A Different Chareidi Perspective From Beit Shemesh
As we promised, here is a different POV on the electoral upset in the Beit Shemesh mayoral race, a rebuttal to the earlier letter.
by Yoni Samber
My story has some similarities to David Kasten’s. After growing up in Hollywood, California, in the 80’s and 90’s while attending yeshiva throughout, I landed in Israel in 1996 to begin the adult stage of my life. I spent four years in two wonderful chareidi yeshivas prior to getting married in 2000. (Point of interest to those keeping track of current chareidi affairs: Rav Shmuel Auerbach zt”l was our mesader kedushin).Two years later, we moved our growing family to Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef (RBSa)where we have been ever since. I spent the first eight years of our marriage learning in a chareidi halacha kolel before training to be a paramedic (ALS) in the great state of Texas. It took me two years to get my Hebrew up to par before I was able to get my Israeli license, but it was all worth it just for the looks I get when someone is having the worst day of their life and they look up to see this big American chareidi fellow there to help them.
I was going to address my grievances against Mr. Kasten’s submission at this point, but I feel that one can not fully comprehend some of the dynamics at play here in Beit Shemesh without some history. When we came here in 2002, Danni Vaknin was mayor. A local career politician, the anglo chareidi consensus of the time in this neighborhood was not positive. He was (allegedly) corrupt, not interested in helping frum elements, and intent on preventing chareidim from settling in the planned Shachar neighborhood (now known as RBS gimmel). Mayor Vaknin was ousted by Moshe Abutbul in 2008, to the joy of chareidim in this city. The Abutbul administration, supported by a razor-thin majority of chareidi councilmen, launched in 2009, amidst pledges to represent the good of all city residents. I made a point to pick up all free local Hebrew newspapers outside of the local makolet every Friday, so I could get a feel for what was going on. It did not bode well from the beginning, when the Gimmel party forced him to keep the Tov party’s Eli Freedman (the sole councilman elected to represent working chareidim) out of the coalition. But the feeling in old Beit Shemesh was one of cautious hope that the mayor would be fair to everyone.
That hope came crashing down late that spring, when Abutbul’s czar of housing and development, Moshe Montag, unveiled new plans for RBS gimmel. The media and elected officials from old Beit Shemesh exploded. Gone were plans for a lake and any other of the things designed to make this attractive to non chareidi residents. This was, in their view, a blatant attempt to permanently alter the electorate in order to prevent them from ever electing a non- chareidi mayor again. Abutbol had a plan for this. He would give his word to split the new neighborhood in three-chareidi, DL, and general (chiloni). With this promise in hand, the council voted to develop RBS gimmel. It was a matter of weeks before the agreement unraveled. Montag was determined and unapologetic. It was against the law and discriminatory to prevent anyone from living where they wanted, went the argument. The people of old Beit Shemesh watched as RBS gimmel went from a future for everybody, to Abutbul’s and Gimmel’s (the party) future.
That is how it all started. Abutbol had shown his true colors, and while he got his hilltop, he squandered the good will that was extended to him on credit.
The Great Orot Banot Catastrophe of 2011 was even more telling. The sequence of events was documented at length in English and on YouTube, so I will spare all of us the agony of rehashing it. But know this: Abutbol’s approach of speaking of problems “on both sides” (read- Charlottesville) was a complete disaster for Beit Shemesh, and for chareidim beyond our city. If he would have taken charge and said the obvious from the beginning, namely that there was one very wrong side here, then the whole thing would have finished in August a few days after it started. Instead, he looked elsewhere, as girls were spat on and yelled at on and off until the story went national in December. The results are known. Israel has never been the same. Draft laws were changed after Yeish Atid was swept into office, ultimately leading to the Peleg split, and non-stop tension between religious and secular ever since.
After Eli Cohen’s final defeat in March 2014, Mayor Abutbul pretty much had free rein to do what he wanted. More chareidi neighborhoods have popped up everywhere. The Golevences or Ramat Avraham area looks like RBS bet on steroids, with all that implies. And no one really likes to talk about the maps that show a planned expansion west of Nahar Yarden that would double the size of that troubled neighborhood. The incidents of rocks and boulders placed in my way as I drive through on Shabbos to attempt to help patients in cardiac arrest IN THEIR OWN COMMUNITY indicates to just what level Torah has been distorted there. I have spoken to first responders who have been outright stoned on their way to help. Other documented incidents included an uptick in incidents in which frum soldiers from the community were harassed and assaulted. Large signs intended to intimidate women appeared without challenge. In each reported incident, the Mayor’s response was canned and pitifully inadequate: While we condemn all violence and intimidation, the police are responsible for law and order, not the mayor.
What was noticeably different in his last term was that the funding that he swore the national government would give us wasn’t quite working out the way he had promised. New communities like RBS gimmel remain construction zones to this day, with vital public services like schools, parks, a womans mikva and basic transportation worked out on the fly – if at all. The state of affairs at the city welfare office is one that I am embarrassed to admit I had not been aware of until I read the replies to Mr. Kasten’s letter.
Which brings me back to Mr. Kasten’s submission. What he has written is sadly representative of the sentiments of thousands of (but not all of) chareidim in our city. I know this because aside from my diligence in reading Temura and Keren Or (since defunct), I have invested countless hours, tears and increases in diastolic blood pressure to read the Chadash propoganda machine that has, both to my wife’s and the paper recycling man’s dismay, increased substantially in thickness since 2002. I have struggled to understand all perspectives so that I can be an educated consumer when it comes to voting, but also to be able to relate to the people of this city better. ( I always joked that if you balance the fake news of the Chadash against the rhetoric of the Keren Or, you end up with the closest thing to the truth in the Temura).
Mr. Kasten’s piece assumes malign motives in anyone running against his candidate. He has no doubt that they are out to get us, to suck us defenseless chareidim away from our God and into their schmutz filled orbit of hedonism and movie theatres and army. My line of work has brought me into direct contact with every walk of life in Bet Shemesh, from Moroccans to Ethiopians, the Dati of old Darom to the arsim of the Tayelet and Ayalon Park.
How dare you, Mr. Kasten? How dare you accuse any non-chareidi party or group of “hating Judaism and any thing to do with it?” In my sixteen years here I have NEVER met a SINGLE Jew in this city that fits anything close to such a description. Even Richard Peres, public enemy number one in this city among chareidim, does not want all yeshivas closed or bachurim who are truly learning drafted. I know that because I shmoozed with him once when he was my patient.
Whom have you spoken to? Have you ever tried to get to know Dr Finkelstein? I never met her, but please understand that not every women who has suffered abuse at the hands and mouths of Chareidi-dressed thugs, and who refuses to take it, necessarily becomes a “known rabid anti- religious activist.” (Unless of course the religion you are practicing involves intimidation and harassment of women, then I guess you could get away with calling her anti religious. So I really need to ask you, neighbor, “What religion are you practicing? Because I do not recognize it. It is certainly NOT what I saw and fell in love with in 1996, and committed the rest of my life to. Is using a chareidi epithet against the brave victim of an assault-whom you have never met-your idea of the kedusha you crave? Not taking into account the aspects of forbidden speech.
You have bought into an imaginary, paranoid world that mongers fear and feeds off of some delusion that all non chareidim are out to get us. Circle the wagons! Praise G-d and pass the ammunition! Only a person or a society that is insecure feels the need to fall back on such a perpetual state of war.
Other respondents have addressed how you repeatedly refer to Dr Bloch as not Orthodox. What an utter humiliation to chareidim everywhere that here, for all the world to see, a man makes no effort to conceal what too many chareidim think, but usually have the self respect to keep to themselves- any non chareidi person or sect is not truly Torah observant. I have heard this said before, but to see it written in public is simply bone chilling. Is this the spiritual aliya, the “ideal” that you had in mind when you came here? You have shown how spiritually bankrupt your ideals are. Your follow-up comment that defends applying the “not-frum” epithet to married women who do not cover their hair (to your satisfaction) is astounding. Woe to the generation that transmits such values to their children!
Separation of church and state? Lets talk about that. The obligation to struggle to be a good Jew is not dependant on the help or hindrance of the Israeli government, national or local. So even if a non-frum or anti-frum politician takes the reins of power for a while, I will double down and work harder to strengthen my spiritual roots and branches. I will encourage my family to fight harder to develop and intensify our relationship with G-d during the transitory period that we will endure. If the government is not giving money for kashrus or school, then we will have to pay for it ourselves, just like we did in the good old days .Only a man who has been hopelessly dependent on government handouts for most of his adult life would be too overwhelmed to step up to the plate and empower himself to take his fate into his own hands. It does not have to be that way, and I am not embarrassed to go on record to say I trust Dr Bloch not to destroy Judaism. Not over five years, and not ever. And to those that say that, yes she might be ok, but what if she is pressured by anti-chareidi people in her coalition?” I answer that this is where strength of character come into play. I trust her. She has not betrayed my trust like Mayor Abutbul has for ten years.
This leads to the next point. Separation of church and state can carry over to the compartmentalizing of ruchnius and gashmius. In the US it is easier to fall into a mindset of “my money is my money, and my ruchnius is my ruchnius.” When you come to Eretz Yisrael, your perspective of the two changes. You feel elevated ruchnius, and you realize how important that ruchnius is. If you develop a proper Torah perspective, you start to value essential gashmius fundamentals such as parnassa, basic food, safety from theft or terrorism, functioning public transportation, lit sidewalks free of obstacles and so on as not as just some gashmius need, but as a spiritual need! The spiritual ruchnius could not exist without all these things. And this is one of the merits of living here- even the gashmius pursuits are elevated to a ruchani level. By failing in all areas of essential gashmius, our very ruchnius is threatened. How can I send my son to learn Torah in yeshiva when the iriya could not find the money to provide an armed guard outside his school? How can I get to kollel if chalila I am maimed in a head on collision on Nachal Tzealim due to reckless traffic changes that have persisted for months? How could my wife go to the mikva Friday night for two years if we would live in gimmel? How can I explain to my Bais Yaakov daughters that we have a chareidi mayor, endorsed by gedolei Yisrael, who has done nothing to prevent or discourage the abhorrent treatment of frum women going about their business in rama bet? How can I explain to my children that the gedolei Yisrael instructed their followers to vote for a party in which their number two man was arrested for multiple cases of bribery and abuse of public funds?
And you have the audacity to boil it all down to one less soda can in the street? Moshe Abutbul and his Gimmel party of shame are in fact the greatest threat to ruchnius in this city.
The good news is, the Torah and the Jewish people will survive them. I can only hope that David and the thousands of like-minded chareidim can survive the attitudes that are manifest in his letter.
A final point. Last Friday night, a young Rav addressed his audience in a local shtiebel and related the following. At a public event several years ago, the mayor said, “This city is not under my control, it is under direct control of the cities rabonnim.” Can you imagine that?, he continued. Where else in the world can such a thing be said? he wondered in awe. I sat there quietly, thinking about what he said. And I found myself going back to a cold day last January, the morning after my kids had surprised me with a surprise birthday party when I got home from work after 11:30pm. After dropping them off at school, I suddenly found myself standing over the body of a six year old boy. His father had been rushing him to school, holding his hand as they crossed the street on a crosswalk at Sorek and Kishon. A bus rounded the corner and hit both of them. The father suffered a broken leg. His son did not suffer. He was dragged under the bus and killed.
I will never forget seeing the boy’s hand and remembering a hand the same size – that of my six year old son as hugged me when he woke me up that morning. The angelic, pure, peaceful face of the boy who was killed will be forever burned into my memory.
And I thought back to the newspaper articles in the Chadash, going back eight years when Yisrael Silverstein was not on the council, but as a Degel activist was assigned to be responsible for traffic flow and safety. How he spoke about that very intersection, about its jams and dangers to pedestrians. And how nothing had changed since then. And I thought about how twice after this tragedy the Chadash reported how the same man was back, this time with a team of experts from wherever, and how they were determined that blah blah blah…
And it is ten months later and nothing has changed there.
And the young rav continued on about rabonnim and Daas Torah. Wait a minute! If the rabonnim have direct control of the city, maybe we just had the wrong email address all these years! Maybe they bear some responsibility for this mess?
If what this rav said is accurate, then the rabonnim of this town who campaigned for this mayor three times over the last ten years should at least organize a symbolic egla arufa ceremony at the corner and say “Yadeinu lo shafchu es ha-dam ha-zeh!” Our hands did not shed this blood. Except that it would be dishonest.
If there was ever a greater challenge to emunas chachamim – the emunas chachomim that all of us crave and desperately need now -I have yet to see it.