With small victories, religious pluralism is finding its way back to Jerusalem

With small victories, religious pluralism is finding its way back to Jerusalem

From providing study grants to non-Orthodox institutions to cafés open on Shabbat, kippah-wearing city councilor Hanan Rubin wants the capital to be a city for everyone

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox and secular Jewish men face off in Jerusalem, 2008. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox and secular Jewish men face off in Jerusalem, 2008. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In a small victory for pluralism, the Jerusalem Municipality has awarded for the first time a portion of its funding for Torah study to non-Haredi Jewish groups.

In previous years, funds had always gone to five large Haredi institutions, with each committing to conduct around 400 hours of Torah study per week. According to the municipality, 17 percent of this year’s budget will be earmarked for a sixth institution — the Forum for Jewish Renaissance Organizations, a coalition that includes members of the Reform and Conservative movements in Jerusalem, the Shalom Hartman Institute research and leadership center, and a number of other places of study.

The overall city budget for 2015, which was approved this summer, allocated NIS 500,000 ($124,000) for Torah classes, down from NIS 1,000,000 ($248,000) in the last budget. Although the funding for the study classes is modest – only about NIS 10,000 ($2,500) for each institution — it’s still a big achievement.

And the person responsible for this small, but significant budget change is Hanan Rubin, a former teacher and now freshman city councilor with the Hitorerut Yerushalayim (Wake up Jerusalem) party. Rubin heads the Municipal Grants Committee, which is responsible for the education budget, among other things. He also holds the portfolio for students, young people and families, and works as a part-time high-tech consultant.

City Councilor Hanan Rubin grew up playing basketball on Saturday afternoon with all kinds of Jews and Arabs, and wants his children to experience the same kind of diversity. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
City Councilor Hanan Rubin. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“When people see Jerusalem, they think of two things: the first is that it’s a holy place, and the second is the conflict,” Rubin told the Times of Israel. “But we say Jerusalem’s diversity is the city’s biggest plus, not the biggest minus.”

“When I grew up [in Rehavia] I played basketball every Saturday afternoon in Gan HaPa’amon with all sorts of people, including Arabs and Haredim,” he recalled. “I don’t want my kids to grow up in a bubble with people just like them.”

While Rubin understands the amount of money for the Torah study programs is small, he said the existence of the financial support is an important symbol.

The four Haredi city councilors on the Municipal Grants Committee approved the 2015 budget, and only two of the 14 Haredi councilors for the Jerusalem City Council opposed. Rubin said the budget’s passage was the result of hours of meetings with the young Haredi councilors, who he credited with being more open to the reality of Jerusalem as a multicultural city. During these meetings, Rubin brought actual texts studied at the various pluralistic institutions to illustrate the level of instruction to the Haredi council members.

The institutions that will benefit from the grants are: Elul Beit Midrash, founded by former MK Ruth Calderon; Hillel Beit Midrash; the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College; Hevruta (a partner-based study program at Hebrew University, not the gay religious male organization); Beit Prat, the Jerusalem center for graduates of the Ein Prat midrasha; Kerem Institute for humanistic Jewish education; the pluralistic leadership center Shalom Hartman Institute; Kolot Beit Midrash; and social leadership program Mimizrach HaShemesh Beit Midrash.

A woman blowing shofar at the start of Elul (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
A woman blowing shofar at the start of the Hebrew month of Elul. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

Rubin fervently believes there is a renewal of pluralism in Jerusalem. He sees the strengthening of young, open-minded religious and secular young people committed to taking back the identity of Jerusalem from a cultural orthodox monopoly of the years when Haredi mayor Uri Lupolianski did not place great importance on cultural events.

“This really shows that here is a readiness for all kinds of different approaches, that something new is happening in Jerusalem,” said Rubin.

It may seem strange that a kippah-wearing, observant father of six would work tirelessly to ensure that Reform Jews get municipality funding, or the new café in the Jerusalem’s downtown Independence Park will be open on Shabbat.

Rubin is especially proud that Alma café will be open on the Sabbath. The café was originally slated to be part of the popular branch of Landwer Cafés, to create a destination for secular families to sip espressos on Saturday mornings and play in the shady park. But Badatz, the kashrut certification organization run by Eda Haredit, threatened to remove the kosher certification from all Landwer products, including their coffee factory, if the café opened on Shabbat, Haaretz reported.

(The Landwer coffee company is a separate entity from the Landwer cafés, though they were founded by the same family and are now owned by relatives.)

The franchise owner of the Independence Park branch originally acceded to the demand to close on Shabbat due to concerns that it would negatively affect the coffee company. Rubin, along with a number of other city councilors like Ofer Berkowitz, and community activists, negotiated a deal where the café will no longer be a part of the Landwer franchise, but rather an independent café, so the Landwer company’s kosher certification is not at risk.

“My wife said to me, ‘You went to all this trouble to make sure it’s open on Shabbat, but you won’t even be able to enjoy it!’” laughed Rubin. “But it comes from an ideology that I need places like this in Jerusalem.”

“I don’t see the opening of the café on Shabbat as a secular win or a haredi loss, it’s a symbol of hope.”

“I don’t see the café as a secular win or a Haredi loss, it’s a symbol of hope,” Rubin added. “It’s why the First Station is here and it’s so critical that the gay pride parade must be here. I’m not going to go to a movie on Shabbat, but it’s essential that it’s here so people can feel like this is their home too.”

Activists in favor of businesses opening on Shabbat gained another victory this summer. In August, a new movie theater in Abu Tor, Yes Planet, opened to the public. The $43 million project has six theaters as well as auditoriums for musical performances, art spaces, restaurants and a café overlooking the iconic Old City skyline from the Haas Promenade vantage point.

People enjoy a sample Imax screening at the new Yes Planet cinema, before opening in Jerusalem, on August 11, 2015. Yes Planet, in the mixed Arab/Jewish neighborhood of Abu Tor, is open on Shabbat. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
People enjoy a sample Imax screening at the new Yes Planet cinema, before opening in Jerusalem, on August 11, 2015. Yes Planet, in the mixed Arab/Jewish neighborhood of Abu Tor, is open on Shabbat. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yes Planet joined the First Station, a bustling complex of stores, restaurants, gallery space and outdoor areas in Jerusalem’s old train station, which is also open on Shabbat, providing more ways for non-observant residents to enjoy local cultural offerings over the weekend.

Jerusalem's First Station entertainment district, December 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jerusalem’s First Station entertainment district, December 2013 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rubin said while he isn’t frequenting these locations as a customer on Shabbat, he is thrilled these opportunities are growing.

“People call me ‘dati lite’ or ‘dati sababa,’” said Rubin, referring to slang expressions for more liberal religious Jews. “I’m a real ‘dos’ [religious Jew]. I keep Shabbat and Kashrut. What’s the problem? That I believe someone else can have a different way of being a Jew?”

“I keep Shabbat and Kashrut. What’s the problem? That I believe someone else can have a different way of being a Jew?”

The amount of businesses staying open on Shabbat does point to a strengthening secular population in the capital. But Israeli society has always struggled with alternative streams of Judaism that don’t fit neatly into the traditional pigeonholes of haredi, national religious, or secular. Which is why Rubin believes it’s essential that the municipality takes the lead by giving financial support, albeit small, to a rainbow of different kinds of Jewish initiatives.

The umbrella group of the Jerusalem Forum for Jewish Renaissance Organizations (in Hebrew, Reshut HaRabim, a Talmudic expression meaning “public sphere”) includes 36 different pluralistic organizations, though only seven of them are taking part in the Torah classes grant. One of the reasons the organizations banded together was to help with fundraising, since many of the organizations are turning to the same donors and foundations. When they apply for grants as a group, it frees leaders to concentrate on content rather than fundraising. The organizations also plan events together.

This is the first year that the Jerusalem Forum for Jewish Renaissance Organizations applied for the Torah classes grant, explained Laura Gilinski, who is the chair of the Forum and the vice-president of public relations at the Hartman Institute. She was reading the newspaper recently when she came across an advertisement calling for proposals for the Torah classes grant. “I saw it totally by fluke,” she said.

“In the past, there had been an unbalanced way of advertising these things to exclude people like me from seeing these ads,” she said. She credited Rubin, as well city councilor Tamir Nir and neighborhood council member Aharon Leibowitz, with ensuring that pluralistic groups get more access to this kind of information.

While she noted that the seven organizations are getting very little money on an individual basis, the significant step is that the municipality is funding pluralistic organizations for the first time. Previously, the municipality has supported specific events, but not general funding for the organizations.

“We are trying to make a statement that you can’t ignore X percent of Jerusalem because they don’t sit under the category of secular or ultra-Orthodox,” said Gilinski. “What I hope is that the city of Jerusalem and its elected representatives understand this is what Jerusalem and the State of Israel is looking for. We need a third option which isn’t black or white, it’s in the middle.”

The Forum hopes to apply for additional grants from the municipality in the 2016 budget, which will come up for discussion starting after the Jewish holidays in October. The payback may not be as large as foreign donors or foundations, but Gilinski said the symbolism of city support is essential for their mission. Part of the Forum’s work is also educating the organizations about these grants, so they can exercise their democratic right to apply.

There are also other challenges, said Gilinski. The municipal grants are time-consuming to complete, which is difficult for cash-strapped nonprofits. Some of the grants are decades-old personal favors from politicians, and were written with such specific requirements that there’s really only one foundation that can possibly meet the conditions. And there’s also pushback from within city hall.

“There’s definitely places within the municipality where people are not happy for us to be taking part,” said Gilinski. “On a purely democratic level, we should be getting this type of thing, but some people don’t think our cause is appropriate.”

One of those places they are feeling the pushback is from the Haredi city council members, who hold 14 of the 31 seats. Haredim make up roughly a third of the city’s population, though they are well-organized when it comes to voting.

Haredi city councilor Yohanan Weizmann, a member of the Municipal Grants Committee and who holds the portfolio for Haredi public transportation, voted in favor of the 2015 education budget, albeit reluctantly.

“Clearly, I would rather that all of the [education budget] go to Haredim, but we are required to follow the law,” he said.

He said that while he is not “dancing with happiness” over the budget declaration, he acknowledged that “Haredi people live in the real world, and we know that in the world there are different types of Jews.”

Illustrative photo of young ultra orthodox Jewish men in a yeshiva in Jerusalem, September 2, 2013 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/FLASH90)
Illustrative photo of young ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in a yeshiva in Jerusalem, September 2, 2013 (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

Jerusalem still has a long way to go to battle the intolerance that is so divisive in the capital. But Rubin believes that the first steps, like a few thousand shekels to foundations that have never had the city’s support previously, are the beginning of a growing trend.

“I have the way I enjoy my Shabbat, and you have yours,” said Rubin. “It’s critical that Jerusalem will enable everyone to feel at home in this place, whether they are Haredi, secular, national religious, or whatever.”

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