In fight for the soul of a divided city, a religious woman steps into the ring

Aliza Bloch, a mother-of-four and a former school principal, is running for mayor of Beit Shemesh. Only this political novice, her supporters say, can save it from escalating ultra-Orthodox intolerance

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Bloch in her campaign office. (photo credit: Debra Kamin)
Bloch in her campaign office. (photo credit: Debra Kamin)

The Beit Shemesh headquarters for the mayoral campaign of Aliza Bloch is filled with children.

The boys are in the knitted kipot and the girls in the knee-length skirts of the national religious, manning phone lines and shuffling through boxes of T-shirts and posters to pass around the city. It is summertime, which means these kids are on break. They could be out with their friends, or they could have taken a bus to Tel Aviv and gone to the beach. But most of them, like 9-year-old Avital Goren, say they would rather be here.

“Aliza knows how make links between society,” Goren says as she sits beside her mother, who is calling potential voters. “It’s important to help her.”

Bloch's campaign poster outside her Beit Shemesh headquarters. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)
Bloch’s campaign poster outside her Beit Shemesh headquarters. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

Bloch is the first woman ever to run for mayor in Beit Shemesh, and she is being touted as a candidate who has a real chance of trumping current city leader Moshe Abutbol. Religious but still modern, with a background in education and no previous political bids, she has gained a surge of momentum in this breathless race and is being embraced by those who support her as the woman who can bring Beit Shemesh back from the brink.

For years, Beit Shemesh has been plagued both by intense growth and splintering fault lines between its religious and secular communities. Founded as a development town in the 1950s, its population ballooned in the last two decades, and is expected to nearly double from its current 75,000 by the year 2020. Usefully located a 40-minute drive from Jerusalem and not much further from Tel Aviv, it became a Haredi stronghold in the 1990s and now at least half of its residents (and more than half of its children) call themselves ultra-Orthodox.

At first, Beit Shemesh was hailed as a city for all Jews, a place where religious and secular alike mingled and shared a community. But in recent years, fringe members of extremist Haredi groups have launched violent protests against secular aspects of society. Jews in Beit Shemesh who refuse to comply with the strict stipulations for modesty and gender segregation as laid out by the Haredim have been subject to spitting, stone-throwing and other acts of violence.

MK Dov Lipman, an American-born religious Jew, became something of a symbol in the battle for Beit Shemesh when he was hit by a rock hurled by another Jew during a Haredi protest against against the movement of graves.

Another symbol of the city’s struggles is Na’ama Margalit, who in 2011, at the age of 8, was spat on and harassed by Haredi men in her Beit Shemesh neighborhood who felt she was not dressed modestly enough. Like Lipman, Margalit is religiously observant, and her story — as well as the emotion evoked by the bullying of a child — made it clear that Beit Shemesh’s troubles affect all Jews, not just the secular ones.

In the city’s most religious neighborhoods, bus routes are routinely segregated by gender, with women sitting in the back and men taking seats in the front. Gender segregation on buses in illegal in Israel, but riots — including one as recently as Wednesday — have broken out when Haredim have nevertheless tried to enforce it. After Wednesday’s incident, which led to the arrest of an ultra-Orthodox man and woman trying to compel a female passenger to move her seat, Haredim hurled stones at three other Egged buses traveling through the area.

This election, city residents say, will be a watershed for Beit Shemesh. It will mark the day the city became a Haredi bastion or turned itself around and moved toward inclusion and diversity.

“Beit Shemesh is headed in a bad direction. Self-esteem is low; people don’t feel good about their city,” says Bloch, seated in her sparse campaign office and wearing a jaunty beret and a big, easy smile. “This is the opportunity to change the direction. If I don’t do it, it will be terrible for the city.”

Avital Goren, 9, works in Bloch's campaign office. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)
Avital Goren, 9, works in Bloch’s campaign office. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

Bloch, whose candidacy is being supported by the Jewish Home party, also has the support of Likud and Yesh Atid, which decided to throw their support behind her rather than run their own candidate. The move, analysts say, increases the chances of defeating Abutbol, a member of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party who is also supported by the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

Abutbol, for his part, has recently opened a new campaign headquarters and is focusing on recruiting votes from within the religious Zionist community.

Next week, Bloch will face off against frontrunner Eli Cohen, a senior official at Israel’s water company, in a primary election between the non-Haredi candidates (all other contenders have dropped out). Cohen has accused Jewish Home of handpicking a woman for the race to emphasize the city’s rifts between ultra-Orthodox and secular voters, but Bloch insists that the voters who will skip her name on the ballot would do so regardless of her gender, because her views run contrary to theirs.

“I am confident, however, that a great many Haredim will vote for me,” she says. “I don’t want to be a mayor of adversaries. I don’t want to be a mayor for one group or another. I want everyone to feel that Beit Shemesh is theirs.”

Two young volunteers man the phones. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)
Two young volunteers man the phones. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

Bloch is the former principal of the Branco-Weiss high school in Beit Shemesh, and she says she entered the race late because she had to finish the school year and make sure her graduating seniors had support for their final exams. She is married and the mother of four children, and she says that her own religiousness, as well as her ability to work in the secular sector, makes her an ideal candidate to unite her divided city.

“I have lived in Beit Shemesh for 21 years. And I loved the city of Beit Shemesh, and I still love it, but at its core today Beit Shemesh is a different city. And I feel like we are wasting a lot of the city’s potential to be truly excellent,” she says.

“I think I am a bridge for everybody. For the Haredim, I can work as a bridge, and also for the secular. My entire life, I’ve worked with secular people, and I am part of the religious Zionist movement, and I think I have the opportunity to be a bridge between these worlds.”

Her platform includes a commitment to greening the city of Beit Shemesh, investing in its infrastructure and culture, and putting a focus on the city’s youth with professional training and better education.

‘This is a battle for the soul of Beit Shemesh’

And her focus on young people is urgent, because many of Beit Shemesh’s younger generation — including a number of the kids working the phones on this hot summer day — say they will leave Beit Shemesh if things don’t change.

One of those kids is Bloch’s 15-year-old daughter Hanna, who says, “Before she joined the race, I was sure that when I grow up I won’t live here. But when she started talking about running, I thought about what she can do for the city and I thought, ‘I’ll consider staying.’”

Hanna says most of her friends feel the same way, with a few of her older friends who have already left having pledged to return to their hometown if Abutbol is defeated.

The recent elections for chief rabbi, in which two Haredi candidates trounced more mainstream voices, have given Jewish Home a new push to support Bloch, says campaign manager Yair Merton.

“Jewish Home doesn’t want to find themselves in another losing campaign. They have to put in everything they have now, because they can’t afford to lose,” Merton says.

“Aliza will go all the way,” he says, “because this is a battle for the soul of Beit Shemesh. A battle for its future.”

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