Reprints from the Jerusalem Post; By Gol Kalev, Aug-6-2016
Could one of Jerusalem’s flagship haredi neighborhoods turn into a poster child of modern-day Zionism?
Sha’arei Hessed neighborhood. (photo credit:MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
One of the prevalent images of early 20th-century Zionism is of the pioneer working the land. Later in the century these pioneers, along with their Tel Aviv secular counterparts, became leaders in Israeli business, the military and politics – classic Zionists.
But as the Zionist narrative evolves, it is shifting away from a homogeneous Ben-Gurion version of Zionism, which included a glorification of secularism and negation of the Diaspora, toward a hybrid, more pluralistic model. Central to this template is the rising centrality of the Jewish religion in the narrative, as well as acceptance of a wider range of relationships between the Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish state.
In the Sha’arei Hessed neighborhood, such a narrative is potently demonstrated in everyday life.
At a time when the haredi community is under intense criticism by the broader population, Sha’arei Hessed offers a paradigm of a prosperous haredi lifestyle that is accepting, constructive and acts as an unexpected gateway to Zion for world Jewry.
In doing so, it may be replacing the secular Srulik in the khaki of the 1950s with a haredi Srulik in the black of the 2010s as a more relevant icon of modern Zionism.
Sha’arei Hessed was established in 1909 by Jerusalem chief rabbi Shmuel Salant. At that time, most of Jerusalem’s population was still congested inside the walls of the Old City. As security conditions improved, land was purchased outside the walls and neighborhoods were built in the wilderness.
From its early days, the epicenter of the neighborhood has been the Gra Synagogue. All neighborhood activities revolved around it, from religious life to housing the neighborhood’s communal oven, waterwell, sundial that indicated when to start the morning prayers and even its bomb shelter.
The “competing” synagogue was built two decades later in 1930. Kahal Hasidim offered state-of-the-art luxurious facilities, including a fireplace.
The contrast is preserved till today. While the worshipers in Kahal Hassidim are well-arrayed in their padded wooden chairs, the Gra worshipers roam into various rustic rooms, shtiebel style – including a popular service held in the hallway. On warm Shabbatot, there is even an informal “outdoor section” located on top of the now-blocked water well, allowing worshipers to participate through the windows.
Those two flagship synagogues were joined later in the 1930s by new ones. The Breslov synagogue was allegedly built overnight to circumvent construction restriction imposed by the British, then in control of Jerusalem. Some would argue that the construction rush is discernible even today, having the small synagogue planted in a cut-out enclave below Kahal Hasidim. A fourth synagogue on the same street, Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness, was built decades later to serve the neighborhood’s Sephardi community.
With its completion, a synagogue “high street” was formed.
The synagogue high street (Bar Zakai Street) remains the lifeline of the neighborhood even today. After services end on Shabbat, dozens of haredim pour into the streets and linger between the synagogues.
Such prayer “after-parties” remain a cornerstone of social interaction of the neighborhood, second only to the custom of the Saturday morning kiddush that follows. The traditional sanctification ofthe Sabbath occurs at people’s homes and sometimes in one of the synagogues.
The Shabbat services are not limited to the synagogue high street. There are four other synagogues in the neighborhood, as well as services in private homes, forming an emerging culture of pop-up synagogues.
A late service initiated by some the neighborhood’s younger and upscale residents starts at 10:30 a.m., long after other services end. It is particularly known for the high-quality kiddush that follows, with the finest alcohol, high-end refreshments and hors d’oeuvres. This service is jokingly known in the neighborhood as the JFK (just for kiddush) service.
David Guez is president of the Ba’al Haness Synagogue, located at the northern end of the synagogue high street, and known by some as the “French synagogue” due to the background of many of its worshipers.
“The large selection of synagogues in Sha’arei Hessed is a symbol of the great tolerance that exists in this neighborhood. Everybody can do things where, when and how he chooses, including prayer.”
Guez thinks such pluralism goes beyond synagogue choice.
“Sha’arei Hessed is a template of what Israel should be. The neighborhood does have a dominant population, as most neighborhoods do, but it is welcoming to others. Not everybody is haredi here. There are national-religious people and also seculars – all get along.”
SUCH DYNAMICS are not a given, since Sha’arei Hessed is home to one of the more extreme streams of the haredi community, known as the Jerusalem wing. It is led by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, a third-generation rabbi in Sha’arei Hessed.
The rabbi is known for his strict objection to haredim serving in the military and to haredi employment.
Yet the rabbi is one of the most respected figures – not only in haredi circles, but also among religious-Zionists and even seculars. Guez’s son Benjamin studies in the rabbi’s yeshiva, Ma’alot Hatorah, which is located on the second floor of the Gra Synagogue.
While the haredi and non-haredi residents of Sha’arei Hessed get along, key issues continue to engulf the haredim from the broader Israeli population.
Perhaps the most polarizing one is the exemption from mandatory military service. On this issue, Guez maintains that it is a two-way street.
“At one time the army was not welcoming to religious people. There was a tendency to crush the soldier’s religiosity, not to let him be himself, and that occurred in all levels of the military command.
Haredim now realize that this is changing. The army is more understanding of religious needs and is keen to accept haredi soldiers. The coming years could be very different.”
Indeed, as Zionism evolved, so did the military. The secular generals from the kibbutzim and moshavim are gradually giving way to religious ones from settlements and religious neighborhoods. Such dynamics could open doors to those haredim who previously feared being secularized while in the army. Guez’s vision is already felt on Shabbat in Sha’arei Hessed, as the occasional haredi with a machine gun is seen.
While military service has been one key issue alienating the wider Israeli society from the haredi community, the other bone of contention is that of haredi employment. Many haredi males get subsidies for studying and do not work. As a result, haredim disproportionately receive welfare, leading many Israelis to regard haredim as a double burden.
However, in Sha’arei Hessed, many haredi men do work. Some are even successful hi-tech entrepreneurs, real estate developers, lawyers and doctors – builders of the country and its economy. Guez explains the complex attitude toward employment.
“It is a personal choice. Haredim should not be ashamed of working while learning. In my opinion, if a person has the potential to learn and to teach, that is great. If he does not, he could be working,” he says.
Certainly, as more haredim participate in the workplace, Israelis have greater interaction with the community, which in turn mitigates the third issue that alienates Israeli society against haredim: prejudice.
There is growing recognition of the haredi contribution to the broader community. Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, who is haredi, garners unprecedented approval ratings from the general population.
Similarly, Israelis feel a debt of gratitude to the hundreds of ultra-Orthodox rescue workers on motorcycles who are often first to arrive at a scene of an emergency and have saved thousands oflives. In addition, many have benefited from the services of Yad Sarah, a haredi charity organization that provides wheelchairs and other rehabilitative home care equipment.
As Israelis increasingly appreciate the contributions of the haredi community, prejudice is likely to erode. Given that haredi insularity is also a two-way street, the acceptance by the broader society of haredi lifestyle as legitimate and not something that needs to be “cured” might enable a less defensive and more open posture in the haredi community.
As a result, it is possible that Israel is on the verge of attaining its next engine of economic growth, planted in the high entrepreneurial and studious excellence of the haredi community.
Such an engine is already operational in Sha’arei Hessed, and therefore the neighborhood could serve as the swallow that signals the arrival of the haredi spring.
Guez elaborates, “There are a lot of internationals in the neighborhood. Unlike haredim who were born in Israel, international haredim come from a culture where haredim both learn and work. This in turn influences the rest of the community.”
This international presence helps turn Sha’arei Hessed into an icon of evolving Zionism, not just in terms of contribution and employment, but also in terms of Zionism’s very core: Israel being the homeland of the Jewish people.
Over the past few years, many wealthy haredi families in the US, Latin America and Europe have purchased a vacation home in the neighborhood.
Consistent with Theodor Herzl’s vision of the promised land in which everyone would carry in himself a piece of it in his own way, “this one in his head, that one in hands, the third in his savings,” the neighborhood serves as beachhead of importing Jewish intellect and wealth into the Jewish state.
Each visit brings capital that fuels Jerusalem’s economy and keeps restaurants and shops in business.
Moreover, it imports expertise and know-how to Israel and allows Israelis to establish valuable international business connections.
The international vibe is strongly felt in the neighborhood’s cafés. On weekdays, much of the Sha’arei Hessed scene shifts from the synagogue high street to café row, located on the lower slopes of Hakeren Hakayemet LeYisrael Street. A multitude of languages is heard in the three eateries, which are often filled to capacity.
The neighborhood’s international dynamic is elevated during Succot, Passover and in August, when many of the vacation homeowners tend to come. As prayers are recited inside the synagogue for the ingathering of the people of Israel to Zion, outside, on the synagogue high street, it seems such prayers are being answered.
But the rest of the year, the empty homes extract a price. Guez has mixed feelings about the phenomenon.
“A house with no people is a house without a soul.
The community is more active when people live there full-time. But you need that too, and part-time residents are very welcome. Sometimes a vacation home is just a start.”
Indeed, by choosing to have their vacation home in Jerusalem, those haredi Jews are fulfilling an expanding Zionist objective: solidifying Israel as a primary Jewish point of orientation.
Guez has witnessed how such objectives are fulfilled in the neighborhood.
“There is more to be gained when someone buys a house here. It is not just the owners coming once in a while. The children come to seminary, the extended family members get increasingly connected with Israel over time. Eventually many of those people move here full-time.”
STILL, THE question remains of the haredi relationship to the State of Israel. Previously self-described as non-Zionist, haredi actions today reduce such descriptions to theological and definitional nuances rather than practice.
Guez puts it this way: “We have a love for the Land of Israel and respect for the country. I am very appreciative of what people have done in past and are doing now, which allows me to be here.”
When pressed more directly about his connection, Guez does not hesitate: “Yes, like many haredim, I have an Israeli flag in my heart.”
Such a flag is visibly noticeable from this foothill neighborhood, standing high above the Knesset, which is viewed from Sha’arei Hessed’s sloping streets. From the outskirts of the neighborhood, residents can glimpse other testimonies of the miraculous Jewish resurgence: The Israel Museum, the Hebrew University.
As more haredim participate in these institutions, the prayers of thanks resound through the walls of the neighborhood’s synagogues: “Blessed art thou, Lord, builder of Jerusalem.”
And so, from exile to resurgence, from poverty to affluence, the haredi population of Sha’arei Hessed offers the Israeli public a sneak preview of what is yet to come.
At the southeast gateway to the neighborhood are two wooden benches. On Shabbat, they serve as a viewing podium to Jewish revival. A parade of worshipers walking from Sha’arei Hessed’s synagogues toward their homes; young seculars with picnic baskets walking on Hakeren Hakayemet Street en route to the park; religious singles with trays in hand walking toward lunches in the so-called bitza, where many singles live; rows of Taglit-Birthright visitors stringing along Ussishkin Street; celeb spotting of leading rabbis, Supreme Court justices, members ofparliament.
In and around Sha’arei Hessed, the gathering of the people of Israel is in full force, and with it, a powerful celebration of Zionism.