Secular residents worry about Haifa neighborhood turning into 'another Bnei Brak'

Residents learned two weeks ago from a newspaper advertisement that municipality planned to allot neighborhood shelter to Haredi organization for use as community center; ultra-Orthodox nursery school is also planned.

Haaretz, Israel/September 1, 2011

The struggle between secular and ultra-Orthodox residents of Haifa's mostly secular Neveh Sha'anan neighborhood began the day of the Passover seder this year. Residents awoke to sounds of a bulldozer uprooting eucalyptus trees. The vehicle was getting the place ready for portable classrooms for 300 ultra-Orthodox students. The local people stopped the work by blocking the bulldozers with their bodies, and they've been fighting the plan ever since.

Two weeks ago they learned from a newspaper advertisement that the municipality planned to allot a neighborhood shelter to a Haredi organization for use as a community center. An ultra-Orthodox nursery school is also in the works for the street, near two secular nurseries.

Residents call their opposition "a struggle for the preservation of Neveh Sha'anan's green and pluralistic character," not one between the secular and Haredi communities. They're particularly angry at the municipality.

"Haredim live in the surrounding streets as renters; they arrive as yeshiva students, make a match and stay here. The mayor says the yeshiva was put up before he came into office, and that we were asleep on the job," said resident Shlomi Bahat.

"We have nothing against individuals acquiring property in the neighborhood. We are vehemently opposed to the city of Haifa assisting any organization in the takeover of the neighborhood. The neighborhood's character must be preserved; there is no reason to turn it into Bnei Brak. The public spaces must also be for us - secular, national religious and just plain Zionists," he said, referring to the largely ultra-Orthodox town near Tel Aviv.

According to Haim Shwartz, who also lives on the street, Mendele Street, "The establishment of the school and community center will attract a weak and dependent population that does not contribute to the community."

Prof. Yossi Ben Atrzi of the University of Haifa, who lives in the neighborhood, says the municipality's actions "will cause veteran neighborhood residents to flee from Neveh Sha'anan. This is a process to turn Neveh Sha'anan into Bnei Brak. I'm not saying they don't deserve a place to live. There are abandoned neighborhoods in Haifa - the entire lower area of Hadar and even Wadi Salib."

The neighborhood's ultra-Orthodox community has grown in recent years to about 500 families. In the absence of infrastructure, ultra-Orthodox schools have been set up in private structures intended for housing, which the city has ignored. Last year a school for 70 children was operated in a large private home, a facility for koshering dishes was established in a backyard, a school for 170 children was operated in an old stone house slated for preservation, and there were three preschools in private apartments.

Ever since he was elected a member of the city council, Michael Alper, 32 and a father of seven, has been working to put up permanent structures for the ultra-Orthodox population. "Haredim have been living in Neveh Sha'anan for 40 years. They deserve what every other Israeli citizen deserves. If the required building is not provided, a private home is rented and a school established. The [secular] residents hold both ends of the rope. They don't want us to be where we are and they don't want us to have permanent buildings."

Study conditions in ultra-Orthodox schools are not comfortable: Small rooms of about 20 square meters - though they are air-conditioned - contain 30 students. According to Alper, there is still no solution for this year's third grade.

"We have no desire to live in hovels," said an ultra-Orthodox education official, Moshe Adler, himself a member of Haifa's growing Haredi community. Adler lived in Bnei Brak until six years ago, when he and his wife moved to Haifa. "Jerusalem is expensive," he said. "I moved to Haifa because I didn't want to live in Bnei Brak."

The Haifa municipality told Haaretz that it "is obliged to provide services, including nurseries and school classrooms, to the public at large. And it does not discriminate against any person or group according to beliefs, religion or race. Basically, no decision has yet been taken about establishing schools for the Haredi public."

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