The cluster of modest homes and quiet, tree-lined streets where Ashkelon's
predominantly Hungarian religious residents settled some 50 years ago has since
turned into a dowdy outdoor shopping area. The only places doing any business are the
coffee shops, where the unemployed congregate to discuss the news and linger over
their cold cups.
This eyesore is a perfect symbol of religion's history in this bustling port city --
if you had to chart it out, it would look like a sharply descending curve. All signs
of the city's original Hungarian religious community disappeared decades ago due to
its failure to build religious schools for its boys and girls, and now an openly anti-
religious municipal administration is determined to maintain the status quo by
blocking renewed efforts on the part of several organizations to rejuvenate religious
life in Ashkelon.
HaRav Avrohom Reisman, rosh yeshivas Beit Achiezer-Toras Chaim, is one of the few
religious leaders of Ashkelon who recognize that something is very wrong there, and
that unless something is done about the situation quickly, things will get even
"Ashkelon has the potential to become a real mokom Torah," Rabbi Reisman says,
"and there are buds of development in the form of religious institutions that could
change the face of Ashkelon. The reason it isn't happening is because there is an
intense and systematic discrimination against all chareidi institutions. Unless we
find some way of overcoming this appalling discrimination, a lot of very important
activities are going to be stunted and, quite possibly, extinguished altogether."
Few In Number, Low In Influence
Probably the most glaring proof in support of this accusation is the city's
demographic imbalance: only 600 chareidi families are to be found among Ashkelon's
This is not unusual in high-income enclaves such as Savion and Ramat Aviv. But among
Israel's blue-collar urban centers, where new communities of baalei teshuva are
striking roots at a dizzying rate, Ashkelon is in a class all of its own.
The problem, Rabbi Reisman concedes, existed in a lesser form 20 years ago when HaRav
Eliezer Menachem Shach shlita sent him to open a yeshiva in the city.
"Things were pretty bad back then as well," he says. "Ben Gurion's dream of
destroying any form of religious commitment -- especially in the Moroccan immigrant
community -- was being fulfilled."
But the situation grew much worse 10 years ago when some 35,000 Russian immigrants
"Only about half of these Russian immigrants are Jewish," explains Michael Solganik,
who coordinates the outreach program developed by Rabbi Reisman's yeshiva, under
which pairs of avreichim dedicate two hours each day to outreach work among
city residents. "Those who are Jewish are influenced by the non-Jews, and they
develop a very negative attitude toward religious people in general, and Torah
scholars in particular. A lot of our work involves convincing them that we are
normal, functioning, productive members of society."
Meanwhile, however, the Russian immigrants changed the balance of power in the
municipality, giving Yisrael B'Aliya six seats in the 23-seat municipal government.
The sectarian party, responding to the preferences of its constituents, has demanded -
- and received -- all those privileges that non-Jewish Russians hold close to their
hearts: stores that sell pork and remain open on Shabbos, new sports arenas, new
swimming pools and recreational centers, and new cultural centers.
Religious schools and institutions, on the other hand, are being denied even the most
basic rights and services.
Rabbi Reisman's yeshiva serves as a good example of a religious institution
struggling to remain alive as a direct result of the municipality's policy of anti-
chareidi discrimination. For years he has pleaded with the municipality for basic per-
student funding for his yeshiva. They never give him a flat out "no," but again and
again, officials put up new barricades of red tape. When they finally give him a few
crumbs, it's all on paper -- they offset it against the property taxes the
municipality charges him for the apartments he is forced to rent for dormitory space.
"Usually they tell me I'm the one who comes out owing them," says Rabbi Reisman. "In
most cities, religious institutions are exempt from paying property tax and even
water. But not in Ashkelon."
And although the yeshiva's outreach program currently serves 300 families -- and has
helped more than 1,000 return to their roots in the last two years alone -- the
situation in the community has set into motion a vicious circle: Young couples
usually move out to neighboring Ashdod or Kiryat Gat, thus further depleting
Ashkelon's already-minute religious community.
Chilonization Of Ashkelon
What is perhaps most amazing is that Ashkelon's municipal officials see absolutely
nothing wrong with their discriminatory policies and, in fact, discuss them openly in
the media. One of the mayor's spokesmen candidly admitted in a recent live television
interview that the municipality has embarked on a program to accelerate the
"chilonization" of Ashkelon. Another leading city official was quoted as saying that
the municipality is committed to "drying up the chareidim" in the city.
Shuvu, Keren Nesivos Moshe, Chinuch Atzmai, Shas' Reshet Chinuch Toranit and Rabbi
Reisman's own yeshiva are just some of the institutions suffering from the
municipality's prejudice against all things religious.
A glaring example is apparent from a copy obtained of a formal government document
opposing the establishment of a new Keren Nesivos Moshe school in the city. The Keren
had opened a school and then sought formal approval from the Education Ministry. At
this point, the Education Ministry turned to the local municipality for its
professional opinion regarding whether the school should be granted a license.
The city objected on two grounds: First, the school was located in a residential
building, and second, the neighbors were complaining that it disrupts their rest.
Keren officials say these are outright lies. The school is not located in a
residential building, but inside a yeshiva facility. And how an elementary school
that closes for the day at 1 p.m. could disturb the neighbors' rest is anyone's
guess. Nonetheless, the school was not licensed.
Another negative opinion from the municipality prevented a new religious kindergarten
network from opening a branch in Ashkelon.
"They rejected our application for a license on the grounds that the kindergarten
facility is located in a residential area," explains David Ofek, the kindergarten
network's local coordinator. "I ask you, where are kindergartens usually located? In
Religious leaders say the only logical explanation for official city stonewalling is
that the municipality is willfully trying to prevent establishment or expansion of
facilities for the chareidi community in Ashkelon.
According to Rabbi Yosef Bloi, chief rabbi of Ashkelon, support in city hall for
chareidi schools is virtually nonexistent. "Some of the city officials even wear
yarmulkes, but they certainly act as if they're bareheaded."
It's a 20-minute drive from Ashkelon to the agricultural village of Mashen. The place
is nothing more than a rundown collection of dumpy houses, fronted by a narrow road
full of potholes concealed under lagoons of rainwater.
This is the way 900 students from Ashkelon have to travel to school every day: 700
attend a Shuvu school, and 200 attend a school run by Shas' Reshet Chinuch Toranit.
The school buildings are more of the same -- a compound of dilapidated prefab
structures dating back to the days of the Yemenite immigration. As far as footwear is
concerned, the most appropriate choice, in view of the puddle-covered mudflats on
which the compound stands, is knee-high rubber boots.
According to Rabbi Yehoshua Buchnik, one of Agudath Israel's two municipal
representatives, the school is in desperate need of a suitable facility.
"Moshe Yannai, the head of the municipality's Education Department, expressed his
position on Shuvu quite clearly," says Rabbi Buchnik. "During a recent municipal
council meeting he said, and I quote, 'As long as I am in charge of this department,
Shuvu is not going to enter this city.' "
Rabbi Glass has been fighting a long and bitter struggle against Yannai and the
municipality. Once Shuvu had a facility inside the city. However, the municipality,
despite issuing the school a license, decided to close it down -- after Shuvu had
invested some $30,000 to refurbish the vacant building.
When Shuvu fought the closure order, the municipality sent a letter to every parent
telling him it was illegal to send his children to the school, and when that didn't
work, Yannai sent a bulldozer to tear the place down. A Shuvu teacher, Shmuel
Meyberg, lay down in front of the bulldozer while school officials ran to the
regional courthouse and obtained a stay -- but not before the bulldozer tore down one
of the classrooms. Eventually the rest of the structure was razed.
"Yannai is not the one to blame," says Glass. "We have no one to blame but ourselves.
We aren't doing anything about the situation. Everyone keeps quiet because each
school principal is afraid that if he speaks up he'll lose the little he's getting
from the municipality," says Rabbi Glass.
He adds that the school has a tremendous potential for growth. The mere fact that
some 700 children already attend the school -- despite its less-than-pleasing
appearance -- is a clear indication that the school must be offering the students
something they can't get elsewhere.
How To Fight City Hall
Ashkelon attorney Alon Goren, who grew up in a well-to-do secular family and has
since become a ba'al teshuva, is not sure whether the path of darchei noam
he has always believed in is still the way to go. After years of trying to help
Rabbi Reisman's yeshiva build a new facility, he is now coming to the conclusion that
perhaps it is time to take a more public and harder line toward recalcitrant city
"We've been trying for years to get municipal approval to build new religious schools
on privately-owned land with private money, but with no success," says Goren. "Rabbi
Reisman had someone who was willing to buy the yeshiva a privately-owned plot of land
and build a facility with his own money. All he needed was a building permit from the
municipality. With merely a letter of intention from the municipality, he could have
secured the funds and waited for the official permit. None was forthcoming. Months
turned into years, until eventually the donor lost patience and diverted the monies
to a project in Ashdod."
A similar thing happened with Shuvu, Goren adds. A certain supporter offered to buy
land and build a school at his own expense. All he needed was a building permit. The
Goren says Rabbi Reisman has also been trying for the past year to build a dormitory
with private money. When he tried to bypass the municipality on the dormitory issue
by going directly to the Housing Ministry, they first gave preliminary approval, but
then balked when they took a second look at the name of the city on the application.
"Ashkelon? Don't even bother. If you're planning on building in Ashkelon, the
municipality won't let it go through," Housing Ministry officials told Rabbi Reisman.
Ashkelon Chief Rabbi Bloi says that he believes an open confrontation with city
officials is not the way to go. "We have to send a delegation to the mayor and try to
improve relations with them," Rabbi Bloi says.
Rav Buchnik of Agudath Israel says to accomplish this, chareidi educators need to
One thing is clear: the religious community of Ashkelon stands at an important
crossroad. The seeds have been planted and are on the verge of sprouting. The only
question is whether the municipality will continue nipping them in the bud once they
do sprout -- as it has been doing all these years -- or whether the religious
community will unite and work together to win this battle of wits.