the overflow (no pun intended). But it probably does have a marking territory aspect too.
Certainly the Haredim are known for being good at working the system, and I believe it is good that there are people like Mrs. Azaria to watch out that they do not go overboard. However, I also believe that sometimes the “keep-the-Haredim-in-line” camp goes overboard itself in not recognizing legitimate concerns and rights of the Haredi sector.
For example, one of the main issues Mrs. Azaria fought for was the right for women to appear in public ads. The Haredi sector had convinced the Egged bus company to not put pictures of women on Jerusalem buses. Mrs. Azaria and her party petitioned the High Court of Justice to cancel this agreement, which they did. Mrs. Azaria gained notoriety for this effort, which she characterized as the battle against excluding women. However, I think the main concern of the Haredi public, and I myself identify with this concern, is the desire to not see the beauty of women being used to sell things. This, I feel, is degrading to women. Because we champion the dignity of women, we don’t want their beauty commercialized. I do not believe the interest is to exclude them. Our tradition and values teach us that a woman’s beauty is a private family matter. I felt the Yerushalmim efforts failed to note this, and cast the issue as an exclusion effort.
I thought that any compromise should take this into consideration. For example, we could decide that no pictures of either males or females appear on public ads. That is a least common denominator which is equal in its exclusion. Today we have so many private means of communication, our public spaces should be visually acceptable to all.
At the victory celebration, the three representatives in succession stood on a chair to address the crowd standing both inside and outside the small Nachlaot Cafe. Rabbi Leybowitz spoke first, followed by Tamir Nir, followed by Mrs. Azaria.
The new MK reiterated her vision of a pluralistic Jerusalem, and of the need to cooperate with all groups. “We did not come home after two thousand years to fight with each other.” She noted some of the lessons learned over the years of their activity: “We learned that we need to speak, and sometimes even shout. We learned that you need to act, and you also have to let people know you acted.”
Indeed, one thing which has impressed me over the past seven years of Yerushalmim activity is their ability to publicize their activities. Mrs. Azaria is of the Facebook/social media generation, and has used them well.
I can contrast this to Naomi Tzur, another person I have respected for many years. Mrs. Tzur was part of Mayor Barkat’s first term team, serving as a Deputy Mayor in that administration. Mrs. Tzur is also an observant woman, and had served for many years as the Director of the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). As such, she had a lot of experience in bureaucracy and long-term projects. She, for example, was one of the main movers and champions of the new Jerusalem Urban Park opening March 30, called Gazelles Valley.
But Mrs. Tzur, about twice the age of Mrs. Azaria, was not a master of publicity like her younger colleague. I don’t know if that had anything to do with Mayor Barkat’s decision to not include Mrs. Tzur again on his ticket when he ran for re-election. He instead chose, after his re-election, to name Mrs. Azaria as a deputy mayor, though the Yerushalmim only have two seats on the thirty-one member Council. One might say that, in effect, Mrs. Azaria replaced Mrs. Tzur as the Observant Jewish Woman Deputy Mayor on the Council. Barkat, who many people in my southern Jerusalem area voted for because “he’s not the Haredi guy”, may also have admired Azaria’s help in the Pluralistic (read Not-Haredi) Jerusalem efforts.
Standing on the chair, Azaria went on to say that they learned that it is possible to work harder than you thought possible, and that sometimes you get angry, and sometimes you cry, but it is worth it to see you can make a difference in this wonderful city which we are privileged to have come back to.
Tamir Nir spoke second. Nir is not per se observant, but he is one of these secular Israelis who takes a strong interest in Jewish learning. Indeed, Nir’s speech was the most evoking of religious symbol. He began by saying that we are approaching the holiday of Pesach, and how that fills us with thoughts of the Redemption of the Past, as well as the Redemption of the Future. How it gives us the courage to dream. He then went on to say how it all begins with dreams, dreams of how we want to see Jerusalem. How he started with his dreams, and Rachel with hers, and Rabbi Aharon with his, and all the movement’s activists with theirs. On all the levels of involvement – in one’s building committee, in one’s community council, on the City Council, and now – the Knesset!
He himself was active on those various community levels, from his neighborhood of Bet Hakerem. He was also involved in forming a youth program to teach children about nature. He teaches at these secular Torah study programs. I find him to be a very favorable figure, both because he is someone who has worked from the local level up, and because of his warm personality. He is an architect by profession, and has also studied city planning. Some months ago I attended a meeting of the city environment committee which he presided over. He was also then in charge of the preservation committee. Preservation is a touchy subject in Jerusalem, and I think Mr. Nir is the right type of person to oversee it. Indeed, recently someone from my neighborhood launched into the committee for their supposed “caving in” to developers on some building, and Nir responded properly that a proper balance is needed. Not every old building needs to be preserved. Wisdom and balance are needed.
The venue of the celebration was a small bar-cafe in Nachlaot called Slow Moshe’s. It turns out this was not by chance, but that the establishment was related to an initiative of Rabbi Aharon Leybowitz, who will now sit on the City Council. He started an alternative kashrut certification organization, called, creatively, “Hashgacha Pratit” (Private Supervision, literally, but also meaning personal providence). The idea is that trained volunteers from a neighborhood give private supervision to their local restaurants, as opposed to paying the Rabbinate for their certification. I think this is a good thing to have in addition to the Rabbinate. There were times in the past when I had thought of going into the restaurant business, and I would have liked something like this if I had.
Rabbi Leybowitz has a yeshiva in Nachlaot, and is the head of the Center of Town Community Council. Originally from Berkeley, California, you can say perhaps that he is liberal from birth. My friend Adam Nahoum, who I often pray with on Shabbat, arrived at the celebration with his wife Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who had been the number four candidate on Yerushalmim’s last election list. Fleur introduced me to Rabbi Leybowitz, who I managed to ask a few questions.
I asked what his hopes and plans were for the City Council. “Well”, he said, “I am taking over Rachel’s seat and portfolios, which include both education, and women’s status. And while some may think it curious that an orthodox rabbi should be in charge of women’s status issues, the truth is all these issues are close to my heart.”
He gave some examples of issues Rachel had been involved with and which he would continue to pursue. Regarding women’s mikvahs, there is demand by some secular or less observant women who go to the mikvah to not have the woman mikvah attendant present in the mikvah room when they immerse. According to Jewish Law (Halacha), another woman needs be present to confirm the immersion was proper. Rabbi Aharon said he believes in the halacha and wants everyone to do it, but he can understand how these women feel and that perhaps they should be allowed to make this choice. I suggested that perhaps there is a safety issue too, as there are men who occasionally drown in mikvahs, where they are not accompanied. He gave an expression of partial consent, but added that most people don’t need a lifeguard in their bathtub.
Another example he gave was with regard to toys given to the young children in school. He said that the girls are often given kitchen toys, whereas the boys are given building toys. This may tend to stunt the girls’ interest in building and thwart their freedom to choose. I thought this was a little much, but I am also for freedom of choice, even with toys. “No recess without representation!” Later in the week I asked a woman who ran a preschool program in Jerusalem for eleven years about it, and she said the toy choice is usually voluntary by the children. On Shabbat, my friend related a story his sister had told him about a place where they tried giving “equal” toys to the toddlers. A little girl who was given three toy tanks to play with picked them up and said, “this is the Mommy tank, this is the…”.
Sitting across from my friend Adam at a small table in the entrance to the cafe, sipping both my hot cider and one of the shots of Arak which were passed out, I asked Adam what he, as a Jerusalem resident, would like to see different in the city. I had to wait for a response, because Adam, who has a dental practice in Mevaseret, was looking at x-rays he had just received on his cell-phone. “It’s terrible with these phones, he said, you can’t get away from work!”
When he finally put away the phone, he answered, “I would like to be able to visit places in East Jerusalem, without having to fear for my life. There are so many historical places there I would like to visit.” I agreed with him, and told him of how when I had rode my bicycle from our Baka neighborhood past the Tayelet into East Jerusalem, groups of young kids threw rocks at me and teenagers told me to get out.
“It is a police issue”, I told him. In addition to many other things the police are negligent in, they do not police East Jerusalem properly. At a campaign evening for English speakers, held by the Yerushalmim before the last Municipal elections in 2013, a woman who recently experienced the unprofessional behaviour of the Police, asked what could perhaps be done about the problem. Mrs. Azaria then responded, as most of the candidates do, that the Police are national and do not answer to the municipalities like in America. Though it was not their issue, she said, they could try to make it their issue.
Well, now Mrs. Azaria is in the Knesset, so perhaps she will have the opportunity to affect this important issue on the national level. I hope that the Kachlon group does not go overboard in trying to tax the rich with inheritance taxes and things like that. Both Haredim and wealthy people are people too.
On the whole, I am rather sympathetic toward the Yerushalmim and their representatives. They are intelligent people who I believe will be responsive to public needs. I do not agree with all their positions, as I have noted, but I find them to to be honest people, respectful of Jewish tradition, who care about our city and country, and who have shown dedication to community service. I wish them mazel tov and good luck in their new roles.
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