Turf Wars: In Tel Aviv, Seculars Try To Oust Chabad
Here is a video made by the Chabad yeshiva of Ramat Aviv. Note the men are wearing yarmulkes that proclaim the late Lubavitcher Rebbe the messiah. You can also see the yeshiva also chants a declaration affirming the late Rebbe is the messiah during prayers:
A turf war heats up in Tel Aviv
Some residents of the mostly secular Ramat Aviv district, alarmed by the increasing presence and proselytizing of ultra-Orthodox Haredim, are trying to drive them out.
By Edmund Sanders • Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Tel Aviv -- It's a hot, sticky Friday night in one of Tel Aviv's swankiest neighborhoods and a battle over the community's soul is about to erupt.
On one side is a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews, in black coats and hats, celebrating the Sabbath by singing, praying and drinking wine in a public courtyard. Attracted by the revelry, and the wine, about two dozen teenagers and young men join in.
At the other end of the plaza is a squad of concerned parents, alarmed by what they see as an extremist religious group trying to get a foothold in their secular neighborhood. They try to persuade the teenagers to stay away from the partying ultra-Orthodox.
The situation escalates. Shouting turns into shoving. By midnight police arrive to restore the peace.
Another Sabbath, a time intended for rest and religious reflection, almost triggers a brawl in Ramat Aviv.
Clashes between secular and religious Israelis are nothing new. In Jerusalem, shifting demographics have led to an uneasy coexistence between the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox community, known as Haredim, and Jerusalem's secular population. As Haredi protesters rioted in June over plans to open a city parking lot on the Sabbath, gay marchers held their eighth annual pride parade through central Jerusalem.
Now, however, these tensions are shifting to other parts of the country as Haredi families move into urban, secular areas such as Ramat Aviv.
On Saturday, tensions between the religious and secular communities of Tel Aviv reached new highs when a gunman killed two people at a community center serving gay youth (the shooting did not take place in Ramat Aviv).
Though no arrests have been announced or evidence released suggesting a link, some civic leaders and gay activists are blaming ultra-Orthodox political parties, contending their history of anti-gay rhetoric might have been a motivating factor in the attack.
The friction is partly a matter of demographics. With birthrates nearly two or three times the national average, Israel's ultra-Orthodox community is expected to grow from 16% of the population to 23% by 2025, according to figures from the American-Israel Demographic Research Group.
But in Ramat Aviv, one of the more expensive parts of Tel Aviv, some residents say the arrival of the Haredim isn't about expanding populations in search of affordable housing, but is rooted in a political and religious agenda not unlike that of Jewish settlers moving to the West Bank.
"They're not coming here just to live," said David Shulman, who is helping to lead a neighborhood group opposed to the Haredi expansion. "They are here to take over the neighborhood."
He said Ramat Aviv was targeted because it is known as a bastion of secularism. "If they can conquer Ramat Aviv, it would be like a jewel in the crown," he said.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders in Ramat Aviv dismiss such fears as unfounded and paranoid. Yehuda Sheleg, who serves as a rabbi in a new synagogue in the area, says the controversy has been exaggerated by a handful of residents "who are bothered by anything Jewish."
Haredi residents defend their right to live anywhere in Israel and say they are the ones who have been subjected to harassment and discrimination by the secular majority.
When Sheleg moved to Ramat Aviv nine years ago, his was the only Haredi family in his apartment complex. The reception from other tenants was frosty, he said. "At first there was distance and alienation," he said. But gradually most residents came to embrace the ultra-Orthodox presence, Sheleg said.
In the last two years, however, tensions have heightened as Haredi organizations expanded their public presence and their leaders began pushing for stricter religious observations on the Sabbath. First the indoor shopping mall was pressured to close its doors on Saturdays. A movie theater was converted into a Haredi religious center. A kindergarten began offering "Redemption" day camp.
Shulman, a father of two, said parents objected to what they considered "recruitment" of their children.
"Kids are easy targets," he said. "Imagine if Muslims camped outside a school here and tried to talk to students. They'd be arrested in a minute."
Butcher Rafi Aharonowiz, who has been selling pork, seafood and other non-kosher foods from his Ramat Aviv shop for a decade, said friction was growing as Haredim became more aggressive.
Haredi leaders opened a religious school a few yards from his shop and its students sometimes spit on his front stoop as they pass. He started receiving anonymous phone calls asking why he sells non-kosher goods.
Haredim set up booths and tables in front of his and other stores to spread their message. At one such table, Haredi student Rotem Hadad, 25, invited shoppers to stop and pray, persistently pursuing some of those who brushed him off to a sleek mall, where some stopped for a quick prayer or free Sabbath candles.
To Hadad, there is no harm in reaching out to other Jews. Like many of the Haredim in Ramat Aviv, he is part of an ultra-Orthodox sect known as Chabad.
Unlike most other branches of Judaism, Chabad followers are known for their missionary-like practices directed at other Jews.
"We are trying to spread Judaism outside the synagogue," Hadad said. "Jews need to be awakened. It's like awakening someone from a sleep. Sometimes that person wakes up a bit grumpy at first."
Secular leaders in Ramat Aviv say they are more than a little grumpy. They've organized a campaign to drive the Haredim out. In addition to sending teams of parents to confront the Friday night gatherings, they've filed zoning complaints about the Haredi kindergarten and other establishments. And they've taken to filming the Friday night activities and sharing the footage with TV stations and the police.
"There's a lot of heat now coming from our side," Shulman said. "The more extreme they've become, the more extreme the population is becoming.
"We have been the majority here for 45 years," he said. "I'm sorry, but we're not going to allow this to continue."
Neighborhood rights and wrongs
Stephanie Rubenstein • THE JERUSALEM POST
July 1, 2009
In the country's capital, the decision to open the Carta parking lot on Shabbat has sparked a series of riots by haredim. Last Saturday, MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) declared that relations between the secular and haredi populations had reached a "severe crisis." But clashes between the two sectors are not unique to Jerusalem. In Ramat Aviv, the continuing influx of haredim to the traditionally secular area is causing a rise in tension between them and their non-religious neighbors.
Over the past few years, Chabad members have begun renovating public buildings and institutions in Ramat Aviv. A movie theater was converted into a kollel. Billionaire Lev Leviev, who is observant and owns the Ramat Aviv Mall, ensured it would be closed on Shabbat. And a center belonging to the Histadrut Labor Federation now functions as a Chabad kindergarten.
These changes have raised concern with the city's secular residents, with a single issue at the center of the debate: the character of the neighborhood.
The ultra-Orthodox "come with [a] purpose, they are well organized, and they have a target - the secular Israeli public," MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) tells The Jerusalem Post.
While the non-observant protest the proselytization and and increasing restrictions they face from the orthodox, the haredi community argues that it has the same right as any other group to live there.
"I'm not against someone who is religious, as long as they don't force their practices on me," says Dani Borten, a superintendent at the Alliance High School in Ramat Aviv, speaking on his own behalf, not the school's. "Now, in the neighborhood, I can see tensions starting. If we don't do something, there will be problems."
Alliance High School sits next door to the converted Chabad kindergarten, Bereshit, which opened nearly eight years ago. Alliance pupils are among those who have been approached by Chabad members, who try to convince them to become more religious, according to Principal Varda Kagan. She has never witnessed this first-hand, she says, but a group of parents brought the issue to her attention.
Chabad members take up positions in front of the school as pupils leave, encouraging the secular high-schoolers to lay tefillin and handing out flyers promoting religious observance, Kagan says.
"We choose to cope with the criticism through the path of peace and open dialogue," Yossi Ginzburg, head of the Chabad Yeshiva in Ramat Aviv, tells Metro. "Representatives of Chabad make Judaism accessible to the people, through opportunity, direction and knowledge. But the rest is their own free choice."
Fewer than 25 percent of Ramat Aviv oppose Chabad's move into the area, Ginzburg says. He adds that all Chabad's programs are created in response to the community's needs, and the organization has received requests to develop and expand its activities.
The Chabad House in Ramat Aviv first opened some 20 years ago.
Horowitz compares the situation in Ramat Aviv to a secular organization moving into Mea She'arim. If such an organization were to begin approaching religious members of the community, distributing leaflets advocating secularism, "there is no way they would be able to operate," he contends.
Horowitz says he supports the rights of secular residents. But this struggle shouldn't be viewed as a fight against the haredi community, he notes, rather as against "illegitimate and illegal actions taken by some specific haredi organizations."
One such action was the founding of the Bereshit kindergarten, Horowitz says, arguing that the haredi group had taken over a public building and transformed it into a religious institution, in violation of the building's zoning.
The kindergarten administrators have been renting the space while in search of a permanent site, either in the current location or somewhere else. Since a kindergarten must have at least 30 enrollees to be recognized by the government, Bereshit has submitted a list to City Hall of 50 children who attended the kindergarten over the past four years, says Hagit Carasso, head teacher at Bereshit.
Carasso denies claims that children were being bused in from Bnei Barak to attend the kindergarten in Ramat Aviv, saying that Bereshit has an enrollment of at least 30 local families.
"Just because I wear long sleeves and a long skirt doesn't mean that I have less of a right to live in the area," Carasso says. "And if we live here, we need to have at least a [religious] kindergarten, if not a school, as well."
Meanwhile, Shauli Zohar, 28, says it's not difficult for him, as an Orthodox Jew, to live in Ramat Aviv. He sends his three-year-old son to Bereshit, and says he has never experienced problems. He adds that many secular children also attend.
"There isn't a lot of bonding between the religious and secular," Zohar admits. "But I don't think there's tension."
Tel Aviv-Jaffa council member Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) says there is no demand in the neighborhood for the facilities that the haredi community has opened. "What they are doing is definitely part of a bigger purpose," she says.
Zandberg offers her support to the secular community by attending their action-committee meetings, the most recent of which was held two months ago.
"[The ultra-Orthodox] are trying to take over neighborhoods or at least to have a presence in a place that is known and famous for its secularity," Zandberg says. "They're saying that it's their civil right, their free right, to settle and live wherever they want. There is no law that prevents this, but it is also the right of the secular population to stand up against it and to try and keep the nature of their neighborhood as they would like to see it."
Yifat Ilan, 38, who is religious, says it wasn't until the last few years that she felt a strained relationship between secular and haredi residents. She has lived in Ramat Aviv since she was two.
When walking down the street - Ilan dresses modestly - she has been occasionally approached by secular residents, who have shouted at her, "Why are you moving here?" They see her as a representative of the entire Chabad organization.
"Sometimes I think this issue will never be solved," she says. "But maybe the public will realize, with time, that what we need is to come together as a community and let the tensions subside."
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, where the religious-secular tension at the time this article went to print was still running high, finding a way for both sectors to live together is proving elusive.
A main issue is the amount of available housing. "This problem creates an impossible reality, which forces haredim to live in secular neighborhoods," says Merav Cohen, a spokesperson from Hitorerut B'Yerushalayim (Awakening in Jerusalem) Party. The movement was founded a year ago to cater to Jerusalem's secular youth.
While Jerusalem's haredim continue to move into the city's more secular areas, the housing shortage is pushing the secular community out into surrounding suburbs, Cohen said, adding that the only way to resolve secular-haredi tension is to open up dialogue between the two sides and increase the amount of housing available.
Indeed, Ramat Aviv residents might be wise to look at the rocks flying and trash bins burning in the capital as a warning of what could happen in their own neighborhood, if the current dispute between secular and haredim is allowed to persist.