Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Iyar 5763 - May 21, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








An Interview with Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky

by Betzalel Kahn

As the senior member of the largest party on the Jerusalem City Council, Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky took over as mayor when Ehud Olmert resigned to become a Cabinet minister in February. Now he is running for a full term in elections to be held on June 3-3 Sivan.

Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky has now served for three months as head of the biggest municipality in Israel, a very prestigious post by all standards and also a very meaningful one. Jerusalem became the fifth city headed by Degel HaTorah party members, joining Bnei Brak Mayor Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz, Beitar Illit Mayor Rabbi Yitzchok Pindrus, Modi'in Illit Mayor Rabbi Yaakov Guterman and Kiryat Yearim (Telzstone) Council Head Rabbi Avrohom Rosenthal.

A review of these other four towns and cities shows each of them is run commendably in all respects, as demonstrated by the great esteem all of the chareidi mayors have earned from the ranks of the central government. The new Mayor of Jerusalem has several role models to learn from and high expectations to meet. But he need not rely on these colleagues to teach him how to manage a municipality--except, perhaps, for a few good tips--since he himself comes to the post with almost fifteen years of experience at the Jerusalem Municipality.

Ehud Olmert left the mayor's office to begin a new job as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Industry, Trade and Employment. Seeking a top post in the national government, Olmert had run in the Likud primaries, helped Ariel Sharon set up his Likud-Shinui- Mafdal government, signed an agreement with Yosef Lapid and Effi Eitam to change the status quo on religious matters (an agreement that has already been violated) and settled for Industry in lieu of Finance, the much more prestigious post he had pinned his hopes on. Olmert was a secular person but he had worked with the chareidim for about a decade in Jerusalem, since he unseated former mayor Teddy Kollek who ran the city for 27 years.

At first the media was hardly fond of the idea of a chareidi mayor for one of Israel's major cities. The newspapers flung barbs and insults, running headlines such as "The City Will Turn Chareidi," "Secularists Will Flee Jerusalem" and one that greatly angered Lupoliansky, "The Chareidim are Upon You, Jerusalem."

However, after he took office the city continued to run just as before. Even the rush-hour traffic jams, particularly at the entrance to the city, are the same. Nobody is running out of town. A few days later critical opinion columns changed direction, and even without the headlines, city residents can sense the positive change that has taken place.

Suddenly the man-eating chareidi baiters, accustomed to sullying and slandering the chareidi public at every opportunity, discovered that having a chareidi mayor was not so terrible after all. He runs the city smoothly and has not coerced anyone. Now the general public is beginning to get used to the idea of a chareidi mayor in Jerusalem. The polls have begun to shine on Lupoliansky and he definitely has a good chance to win, perhaps in the first round, or perhaps in a runoff.

Before Pesach, about two months after the former deputy mayor in charge of planning and construction took over the mayor's office, Yated Ne'eman met with Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky for an extended interview.

Yated Ne'eman: How do you feel in your new post?

Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky: It's a different world. It is a big responsibility. A reporter from England asked me in an interview, "You work hard, but you worked hard before, too. What has changed?"

I told him that before I would pray as well, but I always prayed just for my own family. Now I get up in the morning and pray for the well-being of Jerusalem and its residents. Not out of righteousness but because of the responsibility. So that with siyata deShmaya everything will be alright, that nothing will happen, that it will be calm and quiet in Jerusalem. This is out of a sense of responsibility and it touches all areas.

There are regular meetings with the District Chief on various matters, meetings with high-ranking military officers on security matters, with economic heads on economic matters and matters of future development. It's a whole different world.

For example, I was asked for my opinion on the policy of continuing to carry gas masks [during the latter part of the war in Iraq]. I said I am not an expert on security matters, but I can only repeat what Chazal say that one should not issue decrees the public cannot uphold. Could everyone be expected to walk around with a gas mask? That would be virtually impossible unless it was for a short period of time. If you were to tell people to carry the masks for two days that would be reasonable, but to expect them to carry them constantly only makes people negligent. As a result those who adhered to such a directive would be considered aberrant and then other people would not follow suit.

YN.: Is your gas mask kit with you?

R' Lupoliansky: I don't have it on, but it's in the car.

In short my job is not just about whether to install a swing in the playground or not, but much more. It requires a great deal of siyata deShmaya and boruch Hashem I have someone to take my questions. I consult Maran HaRav Eliashiv shlita on every step I take. The outcome of these consultations has consequences that embrace all issues. There are many issues that are not directly connected to the municipality or to the mayor, but I am briefed every day on danger levels, security warnings, and so naturally many things make their way to the mayor's desk.

YN: So you are working harder than in the past.

R' Lupoliansky: Yom volaylo lo yishbosu.

YN: Do you get less sleep?

R' Lupoliansky: Definitely. It's unbelievable. I used to think there is a mayor and there are deputy mayors and the mayor works a bit harder than his deputies. It turns out that the mayor's office is a whole different world. There's no comparison.

YN: Would you compare the task of Jerusalem mayor to that of a government minister?

R' Lupoliansky: Certainly.

YN: Do you feel a greater sense of responsibility than a government minister?

R' Lupoliansky: Definitely, because a minister does not have a direct tie with the residents while the mayor is directly tied to the residents' problems.

The Media Settles Down

YN: Regarding the City Council elections scheduled for the third of Sivan, are you concerned Shinui will send secular voters to the polls with a scare tactic of "the chareidim plan to take over the city?"

R' Lupoliansky: No. Today nearly 40 percent of the voters have declared their support. This means there are plenty of people in the city to make it hard to wage a public discrimination campaign against them. In fact, if they try that it would bring greater support among the majority of the population, which does not tolerate de-legitimizing an individual because of his identity.

YN: Why did the media try to scare the public before you took office?

R' Lupoliansky: It began with the anti-chareidi campaign, "the chareidim are upon you, Jerusalem" [a reference to a newspaper headline, see above]. Suddenly they saw the public was not behind them and that they were exaggerating.

YN: Some claim our needs would be better met by a secular mayor who wields political power rather than a chareidi mayor who would constantly be tested to see how he is doing with regard to his secular constituents.

R' Lupoliansky: You have to know how to go about doing things. The public knows that the chareidi sector has needs, too. The question is do you ask for a bit here and a bit there, in a patchwork manner, or do you ask for a future solution for the totality of needs-- and all segments of the city's population have needs.

Until now the approach taken was problematic and this needs to be remedied. I would like to see a new norm established and a foundation built for the future, not from one day to the next as it has been done in the past.

Thousands of New Apartments

YN: You must be aware of the fact that during the last ten years no new neighborhood has been built for the chareidi sector.

R' Lupoliansky: Indeed. A neighborhood, no, but thousands of new housing units have been built outside and within existing neighborhoods. Boruch Hashem I was able to make it possible for tens of thousands of chareidi families to build additions to their apartments. This is a radical change. The municipality used to oppose any expansion of an apartment or adding a balcony. Today the situation is that Jerusalem is known for improving the quality of life of its residents by building onto existing housing.

YN: One building here and there?

R' Lupoliansky: Not one building here and there but hundreds of buildings, since there was no good reason to construct new neighborhoods with the need for new infrastructures, rather than expanding existing neighborhoods.

Now they are going to build a new neighborhood next to Ramot. You have to understand what happens. In Jerusalem they used to build remote neighborhoods. We came and said, "This was an idea you thought up back then and now we need to develop in between the neighborhoods. We'll [expand] the existing infrastructures in the neighborhoods themselves, i.e. the botei knesses, mikvo'os, schools, kindergartens and nursery schools. This was how we built thousands of housing units in chareidi neighborhoods without making a lot of noise and without having to invest in infrastructure.

YN: Were these private initiatives?

R' Lupoliansky: Not at all. For example, the plan for the new Har Nof, the plan for Givat Shaul [past the industrial area], the plan surrounding Sanhedria and the plan for Antennae Hill [in Bayit Vegan]. Thousands of housing units will be built in these areas.

YN: Yet they are not yet being built yet.

R' Lupoliansky: This is a question of necessity. The plans are finished and have been thoroughly prepared, and this was the initiative of the city. Take, for example, the new housing development adjacent to Har Nof [to be named after HaRav Shach zt'l]. It contains 2,200 housing units. In Ramat Shlomo alone there are 2,000 housing units and another plan in the works for a major addition of 800 housing units to be built in the near future. So why should I build another neighborhood far away?

There has not been an increase in housing prices and this stems in part from the large number of extensions we did. Over the years we have also built through the Authority for Jerusalem Development, Moriah and private contractors. We have plans for thousands more housing units and when they are needed we will build them. I really hope that at least for part of them there will be substantial assistance from the government and the Ministry of Housing.

Demographic Catastrophe on the Horizon

YN: What is being done about the massive flight of young couples--both chareidi and secular--from Jerusalem?

R' Lupoliansky: That is the main question. If the State does not make a fundamental change (and you should realize we are nearing a demographic catastrophe), if money is not invested to allow people to live here--not only to prevent people from leaving Jerusalem, but to draw them from other places--then within twenty years there will not be a Jewish majority in Jerusalem. If the government does not recognize this and take action in this matter, it will be terrible.

YN: What should the government do?

R' Lupoliansky: If Beitar Illit, Modi'in Illit and Tel Tzion receive assistance through government mortgage loans (which are now being seriously cut back) and funding for development costs because of right-wing political thinking, this shows government ideology to promote settling these places. But there was a major oversight here. They should have brought Jerusalem into this same ideological thinking. If the City of Jerusalem does not receive easy mortgage loans, this [the flight of young families] is the result.

YN: In Jerusalem, apartments are more expensive than in other cities . . .

R' Lupoliansky: Every location has its price, and certainly prices of the apartments in Jerusalem cannot be like the prices in the rest of the country, if only for the costs of the land and its development [excavating into rock, in an urban area, etc.] and covering the buildings with Jerusalem stone [which is required by a local ordinance].

YN: The same applies in Beit Shemesh and Beitar Illit where buildings are faced with Jerusalem stone.

R' Lupoliansky: True, but you cannot compare the land costs. In Beitar, for example, the State gives the land away practically for free. In Jerusalem these lots belong to the Israel Lands Authority, which can decide to give the lands in programs which used to be called, "Bnei Beitcha" [Build Your Own Apartment]. If the State of Israel invests in development inside of Jerusalem, it will not lose economically. Maybe it will not generate a profit. But if the government doesn't come to its senses soon in Jerusalem, it stands to lose for generations to come. Am Yisroel will lose. It will be catastrophic here.

YN: So instead of repairing the broken bridge they build a hospital next to the bridge [i.e. they just try to fix problems but not avoid them]--is that the meaning of the expansion of the municipal area of Jerusalem?

R' Lupoliansky: Part of the matter is long-term, expanding the municipal area in order to make it possible for us to build more. Attaching existing neighborhoods in the west does not have any special demographic significance because the existing residents west of the city do not add so many people. The plan was formulated mainly to make it feasible to build more than 100,000 additional housing units in Western Jerusalem.

YN: That would make Jerusalem gigantic. Someone would be considered a resident of Jerusalem from a legal standpoint, but in reality he would be living a considerable distance away, in some neighborhood annexed to the city.

R' Lupoliansky: I foresee construction extending all the way to these locations. Like the more distant neighborhoods we have in the city today. I hope to see construction in the wadi between Sanhedria and Ramat Shlomo and between Ramat Shlomo and Ramot, as well as other areas, for Jerusalem has mountains surrounding it. But there are links between the neighborhoods and the intent is for Jerusalem to become a metropolis, a central location. I hope that there really will be intensive construction so Jerusalem residents will be able to live here, along with new residents coming from outside of the city. In my view there is no alternative; this is what will have to happen. I just cannot say what the time frame will be.

Alleviating Classroom Crowding

YN: How do you intend to solve the dire state of classroom crowding in the chareidi sector?

R' Lupoliansky: The crisis is primarily in the chareidi sector, but also applies in the Arab sector. Without a doubt the problem is due to the large families in the city, kein yirbu, and the State has not provided enough, has not done enough. Boruch Hashem our sector has grown incomparably. The State is not prepared for this.

One hundred percent of the financing for classroom construction comes to the Education Ministry. The City pressures and pressures to receive [additional classrooms]. The City does not build classrooms from its own budget. Certainly several hundred classrooms are needed. I have been sitting down with directors of the Education section in order to try to set a three- year plan that, besiyata deShmaya, will greatly alleviate the situation, more than we are used to seeing.

YN: How do you explain the growing gap between the number of students in the government education system and the number of students in the chareidi education system?

R' Lupoliansky: There is no comparison between families in the chareidi sector, which boruch Hashem have larger families, and families in the secular sector. Furthermore, the city's secular population is aging. Some of their children have already left the city and as a result facilities become available in such places. The same applies in the schools.

Once upon a time there were no computer rooms in schools, no classrooms for enrichment programs and no annex rooms. Today a school building with eight classrooms has another four annex rooms because this is what Education Ministry standards require.

YN: How many classrooms is Jerusalem supposed to receive from the Ministry of Education through Mifal Hapayis funding?

R' Lupoliansky: We are supposed to construct several large education campuses. The person primarily responsible for this is Section Director Rabbi Binyamin Cohen, along with Rabbi Dov Fox of the Administration for Chareidi Education, which operates very nicely and professionally. I hope to see construction begin within the next few months. However they have yet to receive Finance Ministry approval for this extensive project. But since I am on good terms with the central government, although the situation is a bit problematic, I hope it will work out.

Government Assistance for Jerusalem

YN: How do you get along with the Ministry of the Interior, which Avraham Poraz of Shinui now heads? I heard you have already managed to receive tens of millions of shekels from him in the form of loans to the City.

R' Lupoliansky: I'm glad there is a separation between politics and professional matters. One of the interesting things is that even within this brief period I feel this separation has been made, and personal ties play a part as well.

YN: And how are your ties with other leading government officials?

R' Lupoliansky: I have a good relationship with the Prime Minister and with the Finance Minister.

YN: And with Industry Minister Ehud Olmert.

R' Lupoliansky: Certainly.

YN: Or has he already forgotten about Jerusalem?

R' Lupoliansky: No, he has not forgotten about Jerusalem. I need his help on a certain matter now and I have been in contact with him. This is a government that is very unreasonable, but I tend to believe they will help Jerusalem, nevertheless.

YN: Do you think they'll help because Jerusalem is Jerusalem, or won't help because of the chareidi mayor?

R' Lupoliansky: They'll help because Jerusalem is Jerusalem. They will not be able to disregard the city's status.

YN: The City of Jerusalem has a huge deficit. How do you intend to extricate the city from this economic crisis?

R' Lupoliansky: The fact that the economic situation is difficult definitely has an effect on everything. But if everyone is living on an overdraft, the city can too. It's not the end of the world.

YN: But we're talking about NIS 400 million [$90 million] deficit . . .

R' Lupoliansky: A deficit, just like anything else, you need to know how to handle, and how to reduce the current deficit in spite of long-term loans. It's clear to me that in addition to efforts to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy we will also be able to limit expenses and make the system more efficient.

Improving Services

YN: When you assumed your post and you said you would ask municipality workers to relate better to the public, both the former mayor and the clerks were offended.

R' Lupoliansky: I didn't say it in that manner, but I would like to tell you nobody should be offended by the idea of providing better service. Improved service is a very natural thing. And we have to reduce the number of employees because some of them actually create work. Sometimes it is better to give one person a salary raise rather than having two people do the work. There are two things that need changing: the human aspects and the physical aspects. In terms of the human aspects, there has to be a recognition that everyone in public service is here thanks to the city's residents, municipal taxpayers, etc., who sent the municipality employees here to serve them. Then the whole matter changes. Therefore I think the municipality could use a service pledge that within 48 hours the clerk will have to carry out the task and give the person making the request or inquiry a reply. Everyone will receive an immediate response. The answer may be that the request cannot be carried out, but even when we cannot provide services a reason should be given. I also spoke of having all those who provide services dress accordingly.

YN: A uniform, as is practiced in many other countries, which would result in greater modesty?

R' Lupoliansky: Exactly. Everyone would wear a uniform with the City of Jerusalem emblem and the employee's name. This would prevent a lot of problems. People tried to dissuade me by claiming there isn't enough money. I said I would bring in contributions to cover it, and I did manage to raise funds. And then I decided to raise funds for the Courteous Worker program, in which every month the public determines who was the most courteous worker. Everyone would have a name plate beside him with feedback forms on every desk. And the winning worker would receive a prize about twice the size of a regular salary. If someone has a disturbance near his home and contacts the municipality it will have to be taken care of within three hours. If not the worker will be reprimanded and perhaps even fired.

A lot of money has to be raised now from the government ministries and from donations. Seventy roads will be laid in the near future, sidewalks repaired, lighting improved, neighborhood benches added.

YN: Where does the money come from?

R' Lupoliansky: Partly from donations.

YN: And do you need to take a trip abroad for this?

R' Lupoliansky: No. With today's communications you can do this without flying abroad. I managed to raise several million shekels from people to whom Jerusalem is important. From these funds, together with government funds, we will invest more in cleanliness, landscaping, playgrounds and all this will be done right away to make living in the city pleasant. Later this can serve as a step up in terms of [the City's] attention to public areas and residents' needs. Every mayor sees this from his own angle. A mayor who is an accountant by profession sees everything in terms of dollars and cents. My own turf is the human side.

In the past I applied pressure to rehabilitate public areas and everyone has noticed the results. And in general the service pledge will affect the entire population. My approach is that instead of doing private favors for 15 people I straighten out the problem for 15,000 people. In giving out permits for apartment extensions we changed the course of matters that used to be handled mainly with protexia. The general question is whether to handle a problem by fixing the system itself or just on an individual basis. You cannot abandon the personal aspect, but if faced with a question of whether to provide for three people asking for favors or to address something on a system-wide level that will provide assistance for 3,000 people, I prefer to address the 3,000 people.

YN: Jerusalem is the poorest city in Israel. How can this be changed?

R' Lupoliansky: Action definitely has to be taken to address this matter. I have a few ideas of my own. I don't like to talk about ideas theoretically. I plan to carry them out.

YN: Like what?

R' Lupoliansky: It's too early to discuss them, but this is one of the needs that has to be met. Attention also has to be given to the physical condition of the neighborhoods and to do things to ease the burden for large families. Among other [planned initiatives] we will issue local-resident cards that will grant every family admission to public sites at reduced prices so that the children--even if the family's financial situation is not good--will also be able to enjoy a wider range of possibilities.

YN: I imagine Uri Lupoliansky sees himself as a mayor for five years since there's no reason to begin solving problems for just the next two months. The idea you proposed to improve service, for example, is a long- term solution.

YN: That doesn't mean anything. I am working in what I am doing for now, not for the next five years. In every situation I find myself I try to do the maximum, regardless of what will happen later. I am putting order into various systems so that these systems will also be viable another five years from now, because I am trying to make changes in the system that will have a positive effect for many years to come, besiyata deShmaya.

Maintaining the Public Spaces

YN: In conclusion, you are aware of the fact that acts of chilul Shabbos in the city have increased in recent years.

R' Lupoliansky: This definitely pains all those who perceive Jerusalem's kedushoh, even those who do not keep Shabbos at home according to halocho. I know this from close up, that the vast majority of residents in this city want to see the city's public face as a special city recognized for the holiness of its Shabbos.

Furthermore you have to realize people say the mayor has far- reaching authority. I am told, "If you grant a building permit for this building or that one, chilul Shabbos will take place inside."

Do I grant permits to desecrate Shabbos? I grant a permit for people to occupy a building and for the building to be lived in as it should be. The municipality does not give anybody permission to operate on Shabbos. The Labor Ministry does so. Judge [Ayala] Procaccia determined that coffee houses, restaurants and gas stations are allowed to operate on Shabbos, but this has nothing to do with the municipality. We are not a party to this. Granted there is a problem, but there is one thing accepted by the silent majority, including this city's non-religious population, and this is that Jerusalem is unlike Israel's other cities. Jerusalem's public face cannot be desecrated. There has to be a public face appropriate to the holy city of Jerusalem and we are making every effort in this matter.

YN: Thank you very much and good luck.

A Full-Time Mayor

Who can forget the huge demonstrations against the archaeological excavations at various sites around the city? It has turned into a set ritual. Whenever ancient graves were discovered on road -- or building -- construction sites the battle against grave desecration was set into motion, though in many cases the ordeal for both sides could have been prevented.

Over a year ago Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky, then in charge of municipal planning and construction, conceived an idea to require contracting companies requesting construction permits for roads or buildings to perform preliminary geological testing to search for burial caves. The testing costs only a few hundred or at most a few thousand shekels. The standard technique is a fairly simple form of ultrasound tests--not unlike those performed on humans--scanning underground in order to detect hollow spaces. If subterranean cavities are found the geologists ascertain whether there is indeed a burial cave or merely a hole dug for other purposes or a boulder with an empty space underneath. If it does prove to be a burial cave, the road or building is simply moved a bit to one side or the other.

This novel procedure is only followed in Jerusalem. Since the proposal was implemented, there have hardly been any problems with archaeological digging in the city. This is exactly how problems are supposed to be solved: in advance, quietly, without causing an uproar and grievances on all sides. Particularly since the cost of testing is so low.

This is just one example of how a municipality as big as the City of Jerusalem must operate. Many problems can be quietly solved if small details are considered in advance. This example may be a bit dated, but since Rabbi Lupoliansky has assumed the post of mayor many people have already sensed a change at the municipality and in the city itself.

Those representing the city's chareidi sector now have an easier job. The positive reception they have been given lately by municipal officials--from high-ranking officials to simple clerks--has led them to wonder why things were different in the past. "Everyone knows who the mayor is," explains Rabbi Lupoliansky, "and that I want everything to have a different look in every area," a reference to attitudes toward little things and to solving problems before they arise. The issue of eruvin is a good example. At first glance it would seem the municipality has nothing to do with the wire eruv surrounding the city, which falls under the responsibility of the Religious Council. Yet until now, when contractors performed groundwork in various places around the city they sometimes damaged the eruv wires and poles inadvertently, not bothering to repair them. As a result, Religious Council workers had to check the eruv several times a week. Meanwhile, the same contractors had to obtain a permit from and coordinate with Israel Electric, Bezeq, the municipal water supplier and all other companies whose infrastructures lie underground or aboveground. To solve the problem, Mayor Lupoliansky recently decided to add the eruv committee to the round of obtaining permits and coordinating. Now if the eruv gets damaged the Religious Council is notified immediately, just like Bezeq, Israel Electric, etc.

Or take, for example, the issue of trash removal during the strike a few weeks ago. It is no secret that chareidi neighborhoods suffered much more from the piling up garbage. Therefore the municipality decided that the moment the strike ended, neighborhoods with large juvenile populations would be cleared of garbage first.

During the heavy snowfall that blanketed Jerusalem during the winter, Rabbi Lupoliansky joined city snow experts on preliminary tours of the city and again on the night snow levels began to reach considerable heights. Suddenly he noticed, the road leading to Neve Yaakov was blocked. Following a brief inquiry, he learned that this route was not included among the "red roads" that lead to hospitals, therefore the snow- blowers had not bothered to clear the road.

"There are 17 births in the neighborhood every night," said Rabbi Lupoliansky. "How do you expect birthing mothers to get to the hospital?" he asked, and ordered that the road be cleared immediately. Since then, it was decided the main road to Neve Yaakov and all of the city's other outlying neighborhoods would be kept open during snowstorms.

These are just a few examples to demonstrate that Jerusalem now has a mayor who is on the job full-time, taking the minor details into account and looking out for residents' needs. Hopefully this change for the better will have an impact on the City of Jerusalem's functioning for years to come.


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