Anyone who reads what the media have to say about the situation in Israel today may have feelings of doubt, concern or even despair. After all, the country seems divided. Charedi vs. secular… settling Judea and Samaria vs. the creation of a Palestinian state… and now, of course, the question of whether the Israeli Supreme Court should be overhauled, and all the protesting and demonstrating that has taken place since the current government took office.
But I am optimistic. I am optimistic because I’ve seen the potential of the nation of Israel during my almost four years as mayor of Beit Shemesh.
Think about the challenges in today’s Jewish state, and we are handling most of them right here in Beit Shemesh:
A growing charedi population in a city that is not charedi? Check.
Kibbutz galuyot (ingathering of the exiles) with large groups from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, English-speaking countries, European countries? Check.
Political opinions ranging from far left to far right? Check.
Skyrocketing real estate prices, and the need to build reasonably priced housing? Check.
A need to provide employment that is more hi-tech oriented, so that our residents don’t have to deal with long commutes? Check.
We have that and much more in Beit Shemesh. And I love it.
I love it because I see Beit Shemesh as a city of communities where anyone can find their place and feel at home.
Beit Shemesh is not only located geographically between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; it is also a bridge between them. Between the secular life of the revitalized and Zionist state of Israel and the religious life of the land of Israel that we share with our ancestors, Beit Shemesh residents have figured out a way to live side by side, even if they do not agree on everything.
In fact, because people are so different, that is exactly why they create an incredible variety of opportunities here. I believe that living close to groups with different views and backgrounds makes us a better city overall. In Beit Shemesh we want to provide a balance between modernization and tradition, family and community, progress and conservatism.
It is well known that Beit Shemesh has seen its share of discord over the years, but by offering respect and understanding of the various needs of the different populations, our city’s leadership has begun to heal those wounds and move forward together.
And if we consider the demographic makeup of Beit Shemesh, and compare it with the entire state of Israel, it’s not an exaggeration to consider our city a model for Israel’s future. As such, there are several key lessons to be learned, lessons that can take our country forward in a positive direction.
1. Populations must be given the ability to live the way they choose.
We all have our preferences for how we should dress, raise and educate our children, make a living and interact with those around us. While there are times when we wish others would see the world as we do, that is simply not the case, and we must respect each other’s views and perspectives, even if we don’t agree with them. For example, if one population enjoys hearing secular music, there is no sense in parading through a charedi section of the city blasting such songs. At the same time, the city should make sure there are opportunities for those who enjoy that music to hear it.
2. Housing must be affordable, even as prices rise.
We have seen real estate prices increase dramatically in Beit Shemesh over the past 10 years, but we have also spent significant attention on building new homes for our residents—both current and future—that align with their specific philosophies. There is no sense building hi-rise apartment buildings for those who won’t use an elevator on Shabbat. But there are some areas where hi-rise buildings do make perfect sense. Building according to the various communities’ needs will help address the housing challenges we have as a country.
3. Provide hi-tech career opportunities for our residents.
In the coming years, the country’s innovation ecosystem will only grow. And that it should, given the success of Israel on the global technology landscape to date. But hi-tech can’t only be available in Tel Aviv and its environs. And just as we are bringing many technology companies to Beit Shemesh, other cities should do the same, including the offering of significant incentives. Beit Shemesh has seen a large segment of the charedi population—particularly working women—embrace a focus on career building in hi-tech.
4. Appreciate that education is our future.
One of the commitments I made when I ran for mayor four years ago was to provide all of our communities with improved educational facilities and budgets.
No longer would a classroom of children have to spend their school day in a caravan with a broken air conditioner. From the day I entered office until today, we are building school after school, gan after gan, so that we are offering our children—who are our future—the best opportunities to learn, grow and achieve. This should be a focus nationwide, in both STEM subjects and for those who are more artistically inclined.
5. There’s no sense in sweeping our differences under the rug.
From a city in conflict in the past we are creating a city of unity and coexistence. Dialogue has been a key to this process and we have made great progress. In Beit Shemesh everyone is free to live the way they are, believe in what they want to believe in, and can act and dress however they please. But we also owe it to each other to listen and understand, even if we choose to live differently. There is much to learn from those who see the world differently from you.
6. Create opportunities that will bring the community together.
While I mentioned above that there are certain cultural events that will be enjoyed more by one population than another, there do exist opportunities—through culture and sport—that bring us all together. We see it each year in our annual Beit Shemesh 5k/10k race, which draws participation from many of the city’s communities; our annual Beit Shemesh Music Festival, which provides separate seating from those who see value in that; and our American football team, the Judean Rebels, which includes players from many different backgrounds, as well as fans who come from Ramat Beit Shemesh with black kippot, those from Beit Shemesh with knitted kippot and others from our city without any kippot at all. And we (Yes, we! I’m a big fan!) all cheer on our team together.
As we look ahead together into our shared future, we in Israel will still have our disagreements, and that’s part of life, but cooperation, respect and even appreciation will set the tone for mutual recognition that can lead to a truly pluralistic society across Israel.
By Dr. Aliza Bloch,
mayor of Beit Shemesh