Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Time for Healing

Bet Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul
The mayoral elections in Bet Shemesh are over. The incumbent Charedi mayor, Moshe Abutbul won. And frankly I am happy about that. Not because I supported him. I didn’t. But neither did I support his opposition.  I was neutral since I had heard both sides and each had valid points.  What bothered me is the extent of divisiveness and enmity that resulted because of this election.

Bet Shemesh’s suburbs constitute a huge percentage of Bet Shemesh voters. Bet Shemesh and its suburbs vote for one mayor. Those suburbs have grown exponentially over the last couple of decades and consist mostly of observant Shomer Shabbos Jews.

One would think that they would be united about what kind of candidate would best serve as mayor. But as has been obvious for some time now that was far from the case. Observant Jews there are divided between Charedim and Datim (Dati Leumi - modern Orthodox Jews). So that even though what unites them should be greater than what divides them, this does not translate into harmony at all.

This was one of the most divisive elections in all of Israel. Many people saw what was happening in Bet Shemesh as a microcosm what is happening between Datim and Charedim in greater Israel. The issues of drafting Charedim; funding only Charedi schools that provide a core secular education; and getting more Charedim into the workforce has caused the biggest rift between Orthodox Jews in my memory.

There were some parochial issues limited to Bet Shemesh too. Datim felt that they were being pushed out by a mayor more sympathetic to Charedi concerns than to Dati concerns.  Accusations were flying in both directions. And so was the venom. 

The first time around the incumbent mayor squeaked by with a victory. But when election fraud was discovered the results were nullified and new elections were called. Prominent rabbinic leaders were brought in by activist Charedim in order to exhort the Charedi flock to vote for the incumbent mayor. The rhetoric included warnings that one was Halachicly required to vote for the Charedi incumbent; that it was a Chilul HaShem to vote for someone that was not observant in the traditional sense. Which was the case with challenger Eli Cohen.  

That was countered by R’ Chayim Soloveichik who said in the name of his father, Rav Ahron,  that people should vote their conscience and it was not necessary to vote for the incumbent if they felt the other candidate would serve them better.   The election was held. It was carefully scrutinized to eliminate fraud as much as was humanly possible. The incumbent won again. Case closed. Congratulations to Mayor Abutbul.

The Charedim are thrilled with the results. The Datim… not so much. So why am I so happy? Because my hope is that these divisions can be healed. And that seems to be the approach of one of my Dati friends, MenachemLipkin. This is possible to accomplish when there is good will on the part of both sides. There is no reason that Datim and Charedim can’t get along; respect each other; and be friends. Even if they disagree in Hashkafa. This is my philosophy and I think it should be the goal of all concerned.

The truth happens to be that despite the venom that was coming out from both sides during the election, there is indeed far more that unites observant Jews than what divides them. The issues that are the most divisive, the draft, Charedi education, and Charedi poverty (that is the result of not enough of them working) will hopefully be resolved in a way that will ultimately satisfy everyone.

The goal ought to be the same kind of friendly relations between neighbors that exists in many other places that are constituted by both Charedim and Modern Orthodox.  I have described such communities in the past many times. I call them the new Centrists. New centrists consist of moderate Charedim and RWMO’s whose values and lifestyles are very similar.

While Israel’s mainstream Charedim may not be as moderate as their American counterparts, I don’t see why they can’t get along in a friendly fashion. In relative terms, Ramat Bet Shemsh Aleph consists of moderate Charedim (… as opposed to Ramat Bet Semesh Bet which consists of the more extreme Charedi elements. Working things out with them is a whole other discussion.)

The moderate Charedim of Bet Shemesh are among the finest people I have ever met… as are the Datim I met there. I visit Bet Shemesh every year for Sukkos. I have made a lot of good Charedi friends there. And a lot more Charedi acquaintances.  In every single case – as individuals they are among the finest people I have ever met. They are modest. They are Ehrlich to a fault. They are of impeccable character. Their Midos are exemplary. They will give you the shirt off their back if there is even a hint that you need it. Each year  is an exhilarating experience for me. As individuals they truly are role models. 

Although I did not meet anywhere near as many Datim as Charedim - the same can be said about them. The Datim I met there are of equally fine character. The point is that I truly believe that there can be a rapprochement between them. It’s time to get over the divisiveness and work together. My hope is that Mayor Abutbul will take this opportunity to do just that.  That would be a real victory for everyone.

Here is a suggestion that might go a long way towards that happening. The rabbinic leadership should get together and create a body where every Rav is a member no matter what segment of Orthodoxy he is from. They should all participate, listen to, and respect each other. And respect the needs of each all constituencies.  They should coordinate with the municipality and have their blessing too. And even perhaps some funding.

I believe that Bet Shemesh can rise to great heights if they just try. And instead of being a microcosm of enmity between observant factions they can become a model of cooperation and living together for all of us. How great would that be?