Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

23 Tammuz 5766 - July 19, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Culture for Everyone! — But Each to His Own

by Betzalel Kahn

A Groundbreaking Report

A new study has finally provided official confirmation of something that tens of thousands of Yerushalayim's chareidi population have known for years. Are chareidim discriminated against in allocation of city funds for cultural activities suitable for religious families? Are the public buildings available for such activities fairly shared between the irreligious, national religious and chareidi sectors?

In a report published three weeks ago, the Jerusalem Institute for Researching Israel answered the first question with an unequivocal "Yes" and the second with an equally emphatic "No."

What is Chareidi Culture?

What does the word "tarbut" (culture) bring to mind? Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Beethoven? Literature, art and music, the principal formats in which man's creativity is expressed? This is the sense in which the general public in Israel, as in other countries, understands the concept. Leaving aside the important questions of the permissibility and suitability of our involvement with the gentile and/or secular manifestations of these media, a culture that is specifically chareidi obviously can't be defined in quite the same terms.

In the present context, tarbut refers particularly to extracurricular activities provided for children and youths, women and senior citizens. A visit to any chareidi neighborhood will show that many such events are actually held but when the resources allocated by the local authorities to the general, irreligious public for such events are compared with those given to the chareidim, a familiar pattern emerges: chareidim are not simply being discriminated against, they receive next-to-nothing.

For example, one of the organizations that is involved in providing these activities in Israel is the Matnas Society. (The word matnas is an acronym, made up of the initial letters of the words Mercaz Tarbut, No'ar, Sport i.e. Center for Culture, Youth and Sport Activities.) Its function is to erect buildings suitable for public use in all the country's population centers. In all of Yerushalayim one can hardly find any activity with an authentic Yiddishe orientation suitable for chareidi youth or women in the framework of the matnasim. Everybody in the city knows that as a rule you won't find a matnas in a chareidi neighborhood and if perchance you do come across one, it's used exclusively by the irreligious residents. That's the situation in the Ramot and Shmuel Hanovi neighborhoods.

The matnas in chareidi Givat Shaul is used by the national religious community of adjacent Kiryat Moshe. Elsewhere, in Romemah and the Bukharian district for example, while matnasim exist, lack of funding severely limits the use to which they can be put. No matnasim at all exist in the following neighborhoods: Har Nof, Bayit Vegan, Ezras Torah, Unsdorf, Mattersdorf, Geulah, Sanhedria, for the simple reason that they are populated by chareidim. Only recently, with orders from Mayor Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky, has the city begun opening matnasim and local councils in some chareidi neighborhoods, such as Ramot and Ramat Shlomo.

Chareidi Culture Today

This is not to say that the city turns a blind eye to the needs of its chareidi residents. A special section, the Department for Torah Culture, works year round at organizing both local and central activities for the aforementioned groups. Thousands participate on a daily basis in the morning activities for senior citizens, afternoon activities for children, and evening activities and performances for women, that the department arranges or provides assistance for. Despite the ever-widening scope of these services however, demand always exceeds supply. All the activities have to take place in ad hoc locations such as schools, kindergartens and local halls, rather than in the well-appointed kind of premises provided in the non- religious neighborhoods.

The new chareidi cities around Yerushalayim suffer from the same dearth of matnasim and communal halls. In Beitar Illit for example, a single matnas serves a population of thirty thousand, kein yirbu. The Beitar municipality maintains the building on its own and sponsors all the activities it offers, without any assistance whatsoever from the national Matnas Society. It also runs a branch of the matnas in the city's Gefen neighborhood.

In Modi'in Illit, one matnas building has been erected with the financial assistance of Mifal Hapayis (the National Lottery) and one hall serves as its branch in neighboring Achuzat Brachfeld. The population is comparable to Beitar Illit.

In Beit Shemesh, a tiny matnas branch in the city's old chareidi section has to suffice for the town's thirty thousand (kein yirbu) chareidi residents. A new matnas that was built several years ago in Ramat Beit Shemesh A is used exclusively by the non-chareidi thirty- five percent of the local residents. Since the chareidi sixty-five percent have no halls whatsoever of their own, they are occasionally given the opportunity to hold educational functions in the municipal halls. With UTJ's recent entry into Beit Shemesh's municipal council and the appointment of one of its representatives as a member of the board of the local matnas, there are hopes that things will improve.

Time for Reassessment

The new study, conducted by the Jerusalem Institute for Researching Israel at the request of Jerusalem's Department for Torah Culture, found that there is a great unmet demand for cultural activities and recommends allotting twelve sites for new municipal cultural centers to serve Yerushalayim's chareidi population.

The master plan, with its proposals for action in consequence of the study's findings, was prepared by Dr. Maya Choshen, Yisrael Kimchi and Michal Korach and was first presented at a study evening held three weeks ago. The researchers stressed that although Yerushalayim has an abundance of cultural institutions, these principally serve the irreligious and national-religious communities. The chareidi community only visits a tiny fraction of these places, due to their incompatibility, in most cases, with chareidi standards and way of life. Making use of existing facilities for end of year events or other school functions poses problems of accessibility, requiring participants and their families to make their way to halls in the city center.

"It thus emerges," the report states, "that practically speaking, the chareidi population has no cultural institutions [emphasis in original] that meet its requirements, where it can cultivate its own cultural life in keeping with its lifestyle and tastes."

The study reports that the chareidi population of Yerushalayim and the surrounding towns last year numbered 245,000, kein yirbu (163,000 in Yerushalayim and 82,000 in the neighboring towns). This number is expected to reach 300,000 by the year 2020.

These figures are based on official estimates and seem conservative. In fact, the real growth rate of the chareidi population is much higher. For example, the researchers took Beitar's population in 2002 as 20,000. This would mean that in less than three years it grew by another 10,000 and of course, the more developed the city becomes, the higher its growth rate. The populations of Beitar and Beit Shemesh are expected to grow by approximately sixty thousand in the next fourteen years, to say nothing of tens of thousands more in Yerushalayim itself; this already gives a much higher total.

The Careful Planning Behind the Study

The study was commissioned by Rabbi Gavriel Shtauber, Director of the city's Department for Chareidi Culture, in view of the paltry number of institutions currently serving the chareidi population and the growing demand to participate in a comprehensive range of cultural activities that are appropriate for the chareidi community. Dealing only with the needs of the chareidi community, this is the first study of its kind in Yerushalayim and, apparently, in the entire country.

Its aims were to provide an up-to-date picture of the institutions currently serving the chareidi community, to identify the community's cultural needs and to estimate the extent of demand in the city and surrounding towns by the year 2020, to formulate a program and to make recommendations regarding the distribution of neighborhood, area and city-wide cultural institutions and, finally, to integrate these suggestions in the city's outline plan for Yerushalayim in the coming years, which is in its final stages of preparation.

Rabbi Shtauber led a steering committee that directed the preparation of the study. Among his committee's members were workers in the field of Torah culture both within and without the municipality and representatives of relevant departments in the city, the Ministry of Education and Culture, and the local neighborhood councils.

The steering committee held many meetings. It heard reports on the study's progress and guided the planning team regarding which topics to investigate and the pattern of future work. Lecturers were also invited to address the steering committee on the topic of what the idea of culture means in the chareidi world and what types of activities the community seeks.

The steering committee and planning team met Rabbi Mordechai Neugreschel of Arachim, Rabbi Avraham Yehuda Feiner, a member of the city council and holder of the Torah Culture portfolio, Rabbi Yehoshua Pollak, deputy mayor and holder of the Planning and Building portfolio, Uri Shetreet, former City Engineer, and other relevant personages.

The planning team visited all the institutions that currently provide cultural activities for the chareidi community, principally local matnasim and branches. They interviewed the directors of matnasim and the coordinators of activities and other personnel. The directors of the matnasim and of the local neighborhood councils were asked to fill out a questionnaire about current activities and give their opinions about current and future needs.

The planning team also visited chareidi neighborhoods in order to survey the premises currently available for cultural activities and locate sites where further buildings could be erected.

Conclusion: a Severe Shortage

The researchers state unequivocally that there is a severe shortage of cultural institutions for the chareidi population, both on the local and the municipal levels. "There isn't a single general purpose hall in all of Yerushalayim that serves the chareidi population exclusively. Neither is there a central library . . . Cultural events for the chareidi community are held in `host' locations, such as the Gerard Behar Hall and the Congress Center [adjacent to Binyanei Ha'Uma]."

The main reason for the current state of affairs is a faulty "assumption" on the part of earlier city planners and distributors of cultural funding, that chareidim are not interested in cultural activities and therefore don't need any land or building resources allocated to them for such purposes. Another reason is that the chareidi neighborhoods in the city center are very old indeed and were built without any provision for buildings for communal use. These areas have no available space for cultural institutions.

The report shows that cultural activities are held in matnasim and under the auspices of local councils, which just four chareidi neighborhoods have — Romemah, Har Nof, the Bukharian district and Ramat Shlomo. To these have been added eleven matnas branches, under instructions of Mayor Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky. Most of these premises are very close to the chareidi residential areas but they consist of rented or makeshift structures that are not suited to the uses that are being made of them, with respect to neither the types of activity or the numbers attending.

Conclusion: Constantly Growing Demand

The report shows great interest in all types of Torah oriented cultural activities in all the various subcommunities that make up the overall chareidi community, particularly among women and children. This interest has been growing over the past few years. "It's important to note," write the researchers, "that expected demand for cultural activities . . . will be in direct proportion to growing needs and to the way in which the provision of cultural services develops, which in itself is expected to boost demand."

Examples of the types of activities that are currently offered to the general chareidi public (principally by the city's Department of Torah Culture but on private initiative as well) are: lecture evenings, concerts featuring school choirs, concerts of chazonus, simchos beis hashoevoh and hakofos sheniyos on the night after Simchas Torah, exhibitions, markets for kaporos and for arba minim, local festive gatherings during Yomim Tovim, hachnosas sefer Torah, the Torah book month and major central events on Succos and Pesach.

Among the activities currently offered locally within the framework of the matnasim and neighborhood councils are activities for children, story hour, game time, and arts and crafts groups. For women and teenage girls there are groups for parent guidance, art, crafts, handicrafts, assembling costumes, flower arranging, exercise and lectures and study groups on a variety of topics such as communication skills and analyzing children's drawings.

The researchers note that besides the obvious participation of the men in the various events held over the Yomim Tovim, scarcely any activities whatsoever are held for them. The most they are offered are lectures on education.

Demand for activities is at its greatest at certain times of year, for example, rosh chodesh and during the Yomim Tovim and the summer holidays. Special attractions are offered at these times, such as puppet theaters and other performances and during the summer holidays, trips to pools, water parks and playgrounds and to the graves of tzaddikim.

Recommendations: Guidelines for the Master Plan

The members of the steering committee set guidelines to follow in preparing the master plan. For example, the plan has to provide for the needs of the chareidi community as a whole, meaning that activities have to be separate for men and for women. While existing municipal cultural institutions will have to serve the chareidi population as well, buildings intended for use by the chareidi population at large are to be situated only in chareidi areas. The master plan does not deal with any sport activities.

The report accordingly recommends designating plots in Yerushalayim and the surrounding towns for the construction of premises suitable for use by chareidim. The plots should be in or close to the main chareidi residential areas and be easily accessible and well serviced by public transport. Premises for local activities should be centrally located inside the neighborhoods and just as easily accessed, both by public transport and on foot.

"The planning guidelines for public buildings in Israel, including those that house cultural institutions, stress the need to maximize the use of land by combining various public institutions, for example, by placing a community center next to a school," the report states. "Therefore, it would be fitting for the planned cultural institutions to be part of multipurpose projects, where educational, cultural and social needs are all served. Where the construction of such projects is not feasible, smaller plots or premises should be found for use for cultural activities."

The report also recognizes the fact that on the whole, chareidi families do not have the financial resources to pay for costly pastimes. "The relative poverty of the chareidi population and its inability to pay large sums for cultural activities may lead to problems in maintaining cultural institutions. A municipal committee should be established to investigate the possibilities of assisting cultural institutions for the chareidi public."

Recommendations: Proposals and Locations

"Yerushalayim is a national and a world center for the chareidi population," write the researchers. "Its standing in the cultural sphere should also be strengthened by establishing national cultural institutions for the chareidi population."

Among the cultural institutions that the report recommends setting up are a central hall and center for public events; a central library for Torah-oriented literature; a center for occupational expansion of different cultural fields; a world center for the study of chazonus; an art college and center; a center for the study of Yerushalayim and of the Holy Land in the light of Tanach, history and geography; Jewish museums such as the Museum of the History of Chareidi Settlement in Yerushalayim; a center for crafts and Torah oriented pastimes; a center for literature and encouraging writers that will also house the chareidi Writers' House; an exhibition center that will house displays of aspects of various mitzvos, such as the land- bound mitzvos, tefillin, the vessels of the Mikdosh and others. Obviously, in order to ensure that these institutions are faithful to the spirit of the chareidi community they will have to be run by chareidi educators and supervised by rabbinical committees.

The researchers recommend that for the next five years at least, the Municipal Zoning Committee should give priority to finding suitable sites for chareidi cultural institutions. Most of the costs of construction are to be met by donations from abroad.

The report also includes a list of sites and buildings that could be used for the new institutions. These are located in such areas as Neveh Yaakov-Kiryat Kamenitz, Ramot, Ramat Shlomo, the northern "belt" (Ezras Torah-Unsdorf-Mattersdorf- Minchas Yitzchok-Belz) Givat Shaul, Sanhedria, the Bukharian district, Shmuel Hanovi, Beis Yisroel, Mekor Baruch, Geulah, Shaarei Chesed and its environs, Har Nof and Bayit Vegan.

Another recommendation is that existing cultural buildings located close to chareidi neighborhoods, that at present principally serve the irreligious public, be redesigned to serve the chareidi public exclusively. One such example is Beit HaHistadrut on Rechov Strauss, which houses a hall. "Its central location makes this the most suitable place for a central hall where various cultural events can be held. Every effort should be made to purchase the building and make it suitable for use by the chareidi public," states the report.

Another location mentioned in the report is the empty site between the neighborhood of Sanhedria Hamurchevet and the Har Chotzvim industrial zone, adjacent to the Beit Baiyer old age home. The site contains three plots that have been earmarked for use by the city for the construction of public buildings. Its central location in the chareidi heartland and its easy access from all the surrounding neighborhoods make any of the three plots suitable for constructing a city- wide cultural center for the chareidi population. "If the area is privately owned, a donor should be sought to purchase it and construct a multipurpose cultural center," the researchers recommend.

Closing the Gap

So far so good — all of us are familiar with the problems and pressures and can vouch for the truth of the report's findings. Its recommendations sound very promising indeed. On a realistic note though, what are the chances of any of it actually being implemented?

Rabbi Avraham Yehuda Feiner is a member of the city council and holds the portfolio for Torah Culture. He points out that in recent years the municipality has been undergoing a corrective process of undoing discrimination against the chareidi community. This policy will continue for the next few years as well.

"Mayor Uri Lupoliansky's aims and policies are unquestionably that every resident of Yerushalayim has equal rights. The disproportion between [the amounts allocated to] irreligious culture and to chareidi culture, or even, lehavdil, to Arab culture, is absurd. What we receive is nowhere near our relative share of the population. While the annual budget of the Department for Torah Culture is five million shekels, including workers' salaries, the corresponding amount for non-religious culture is many tens of millions. This is unreasonable and illogical. Therefore, it is abundantly clear that every year the Mayor Rabbi Lupoliansky and the city council narrow these gaps."

Rabbi Feiner stresses that the need for Torah oriented cultural activities is far greater in the chareidi community and among women in particular, than it was previously. "Today, the community voices its demands, which it did not do in the past. It can also enjoy the results of doing so. For example, thousands took part in the summer events that were held last year in Binyanei Ha'Uma. On the one hand the chareidi community has its demands and is aware of its strength as the consumer of the activities. At the same time, there is also awareness of this in the municipality. Understandably, gaps that have existed in Yerushalayim for many years, ever since the founding of the State, cannot be done away with in an instant. But the [municipality's] aim and policy is definitely to enlarge and to equalize.

"This is how things are handled in the municipality's Finance Committee as well. When projects for the general public are aired the chareidi representatives always want to know, `And what about the chareidim?' Our policy is to work on behalf of the chareidi community. For example, there was Women's Culture Week. This is the sort of successful project that was never run before, because the resources were not available to provide more than the basic simchos beis hashoevoh, libraries and the like.

"Our aim is to increase the budget for Torah culture every year," Rabbi Feiner declares. "Last year the Department for Torah Culture received an extra million shekels and this year it will be getting a similar size increase. Obviously this is not enough but gaps can't be closed immediately.

"There are two possible ways of going about this. Resources can be divided up equally but then the general public won't understand what is being done and will say that we have wrested control of their funding from them. The other way is to find resources for the chareidi community while affecting the needs of the other sectors as little as possible. Even though the municipality is undergoing a process of regaining its economic balance, additional funding has still been forthcoming for cultural activities for the chareidi community."

According to Rabbi Feiner, the past few years have seen progress on many fronts with regard to culture for the chareidi community. "A neighborhood council has been established for the chareidi communities of Ramot, of the Old City and elsewhere. Obviously a lot still needs to be done but in order to go a hundred kilometers you have to take the first step. In order to begin there has to be a program.

"Once you have a program, even if it's a little fanciful, you have a basis for your demands and a direction in which to move forward. I hope that we'll begin seeing results with regard to infrastructure and the construction of large, central cultural centers. Although experience in providing activities has given us the feeling that the possibility and the goodwill are there to make changes without closing the gaps all at once, when it comes to infrastructure there is a particularly long way to go. But with siyata deShmaya we'll be successful in this too."


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