At a recent symposium on the secular/religious divide sponsored by the Florscheimer Institute, I learned that one of the "exogenous factors" fueling that divide was the minimal contact between the two groups, which is reinforced by religiously segregated neighborhoods. (Such symposia can always be counted on to expand one’s vocabulary.)
Over fifty years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that judicial enforcement of restrictive covenants barring the sale of homes to buyers of a particular race or religion constitutes impermissible "state action" in support of discrimination. That news has not yet reached Israel where courts have created something akin to a right on the part of secular citizens not to be exposed to a religious person in their neighborhood. If they wish, they can view haredim in their native habitat in Bnei Brak or Jerusalem.
In the most notorious example, the Supreme Court barred the Rechovot municipality from allocating a parcel of land for a Lev L’Achim outreach center adjacent to a majority secular neighborhood. The city council, including Meretz members, voted 17-3 in favor of the allocation, and there were more signatures of nearby residents in favor of the center than those opposed. Nevertheless the Court valiantly defended the sensitivities of the ultra-secular residents.
The most recent instance of court-enforced segregation took place in Holon. SHUVU [all caps], a school system for children from Russian-speaking families, currently has enrolled 150 children from Holon. At present, those students are bused daily to Tel Aviv because there is no available school building for them in Holon.
Rami Hochman, who holds the education portfolio in the Holon municipality, encouraged SHUVU to establish a branch in Holon itself, and even undertook to find a vacant school building for SHUVU. In the meantime, he suggested that SHUVU rent premises for a year.
That is what SHUVU did, entering into an agreement to rent an abandoned youth center of the Holon branch of Hashomer Hatzair. The irony of the transfer from socialist Hashomer HaTzair to the "ultra-Orthodox" SHUVU system was not lost. Ha’Aretz’s Weekend Magazine devoted three pages to the history of the local Hashomer Hatzair branch, whose members once delighted in liberating building material from sites belonging to "capitalists." That past glory had now culminated in the ignomious rental to SHUVU. (This was not the first time Hashomer Hatzair rented an abandoned building to SHUVU.)
The neighbors also took note. For 35 years, the neighbors tolerated the three-story youth center, including a disco and a pub, but the sight of a few young Beit Jacob-trained teachers was too much. Moshe Baron, a local resident, told Hadashot Holon, "This development negates our identity as secular Jews. We are astounded that the National Kibbutz movement, which owns the building, would jettison its value system for the sake of a haredi organization that sponges off the government. . . . It can’t be that such people will push themselves into an affluent street such as ours, named after Arlosoroff."
Another neighbor chimed in, "We are fighting for our lives here, for our way of life. Besides real estate prices are liable to go down."
The Hadashot Holon piece concluded by noting that Meretz MKs Yossi Sarid, Chaim Oron, and Zehava Gal-On had been duly notified of this latest breach in the secular defenses. The Meretz MKs sprang into action bringing pressure to bear on the National Kibbutz Movement to renege on its lease.
Meanwhile a Meretz member on the local planning board and the Meretz vice-mayor went to court to prevent SHUVU from renovating the premises on the grounds that the area in which the youth center is located is zoned for residential use only. More than fifty years after Hashomer Hatzair received its first permit to build a clubhouse on the site, and 35 years after the present three-story structure, which is divided up into classrooms upstairs and features a large sports field, was built, Meretz suddenly discovered that the area is not zoned for public buildings.
After the closing of the Holon Hashomer HaTzair branch, the building was rented to Meretz for use as its local headquarters. The irony of the same Meretz members who had used the building as a public facility coming into court and alleging that the building could only be used for residential purposes was lost on Judge Liora Frankel. So was the implausibility of determining, at this late date, that the plot is zoned only for residential use, even though the local land registry clearly shows the youth center on that plot.
Not suprisingly, Frankel ruled that the plot in question is not zoned for public use. For good measure, she added that there was nothing inappropriate about the local planning board opposing the SHUVU school because it would be a religious school in a secular neighborhood.
LOCAL residents treated the arrival of a SHUVU school with a degree of enthusiasm usually reserved for the bubonic plague. That is the final irony, for SHUVU schools do not exactly conform to the haredi schools of their fears. Few, if any, of the students come from Sabbath observant homes. Many of the boys remove their head covering as soon as they leave the schoolyard.
For over three-quarters of the students, SHUVU is not their first school. On a recent visit to the SHUVU school in Ashdod, Ronit Tirosh, Director General of the Education Ministry, heard from one of the parents how her daughter cried every night to return to the Ukraine until she transferred to the local SHUVU school.
Tirosh was particularly impressed with the Shorashim (Roots) program developed by SHUVU, in which students learn about their grandparents and great-grandparents and how they lived as Jews. After her tour of the school, Tirosh cited the program, in a meeting with secular principals, as an example of what should be done to remedy the widespread lack of connection many secular students feel to Jewish history and to the Jewish people.
She was no less impressed with SHUVU’s advanced curriculum for math instruction. "We have a lot to learn from the extraordinary accomplishments of your students in this area as well," she told the SHUVU staff.
Menachem Kaplan, a former Education Ministry supervisor for the North, was appointed two years ago by then Education Minister Yossi Sarid to evaluate two new SHUVU schools. He found the curriculum to be "well-organized, varied and rich in content," the teaching staff "highly qualified," and the parents to be "extremely satisfied." One parent told him, "This is the only school in Israel where the teachers call you at home to fill you in on your child’s progress."
Still, the residents of affluent Arlosoroff Street in Holon need not have panicked about their children being inflamed with a sudden desire to learn Torah in a SHUVU school. SHUVU schools are only for children from Russian-speaking families.