Haredi Jerusalem Revival


“Secular Residents Have Already Lost the Battle for Jerusalem,” trumpets the headline of Neri Livneh’s recent opinion column in the Ha’aretz daily newspaper, Indeed, it does seem as if the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities have taken over the entire city. Many Israelis perceive Haredim as a threat to their secular lifestyle that could destabilize the legitimate base of modern, secular Judaism. However, the struggle between traditional Orthodox Judaism, as represented by the Haredi communities, and modern, secular Judaism, as practiced in Israel, actually has been going on for two centuries. No quarter given.

Interview with Professor Amiram Gonen, senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.

The conflict between ultra-Orthodox and secular Judaism has its roots in the process of modernization that Eastern European Jewish society underwent during the second half of the nineteenth century. Once Jews in Eastern Europe were granted the freedom to leave their place of residence and emigrate from a little village with an isolated self-governing Jewish community to towns and cities in the west and even overseas, Jewish life changed completely. The newfound freedom soon inspired the revolution of the Jewish Enlightenment thanks to the combination of exposure to general education and new ideas, and the ability to participate in the surrounding society as a Jew. This new world mainly influenced the younger Jewish generation, sparking alarm among the older, traditional Jewish leadership that Jewish identity was about to be lost.

To deal with the evolving crisis, the leading Orthodox rabbis developed a strategy of segregation and seclusion, idealizing the study of Judaism while living frugally. They opened grand Jewish-studies academies throughout Eastern Europe, academies in which a new intellectual elite was born, the Jewish community’s new heroes who stood guard on the ramparts of Jewish identity. In Israel, these traditional, ultra-Orthodox Jews became known as Haredim. The word haredi appears in the Book of Isaiah and means someone who is worried or trembles.The conflict between ultra-Orthodox and secular Judaism has its roots in the process of modernization that Eastern European Jewish society underwent during the second half of the nineteenth century. Once Jews in Eastern Europe were granted the freedom to leave their place of residence and emigrate from a little village with an isolated self-governing Jewish community to towns and cities in the west and even overseas, Jewish life changed completely. The newfound freedom soon inspired the revolution of the Jewish Enlightenment thanks to the combination of exposure to general education and new ideas, and the ability to participate in the surrounding society as a Jew. This new world mainly influenced the younger Jewish generation, sparking alarm among the older, traditional Jewish leadership that Jewish identity was about to be lost.

Haredim perceived Zionism, which spread through Europe along with the Enlightenment and the Haredi resurgence, as an even greater danger to the existence of the Jewish people then the Enlightenment. The Zionists’ secular-national ideology was built on the desire to be “like all the people,” a term that comes from chapter 8 of the Book of Samuel I, when the people of Israel ask Samuel to anoint a king so that they can be “like all the peoples around.” To the Haredim, this approach went against the core of Jewish existence. They saw the idea of the creation of a secular-national entity in the land of Israel as the worst kind of heresy. For them, the existence of the people of Israel is of significance only if the people identify completely with the Torah and its teachings and accept it as the basic norm. Once Zionist youth movements began to appeal to ultra-Orthodox youth and Zionist ideology positioned itself as the legitimate heir of Jewish history, the battle lines were drawn.

Haredi Islands in a Zionist Sea

Following the Holocaust, which decimated the Haredi communities of Europe, and the Zionist movement’s success in creating a state, Haredim had to come to terms with Zionism in order to survive. Zionism was still perceived as a danger to the existence of the Jewish people, but reality forced Haredim to come to some kind of arrangement with their archenemy. In order to solve this built-in, inner contradiction, the surviving leaders of Haredi society created closed, segregated living spaces both in Israel and abroad. This isolation became a central characteristic of Israel’s Haredi neighborhoods, which were seen as Haredi islands in a Zionist sea.

“We live in constant spiritual danger,” Elazar Menachem Man Schach, one of the leading Haredi rabbis in Bene Berak, wrote, “the streets are poisoned with secular newspapers filled with heresy and permissiveness, inciting against all that is sacred to us. Radio and television are the source of all evil filling our youth with stories of murder, violence, crime and lawlessness.”

The Haredi strategy of segregation not only managed to stop the erosion of Haredi society, but regenerated the numbers, strength, and power of a society that had nearly vanished. In recent years, however, modernity has started to penetrate the closed gates of Haredi neighborhoods. The fight against radio, television, and computers was successful, but nothing could stop the internet and the cell phone. The need to come to terms with the modern world, especially in the realms of living conditions, health, social benefits, and income, has forced the Haredi leadership to take what Israel has to offer, while trying to remain in a separate world. This leads to some amazing contradictions like Haredi political parties that are part of the government coalition.

The core of Haredi existence is family and community. Multigenerational Shabbat dinners and synagogue services make it imperative that family members live within walking distance of each other motor travel is forbidden on Shabbat and most holidays. The synagogue and beit midrash are the center of the community so these also have to be within walking distance. In Israel, Haredi society has surrounded these key neighborhood institutions with an insulated space in which the rules of the Haredi community apply regarding dress code, gender separation, and more. Street signs that address behavior and notices to the public generally are posted in these neighborhoods for all to see. The borders of these Haredi domains are always clearly defined: in Jerusalem’s older neighborhoods, Haredi areas have gates at all their entrances, while in newer neighborhoods, Shabbat barriers, beyond which vehicles cannot travel on Shabbat, mark the entrances.

This need for a segregated territory has defined the way that Haredi communities develop: either by creating a new neighborhood adjacent to an existing Haredi community or by group migration to a new area. Among the various Haredi groups, the Hasidic communities are the most adept at group migration. The rabbi decides on a new site and the community moves to it as a whole.

Mass Migration

The first recorded Haredi group migration was in the 1940s, in connection with a power struggle within the Vizhnitz Hasidic dynasty. After the Holocaust, Reb Hayyim Meir Hager, the surviving scion of the dynasty, settled in Bene Berak and began to rebuild the community. His cousin, Rabbi Eliezer Hager, after not being able to attain a position of authority in the new community, moved with his followers to the Hadar neighborhood in Haifa, where he set up the Siret-Vizhnitzer community with its own dynastic court. Following his lead, other Hasidic and Haredi groups migrated to new sites around the country: Bene Berak, Netanya, the Neve Sharett neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Bat Yam, and Petah Tikva. The Chabad Hasidim preferred the development towns and moved to Kiryat Mal’akhi in the south and to Hazor and Shelomi in the Galilee.

Jerusalem also witnessed such en-masse migrations. In 1946, a Haredi group left Mea She’arim and settled in a new community in western Jerusalem, the Pagi Houses. From there, they expanded to the adjacent Bayit Vagan neighborhood and more recently to Kiryat Hayovel.

Initially, the Haredi community in Jerusalem lived, along with the entire Jewish community, in the Old City. The establishment of Mea She’arim in 1874, as the first large Jewish neighborhood outside the walls of the Old City, opened the gates to building Jewish neighborhoods on a large swathe of land west of the Old City. In 1891, Jews of Hungarian descent founded the neighborhood of Batei Ungarim (Hungary houses) adjacent to Mea She’arim. Neither neighborhood originally was Haredi, but the two neighborhoods were large enough to have their own market, where kosher food could be purchased so that the residents did not have to make the dangerous journey to the Old City to obtain kosher meat. This new area appealed to Haredi groups, who soon started to migrate to small new neighborhoods, each one sponsored by a wealthy donor, often in return for the group’s promise to recite the traditional memorial blessing for the donor’s parents every year on the anniversary of their death. Very soon a row of small neighborhoods, each one with a central courtyard, a synagogue, and a beit midrash, developed around Mea She’arim and Batei Ungarim. Meanwhile, as newer, more modern neighborhoods were built in Jerusalem, especially along Jaffa Road, the first families that had moved into Mea She’arim and Batei Ungarim moved out and Haredi families replaced them.

This process of expansion is not a crowding out process, at least at the beginning. The non-Haredi families leave of their own accord and for their own reasons, selling or leasing their homes to the Haredi families.

Jerusalem’s Kerem Avraham neighborhood is an example of this. In the 1950s, it was a neighborhood associated with Zionist youth movements whose members went on to build new kibbutzim and settlements around the country. When families started to move out to better apartments in other areas in Jerusalem, Haredi families moved in since Kerem Avraham was adjacent to the religious bloc of neighborhoods around Mea She’arim. Due to the importance they placed on proximity to a Haredi area, Haredi families were willing to pay more to buy an apartment next to Jerusalem’s main Haredi areas. As new residential opportunities developed in other areas that appealed to the neighborhood’s non-Haredi residents, the process accelerated until the neighborhood became entirely Haredi.

In the 1980s, suburbia arrived in Israel. The new suburbs around Jerusalem of Mevasseret Zion and Zur Hadassah, Modi’in, and in the West Bank east of Jerusalem attracted the city’s non-Haredi families. As they moved out, the neighborhoods around the Haredi bloc on the northern side of the city center were soon filled with Haredi families. The lucrative prices that the Haredi families were willing to pay were tempting. and so the non-Haredi families moved out, and slowly Haredi families became the majority in a neighborhood and began to change its public spaces to suit their lifestyle. These changes ultimately led the final secular minority to move away.

Housing Shortage

The high birth rate among Haredi families, together with the many Haredi olim from the United States and Canada that arrived in Jerusalem after 1967, created a demand for housing in Haredi neighborhoods. When the existing neighborhoods – north and south of Jaffa Road, and Ramat Eshkol, Giv’at Hamivtar, and French Hill – filled up, it became difficult to expand into adjacent neighborhoods. The group-migration system then became more popular.

The first group to relocate from Jerusalem were the ba’alei teshuva, secular Jews who had become Haredi and did not fit into regular Haredi society. In the 1970s, a Haredi settlement, the city of Betar, was built for them in the West Bank not far from Jerusalem. Direct bus services especially for Haredim connected Betar to Jerusalem. They were followed by groups of Hasidim, who soon ousted the ba’alei teshuva from the settlement. The concept of a Haredi settlement, an exclusive city, began to be discussed by the Haredi leadership and by the government.

By the 1980s, a spattering of Haredi settlement-cities had been established, such as Modi’in ’Illit, Elad, and Emmanuel. Not all of them were successful. Emmanuel, tucked away on a mountaintop 10 kilometers east of Kalkiliya, did not to take off. Elad, on the 1967 border and a 10-minute drive from Petah Tikva, did.

Making a Living

Even though the Zionist entity is perceived as the enemy, many Haredim earn their livelihood from the Zionist state. About 70% of Haredi women work, compared to only 50% of the men, who are encouraged to dedicate their time to religious studies instead. The majority of the working men are employed in religious or educational services. They serve as rabbis, kosher butchers, kosher supervisors in the food industry, and synagogue officials, which are all lines of work that the local, municipal, and regional government funds. Haredim tend to fill these positions not only in the Haredi community, but also in general Israeli society. The vast number of local and national government employees who provide religious services can be understood by the following example: Israel has only 18 building inspectors, who are responsible for inspecting the construction of 120,000 buildings throughout Israel. On the other hand, there are 18,000 publicly employed inspectors of kosher food.

The Haredim employed in education work mostly within the Haredi school system, which is also government funded, from the elementary schools and the heder to the yeshivot and kolelim that make up Haredi higher education. Many Haredi women work in the Haredi education sector.

Haredi society also has a flourishing internal economy with stores, commercial outlets, and other business that deal only with the ultra-Orthodox sector. Many of the Haredi men work in transportation, especially in the massive transport of children to school, which is also government subsidized. Every Haredi group sends its children to its own heder or yeshiva, which is manifest in the many school minibuses seen in the streets of Jerusalem in the mornings and afternoons. A frequent scene in Jerusalem is Haredi parents waiting to pick up their children. Most of those who pick up the children are men who study in the yeshiva. The women work, so the men take care of the children during the school lunch break. A line of baby carriages at the entrance to a yeshiva is not unusual.

Urban planning in Jerusalem has to take these different populations into account. When they mix, especially since the Haredi community has a very definite idea of how its neighborhoods should look, friction begins. The optimal urban model for this multicultural society is one of sectorial development in which each segment of the population has its own sector in the city. Today, in general, the northern sector of Jerusalem is Haredi, while the southern one is religious and secular.

One example of erroneous non-sectorial planning is the Ramat Alon neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. When the neighborhood was built, it was designed as a secular neighborhood. The apartments and houses were sold at very lucrative prices with the cost of land and development subsidized by the government. The Haredi communities saw this neighborhood as a desirable place to move to: It was a nice, modern neighborhood and only a short distance away from the other Haredi neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Once Haredi families started to move into Ramat Alon, major struggles began. The population effected the type of schools and education system, the activities at the local community center, policies at the swimming pool, and the local representatives of the neighborhood.

Haredi demand for housing in Ramat Alon brought about the exit of secular families. They sold their homes at above the regular market price, making a nice profit on the subsidized homes that they had originally bought. The process of turning Ramat Alon into a Haredi neighborhood took about 15 years, during which a very handsome profit, billions of shekels, made its way into the subsidized hands of the non-Haredi population of Ramat Alon.

When the government began building the adjacent Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, the developers soon discovered that there were very few buyers who were not Haredi. The Haredi population bought housing in groups and at a reduced price. The non-Haredi population, for whom the neighborhood had been designed, quickly moved out.

The housing shortage in the Haredi population in Jerusalem is creating an exodus of young Haredi families from the city to the Haredi towns and centers around Jerusalem. On the other hand, many Haredi families, with more means, are moving into the neighborhoods in the southern part of the city such as Har Homa. Today plans are being made to build a new neighborhood in southern Jerusalem, on the road to Bethlehem, called Giv’at Hamatos. It is most likely that this new neighborhood will become Haredi.

Haredi society is as diverse as any other population group. There are Haredi financiers, importers and exporters, bankers, and stock brokers. There is a growing segment of upper-middle-class and wealthy Haredim. They live in upper-middle-class Haredi neighborhoods such as the villas of Giv’at Hamivtar and Ramot Alon.

The Sabbath Elevator Controversy

High-rise buildings create a problem for the Haredi community since many rabbis have banned the use of Sabbath elevators (elevators that stop on every floor during the Sabbath). Not all Haredim accept this prohibition; many American Haredim who have moved to Jerusalem reject it. This has created a problem within the community for the Haredim moving into the high-rise buildings in the Rommema neighborhood and the Wolfson buildings overlooking Sacher Park. The result is that the lower five floors of the buildings are home to families that do not use Sabbath elevators, while above them live Haredi families that do use them. This creates a problem for the more Orthodox rabbis and a breach in the unity of the Haredi community – a tiny chink in the seclusion of the community and a glimmer of hope that not everything evolves around extreme segregation.

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