“The Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership has become one of the crown jewels among the long list of programs within The Associated and its 13 agencies,” said partnership co-chair Nina Rosenzwog. “Over 1,000 Baltimoreans visit Ashkelon annually. Our 10-year Partnership has inspired many friendships and encouraged collaboration between our two communities.”
Hence, the Baltimore Jewish Times decided to catch up with Shimoni to talk about his recent victory and what his plans are for the city and the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership.
JT: Did you expect to defeat Vaknin?
Shimoni: The sense on the street was that the people of Ashkelon were ready for a change. … And in the end, the campaign [for change] was successful. We managed to get out the message — mostly that I would focus on improving education and the economy — to the people of Ashkelon in an exceptional way. We managed to get the people of Ashkelon excited and hopeful that we could beat Benny Vaknin, even after all of these years. That being said, we ran a clean campaign, and we tried not to personally attack anyone, despite that this is what was being done to me.
What are your top goals as mayor? Where do you view Ashkelon at the end of your term?
The two main areas that I will focus on during my term are education and business.
In the realm of education, I believe that we can turn around the educational system in the city. I want to see the Ashkelon educational system be among the top systems in the country. I am going to increase the education budget in a real way. I am going to stop the overcrowding, limiting the number of students in a classroom to 26. I am going to provide a hot meal for all students. I am going to enhance the busing system. I am going to expand afterschool options. I am going to increase the number of students who take and pass their matriculation exams.
In the realm of business and the economy, I plan to help bring thousands of more jobs to the city, to decrease our unemployment rates to lower than the national average, to establish both a high-tech park and a manufacturing park. I will offer incentives for new factories to open up and better support those that already exist. I also plan to open new businesses all along the boardwalk.
Ashkelon is going to become a city in which the people who live here are happy, one with a leading educational system and a strong business infrastructure so that the next generation won’t leave here but instead will decide they want to build their homes in Ashkelon. This city is going to become known as a tourist hub, with hundreds of hotels along the breathtaking beach and with other great attractions. Ashkelon is going to be a fun city in which it is nice to live, to raise children and to vacation.
What will be your first steps? How do you move forward on this?
Well, I already went over what I am thinking in the realms of education and business. But, of course, there are other areas at which I am looking. For example, I plan to improve personal safety by establishing a neighborhood watch group that will assist the police. I will use a heavy hand in dealing with crime and will implement new practices to reduce it. … In terms of infrastructure and transportation, I am examining ways to improve traffic flow, particularly during rush hour, and I am looking for solutions to the lack of parking in Ashkelon. … I am hoping to build a pedestrian overpass along our main street, Rabin Street, to ensure the safety of the children walking to and from school. I would also like to improve public transportation. … When it comes to tourism, I hope to put Ashkelon on the map. We will transform the boardwalk into a real attraction. … I hope to encourage entrepreneurs to open new hotels in that area. We will transform the National Park to a real tourist attraction … with a museum that includes highlights from the area’s archeological findings. … And I plan to focus on the younger generation, to provide places for them to continue their studies and jobs that will work for them. I want to construct apartment buildings appropriate for younger people and for families with young children and to build the type of entertainment venues that target that age group.
… The residents are going to be my central focus, and I will work hard to improve communication between the citizens of Ashkelon and my office.
Ashkelon is a place with many new immigrants from around the world. I will improve benefits for new immigrants to make it easier for them to establish their lives in Ashkelon. I plan to expand outreach programs to help new Russian and new Ethiopian immigrants. As such, I plan to be in touch with the Jewish communities in the Diaspora and to increase the amount of funds coming into Ashkelon [from there].
Have you ever been to Baltimore?
I have never been to Baltimore, but I am well aware of the strong partnership that has formed between our two communities over recent years. The Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership started in 2003 and has been strong ever since — and it always will be. … One of the best parts of this is that it creates people-to-people connections between the Jews living in Baltimore and the people of Ashkelon.
Do you see Israel-Diaspora relations as important?
I think it is of utmost importance for there to be a strong connection between Ashkelon and other Jewish communities around the world. The connection is good for us and for you in that it strengthens our community and our Jewish identities — now and in the future.
Specifically, when it comes to the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, we are hoping that every Jewish citizen of Baltimore and of Ashkelon will come to know each other, to experience their Judaism and Israel together. The partnership serves to strengthen our faith in the concept of the Nation of Israel.
The Rockefeller Foundation announced that Ashkelon will be one of the first 33 cities to be part of its 100 Resilient Cities Challenge. What does this mean for Ashkelon?
I am happy about and proud of this, and I think it will help to strengthen Ashkelon’s standing here in Israel and around the world.
I see how important Ashkelon’s relationship with Baltimore really is. … Relationships like this one cannot be taken for granted. …. Seeing how this partnership has developed gives me hope that Ashkelon can build similar relationships with other communities around the world. I invite you all to come and to visit Ashkelon, to bring your families here, your close friends and to experience the changes that are developing in our city.
Maayan Jaffe is former JT editor-in-chief