Harmony In Beit Shemesh?

September 18, 2013
BY Maayan Jaffe
Baltimore native running for city council says divided city can once again come together
Baltimore’s Rabbi Avrohom Leventhal is running for a seat in the Beit Shemesh city council. The race is one of the most contested in all of Israel. (Provided)

Baltimore’s Rabbi Avrohom Leventhal is running for a seat in the Beit Shemesh city council. The race is one of the most contested in all of Israel. (Provided)

One word, said Rabbi Avrohom Leventhal, “sanity.”

And maybe a few more: harmony, quality of life, collaboration.

It is on this platform that the Baltimore native, who moved to Beit Shemesh, Israel, eight years ago, is running for its city council. His party is called TOV, which means good in English, and he said his hope is to restore to Beit Shemesh the good that once was.

Beit Shemesh has been a recent focal point of communal strife and protest. Media has reported Haredim smashing bus windows and spitting on young women not dressed modestly enough for their taste. Sensationalist sometimes, said Rabbi Leventhal, but certainly events being carried out by a vocal and influential minority. The upcoming municipal elections on Oct. 22 may be the most contested and significant local race in Israel.

Rabbi Leventhal explained that the current Beit Shemesh mayor, Moshe Abutbol, is Haredi. That, of course, is not the issue.

What is?

“The majority of residents of Beit Shemesh are not Haredi, and yet the mayor gives into their special interests,” explained Rabbi Leventhal. “Most of the crazies you read about, they are a select few. But they set the flavor of the city and influence what happens [on the ground]. … There have been feelings of animosity that have grown between the different sectors.”

But, he said, it doesn’t have to be that way. It didn’t used to be that way.

Beit Shemesh is a traditional city. It was founded by Sephardim, mostly from Morocco and Iraq, in the 1950s. In the 1980s, Anglos started moving in, many of which affiliated with a national religious viewpoint. From the late 1990s until today, more religious immigrants and religious native-born Israelis started filling out the neighborhoods adjacent to Beit Shemeh proper, areas such as Ramat Beit Shemesh. For most of this time, the people lived harmoniously. But in the last five years, there has been a splitting of the communities — supported by the local government.

“Today there is very much a disconnect. What type of Haredi are you? What kind of Daati Leumi [national religious]? Are you Ashkenazi? Are you Sephardi?” explained Rabbi Leventhal. “It is really a shame.”

Make no mistake, Rabbi Leventhal is himself yeshivish, though he said he is not a fan of labels. He grew up in Baltimore attending Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim-Talmudical Academy. He later learned at Ner Israel and then taught as his high school alma mater. He was heavily involved with the charity organization Ahavas Yisrael. But he said TOV is not your average Shas or United Torah Judaism party. It is what he calls, “Haredi Chevrati,” or a social Haredi party, a party with the religious values of the Haredi system but with a desire for “good government for everyone, services for all people.”

Recently, the Beit Shemesh TOV party came out in favor of Eli Cohen as mayor of Beit Shemesh. Cohen, whose party is called Beit Shemesh Chozer, or Beit Shemesh Return, has lived in Beit Shemesh for several decades and remembers the good old days. Cohen said he sees TOV as a partner in moving the city forward.

“We see in TOV the key to the Haredi world. Together we will build a city that is appropriate for Haredim, Modern Orthodox, traditional and secular residents,” said Cohen in a statement. “Beit Shemesh respects the lifestyles of its residents. It is good that we have TOV Beit Shemesh.”

Rabbi Leventhal said he didn’t envision himself involved in politics; he runs a Beit Shemesh nonprofit, Leman Hachai. But he told the JT that he thinks by lending his name to Cohen and the TOV party he can do an additional service for his community.

He also noted that Beit Shemesh is but a microcosm of the schisms erupting throughout the Jewish state. He said if they can correct the ailments locally, then Beit Shemesh can serve as a model for the rest of Israel.

“Instead of learning to deeply respect each other and work with each other, we have distrust and resentment, and that snowballs into worse things. … My party is not against anyone, we are for everyone,” said Rabbi Leventhal. “We can live side by side.”

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