I moved to Israel 11 and ½ years ago on the very first Nefesh B’Nefesh flight. Although my wife and I had talked about making Aliyah before we got married, moving here was a direct response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 2001.
Yes there was an intifada going on, but was America really safer? We felt G-D was sending everyone a message, that now is the time to come home. We heeded that message and moved to a relatively new community called Ramat Beit Shemesh. We were looking for a place where we could raise our kids with the best Torah education and way of life while teaching them that love and respect of every Jew is paramount.
We took a 4 bedroom apartment for $500/month (not too shabby) and was immediately welcomed to the community by everyone. Our building had Russians, Israeli’s, Dati Leumi, Chareidi and chiluni. It was a microcosm of Ramat Beit Shemesh itself and I’m not kidding when I say it was paradise on earth. The love we all had for each other was tangible. Although we may all take different roads the destination was the same for everyone. We all felt we were on the same mission which was to grow closer to G-D while becoming a part of building the land.
Back in those days there were no malls besides Big. No Train station and only one pizza shop. There were just 2 Anglo Chareidi Shuls, Bais Tefilla which was in a parking lot and the GRA which was inside a double apartment. The parks were a joke and there were not many options for shopping. There was dust and dirt everywhere and the streets were not the cleanest in the world. If we had wanted to we could have come up with a list a mile long of what was wrong, but we did not move 6000 miles from the United States of America for what was wrong; we moved for what was right. We knew we were giving up gashmius for ruchnious and that always comes with some physical discomfort, but we also realized that our time in this world is very short compared with the eternity of the next world. So what if we could not afford even one car when we had two in New Jersey. So what if there were no malls to go shopping in or any restaurants to eat in. We came home for a reason and that reason has never left our minds.
12 Years Later
Wow has Beit Shemesh grown! You can’t compare what it was like to what it is now. It is simply two different cities with most of its growth and changes in the last five years. A four bedroom home (if you can find one) will set you back $1500/month, there are now at least 10 pizza shops, 4 malls, regular trains direct to Yerushalayim and Tel-Aviv, more Shuls and Schools then I can count for not just Chareidim, but for Sephardim, Dati Leumi, Yeminites, Ethiopians, Chassidim, Carlebach and some mixes as well. And while there may be different neighborhoods that are more focused on specific types of Jews, Beit Shemesh was and is still a pluralistic community for everyone. I still enjoy going to the Merkaz and seeing all types of Jews doing their shopping for Shabbat. I love to see little babies in carriages of all types being strolled through the streets realizing that I am seeing prophecies coming true right before my eyes. I love walking the streets and smiling and saying Good Shabbos to a Chassid or Shabbat Shalom to a Dati Leumi and having them respond. The achdus was still real and the warmth was still felt and I still felt like I was in paradise. That is until first the “Orot” fiasco and then when the elections came to town and then nothing was the same again.
The Orot situation is a black stain on Beit Shemesh in so many ways. No doubt there are extremists in our community that don’t act in the ways of the Torah. Instead of bringing people closer to G-D and showing the beauty and love of the Torah they do the exact opposite with their own feelings of righteousness.
It is fact that 99.9% of the people in Beit Shemesh look at them with disdain and disgust. But sadly there are meshuganas on both sides of the fence including the Eli Cohen supporter who at the news coference when new elections were announced at Naimi Mall yelled on video that the the Ashkenzaim should go back to Auchwitz. These public displays of hatred on both sides of the fence should be kept quiet. We are all members of one nation and there is no reason to ever display our dirty laundry to the public at large.
Friends, we have enemies around the world that are always looking for reasons to put down the Jewish people. Sadly anti-Semitism is alive and kicking and we don’t need to give anyone ammunition. Three months after the Orot situation occurred, our sad story was aired for the world to see and became an international sensation. Literally the story was carried throughout the world causing one of the biggest Chillul Hashems, desecration of G-d’s name, in modern history. It launched the political career of Yair Lapid, whose stated goal is to destroy the ways of chareidi society once and for all.
It was from this incident that in the streets of Beit Shemesh the feelings of “you VS me” began to take root. If you were Dati Leumi or secular you felt why are the Chareidim not publicly taking our side and standing up against the extremists publicly? And if you are Chareidi you felt why did they make the whole world look at anyone with a black hat as an extremist? For the first time the people of Beit Shemesh were forced to take sides and the feelings of achdut (brotherly love) that had existed since the founding of Beit Shemesh were now broken till this very day.
After the Orot situation passed the Mayor did a great job at keeping the extremists quiet. There was a feeling from many people on both sides that we need to build bridges. Ari Rosenstein has been very active in building those bridges for years now and some progress was made, but then elections came to town and the bridges collapsed.
The people of Beit Shemesh were once again forced to choose a side. I don’t want to sound like a kid and say “he started it”, but both sides in the first election made it clear it is “us VS them”. Both sides ran campaigns that would be an embarrassment to any outsider. We forgot that with open media today everyone with a phone can look into the windows of Beit Shemesh. Especially since the pain of Orot was still sore for both sides, the last thing this city needed was something that would divide us again.
But the wound was ripped open and decisions had to be made. Once again the feelings in the street were ones of division. “How can you be normal and vote for Abutbul?” “How can you be religious and vote for Cohen?” Many people couldn’t wait for the elections to be over and put them behind us and to move on and try to once again make Beit Shemesh the city of Peace it was once known for.
In the end it was Moshe Abutbul who came out the winner. Democracy has spoken and the people had chosen. Moshe Abutbul would get another term as Mayor of Beit Shemesh. Or so we thought…
That very next night after elections and for weeks after there was a roar through the town that Moshe Abutbul had cheated and that there was fraud and that “we are not going to give up on Beit Shemesh”. Eli Cohen supporters drove through Chareidi areas of Beit Shemesh honking their horns and yelling out their windows. There was rage in the air and it would not die down until justice was served. The Police had caught some Extremists with hundreds of Teudat Zehuts and costumes. And then a journalist by the name of Kalman Libeskind broke that the story that there was actual fraud that took place and Eli Cohen took his case to the courts.
Once the case was taken to the courts the Chareidim in Beit Shemesh knew that there would be reelections. The idea that the secular court system in Israel would allow for a Chareidi Mayor from the Shas Party none-the-less to keep his election win was slim to none. We knew no matter what they found they would call for reelections. And indeed, with a very weak case and only 36 votes of actual fraud, the lower courts called for reelections. There was no shock on the Chareidi streets. There has been a war against the Chareidim by the secular courts for years. But little did we know how flimsy the case was. That is until Febuary 28th, 2014 when Kalman Libeskind once again made his voice heard in a shocking report titled “THE CHAREIDIM ARE RIGHT.THERE WAS NO REASON TO INVALIDATE THE BEIT SHEMESH ELECTIONS” It is a must read. Here is the link to the original article in Hebrew in Maariv http://goo.gl/R0MdP9. I have just posted it in English to my business blog for the next couple of days here: http://ideago.com/the-chareidim-are-right-there-was-no-reason-to-invalidate-the-beit-shemesh-elections/.
I first came across the article from an Eli Cohen supporter who said on FaceBook that after reading it he was in complete shock. After reading it I could see why. Kalman makes it perfectly clear that even though he is an Eli Cohen supporter and wants him to win, he went through hundreds and hundreds of legal documents and well I’ll just post his conclusion below:
“So what are we left with? We have a court that established that there were 1,400 forged votes, even though they have proof of only 36 such votes. We have judges who are driven by an appalling stereotypical perspective that sees any Chareidi individual suspected of fraud as proof that his entire Hassidic group perpetrated fraud en masse. We have a court decision, a document that commits wholesale libel, which is unprecedented in its severity in dealing with entire Hassidic groups and communities. These –without any proof– were certified by the signatures of three judges wholesale factories for the production of forgeries in which all –but all– members are included; man and woman, elderly and young. All of this was accomplished, by leaning on the mathematics of some person from Bnei Brak, about whom we know practically nothing, nor do we know how he wound up involved in this case in the first place. And there is one other unpleasant truth concealed by all of this text. It is difficult to imagine that there is any other sector, other than the Chareidi sector, whose election victory the Court could feel so free to invalidate based on such flimsy evidence.”
You want to talk about democracy? You want to talk about “Fraud” or about “Stealing the Elections”? In my mind and in the minds of the large majority of people in Beit Shemesh and out is that yes, the elections were stolen, but stolen from Moshe Abutbul.
To quote another well know journalist for Yediot Acharanot and Israel Prize winner Nachum Barnea:
“The court’s decision to require new elections is out of the norm; the issue of fraud was hardly serious enough to require new elections… (The real issue is) the struggle for the soul of the city… for lately, extremists have moved into the city. Eli Cohen is Beit Shemesh’s last hope to prevent its falling into the clutches of the anti-zionists… It is unclear if he will be able to turn the clock back, even if he were to win the next elections; the State has abandoned the city and its non-Chareidi residents.”
Now if you can be open minded and read the full report by Kalman and you really wanted to enforce democracy then when you are standing behind the voting booth you may find yourself picking up the slip with Moshe Abutbuls name on it.
Can We Heal?
I was pleasantly surprised by all the likes and messages of support I received from both Eli Cohen and Moshe Abutbul supporters when I decided to go meet with Eli Cohen and when I posted my initial thoughts after the meeting. At first I didn’t understand what the big deal was about agreeing to go meet with Eli, but as the kudos kept coming in both publicly and privately I realized that there is a thirst for dialogue and communication.
People on the Dati Leumi and secular side want, and quite frankly are deserving of respect. They want to know that even if we disagree, their feelings will be validated and their voices will be heard. They are reaching out to the other side and as of yet the other side has not yet crossed that bridge.
It could very well be because of the national campaign against the chareidim and because in truth the Dati Leumi camp has not been that sympathetic at all to the chareidi plight and in the majority of cases have openly supported the opinions of Bennet and Lapid. This makes building bridges that much harder since this is not a story that is going away anytime soon. But as Eli Cohen pointed out to me, the day after the elections, no matter who wins, we will both still be living in Beit Shemesh. If we can’t learn how to have dialogue and respect each other and have real achdut, then no matter who wins, we will all still lose.
Why did I get involved?
I spent many hours during the first elections online supporting the Mayor. For business reasons (Shameless Plug Warning – I started a fashionable apparel line for special needs kids called Mianzi Fashion http://mianzifashion.com) I have a FaceBook account and I could not help but notice all the posts promoting Eli Cohen and yes bashing Mayor Abutbul. I sort of got sucked into defending the Mayor online because I felt no one else was and that his voice needed to be heard. But I spent way too much time the first time around and sort of promised myself that with the new elections I would stay away. But just when I thought I was out they pulled me back in. This time around there were some voices for the Mayor, but the tone was not one I could respect even if I agreed with what they were saying. In fact one voice was banned from a popular Beit Shemesh group page because of his strong opinions and so when he was banned I felt that I had to stand in. After many days of respectful debate and going back and forth it was suggested that I go meet with Eli Cohen. I decided that if I can ask the hard questions that have been coming from the Chareidi community and I can get the answers directly from Eli Cohen himself, I could hear with my own ears the answers and formulate my own opinion. Thanks to well-known Eli Cohen supporter and one of the most respectful and knowledgeable debaters Daniel Goldman, the meeting was set. I would enter the lion’s den, Eli Cohen’s headquarters and meet with the man himself.
My Meeting With Eli Cohen
I was anxious to meet with Eli and learn for myself what he is all about. I had prepared about 10 questions, but was only able to ask a few. He was very welcoming and gave me a very generous amount of time of more than an hour, especially so close to elections. His cell phone rang non-stop and was buzzing the whole time, but never when he was talking to me or when I was talking to him did he even look at his phone.
We met in his office and the first thing he asked me is what my agenda is? Why was I there? He wanted to know if my vote could be swayed or was I just there to ask him questions. I explained that I don’t represent any official group or party, but that I was an Anglo Chareidi who had a lot of questions from both myself and from questions that are being asked on the Chareidi street and I wanted to hear firsthand his answers.
The next half hour he spent most of the time talking. He spoke in near perfect English which was a surprise to me and he talked about all he has done for the Jewish people over the years and it is extensive. He told me how he helped many types of Jews from all over the world including chareidim. I got the genuine sense that he is someone who really loves his people to the core. Eli Cohen is one of the many unsung heroes of our people who spends his entire life benefiting the Jewish people and does not do it for honor or prestige.
As chareidim we need to show more publicly the HaKaros Hatov we should have for our brothers even when they have not yet seen the beauty in following the Torah. In addition, we need to do some self-introspection on perhaps why we may be pushing our brothers away more than bringing them close, but that’s for another time.
I told him that I am envious of his Olam Habah for all the Z’chut he has for bringing people to Israel through his work with the Aliyah office of the Jewish Agency and he also gets the Z’chus for all the current and future generations that are here today because of him.
He then spent the next 15 minutes talking about the most painful issue to him. It pains him to no end how he has been vilified by the chareidi press. He said he has a wife and children, brothers and sisters and his Mother who should live and be well, and the one thing he can’t understand and wants an apology for is being called a sonei (hater) of Israel. I hear him loud and clear and it is painful for me as a fellow Jew to hear and feel his frustration. Here is man who has dedicated his whole life to helping out his people including chareidim and secular, Yeminites, and sefardim and everyone in between and he is being called the Satan? He is being made out to look like a hater of Torah? He deserves to be called a Nazi in the street of Beit Shemesh by little kids? (Daniel confirmed that he was there and heard Eli being called a Nazi). He told me how he went to a religious high-school and took his bagrut on the entire mesechta of Sanhedrin. He rattled off a few other gemarras he had learned. I asked him what happened, why is he not dati? I’m not sure of his exact words but it was something to the tune of “well bring me in, bring me closer”. And maybe one day that will happen.
I was then able to ask a few questions, one of which is who are the Kitzonim, how many are there in Beit Shemesh and how exactly he plans on getting rid of them. He answered that they make up 3% of Beit Shemesh (About 3,000 People) and that 99% of the people in Beit Shemesh want them out as well. I asked him how he plans on getting them out and he answered that he will set up a committee made up of all the Rabbi’s in Beit Shemesh and together they will come up with a plan.
To be honest that answer to me is not that realistic and for him to have getting rid of the Kitzonim as a major part of his campaign without a realistic answer does worry me. He feels confident that he will be able to handle them, whereas Moshe Abutbul has already proven he can.
So who am I voting for?
Bottom Line is that I really like the Eli. I think he could certainly manage the city very well and I truly believe that he would have the best interests of everyone including the chareidim at heart. But it is something he said which becomes the main issue for all chareidim and is something I touched on but did not have the time to explain to him in detail so I will try to explain it here.
Eli told me that he would be better for the chareidim then Moshe would be for the charedim. We just don’t realize it! When he told me this I immediately remembered a similar thought from someone else. L’havdil: Obama: ‘Israel Doesn’t Know What Its Best Interests Are’. The main issue and what Eli simply can’t understand is that he really can’t understand. It’s like trying to teach a blind person what the color red is. It can’t be done. To really understand the charedim or any similar group of ultra-orthodox people you need to be one of them. You can’t be better for the chareidim because you don’t know what fully makes him tick. A chareidi from the moment he wakes up in the morning till he closes his eyes at night his focus is on serving G-D. From which shoe he puts on first to the order of how he cuts his nails everything is defined by the Torah. So many of our Dati Leumi brothers and sisters can’t understand what Rabbanim from outside the city or even inside the city have the right to tell us what to do? “Some people may not hold of “Emunas Chachamim, but for us it is the very glue that has held us together as a people for thousands of years. We can start with what happened to Moshe Rabbeinu and Korach and carry it out through the generations of an unbroken chain to our gedolim of this very day! When Rav Shteinman Shlit”a of Rav Chaim Kanievski Shlit”a speak to us and tell us a P’sak it is part of an unbroken chain going back to Har Sinai where the very Torah was given!
A couple of years ago Rav Chaim told my wife and I to change the names of two of our children and we did it without blinking an eye! Because that is what our mesorah is all about! And each one of our local Rabbanim are a direct chain to our Gedolim. And so even if I wanted to vote the other way I simply could not do it because there is a unanimous voice coming from all the Gedolim across the board telling us to vote for Moshe Abutbul. A close friend of mine who does not dress like a chareidi and has huge issues with the chareidi system came to me this morning telling me that he wishes he could vote for Eli Cohen. He wants to so bad, but the bottom line is that even if he has the chutzpah to think they are wrong, that is a barrier he can not cross. When push comes to shove we must listen to our Gedolim who are immersed in Torah day and night. I shudder when I hear Eli Cohen supporters question the Gedolim and ask what do they really know about Beit Shemesh politics? Why are they getting involved? Why are we following them like sheep? If our national religious brothers and sisters don’t understand the very core of what makes us chareidim then how can we expect traditional Jews or secular Jews to understand?
As a Charedi Jew I know that Moshe Abutbul understands what is important to the Charedi community. I know that he can really do what is best for us because he is one of us. He understands what is really important to our community. But just as important is that Moshe understands the needs of the Dati Leumi community and the secular community in Beit Shemesh as well! With my own eyes I have seen the malls, Shulls, schools and homes he has built and approved for non Charedim. I can fully trust him to continue to do so because he has done so already. I know that he loves every Jew (as does Eli) and will work to build and support all the communities of Beit Shemesh. You want to make the claim that Eli would be a better manager? Maybe yes maybe no, but I can hear the argument. But please don’t tell me that he does not know how the run the city. Is he perfect? Are you perfect? It is easy to judge when you are on the other side. When you don’t sit in the Mayors seat and have to deal with all members of the coalition and try to help everyone in the community it is easy to judge him.
As I mentioned in the very first part of this article I moved to Israel for a reason and that is for purely spiritual reasons. I moved here because I understand that we are only in this world for 120 years and then we are off to Olam Habah, the world to come, for eternity. This is the way I choose to raise my children and many of the important things that are being stated by Eli Cohen supporters are about issues of gashmiut. They can’t understand what being a Mayor of a city has to do with ruchniyos (spirituality), but when you realize that 100% of everything is all about ruchniyos then even if you don’t accept it, you can at least understand why having a Charedi mayor is so important to many.
As with every decision in life you need to ask yourself is what I am about to do something that will bring me closer to Hashem or further away from Hashem. When you are behind the voting booth and no one else can see who you are going to vote for besides Hashem you need to ask yourself which candidate has a better understanding of your spiritual needs and then vote accordingly.
I very much tried to stay respectful in writing this article and I appreciate those who have told me that they fully respect the decision I make on who to vote for even if it disagrees where their candidate. That being said tensions are high and I want to apologies in advance if G-D forbid any of my words came across as condescending, disrespectful, or insensitive. I have spent close to eight hours writing this and I hope I was able to make a positive impact even if you disagree with the outcome. With great love and hope for real Shalom and that we should merit defeating our real enemies that are looking to destroy us.
UPDATE 1 – Thank you all for the wonderful feedback, do want to clarify a number of things. It seems that many people feel the main reason I am voting for Moshe Abutbul is because the Gedolim said so. Now that is a reason that resonates strongly with me, but that is not the only reason or the main reason. I tried to point out in the article that I believe the Mayor has done a great job and has been serving the needs of the entire population. I believe he has handled the Kitzonim obviously better than the previous mayor and I’m sure he can handle them better than Eli Cohen. Under Moshe Beit Shemesh has become one of the fastest growing cities in Israel and will continue to do so in the coming years. I focused on the end of my article on the Gedolim as a way to show how non Chareidim can’t understand why we listen to them and from the many comments I have received that has proven to be true. If there was one Gadol or two Gedolim it could leave doubt in your mind.But it’s not just about one or two or just Ashkenaz or Sefard or Chassidish or Mekubalim, but from all of them. And then there are all the local ultra Orthodox Rabbanim who are united in their support. for Moshe Abutbul.
But again, whoever wins tomorrow we still need to have achdus and treat each other with respect and love and that begins with each one of us.