MEET THE MAYOR: Beitar, the Fort of Chinuch

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(Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Beitar of old is known to have been the last Jewish fort held in the Bar Kochba revolt during the time of Churban Bayis Sheini.

The Gemara (Gittin 58) relates that there were 400 batei knesses in Beitar. Each one, says the Gemara, had 400 melamdim and each melamed taught 400 children.

This town, noted even then for its huge chinuch network, fell to the Romans. Later, a brachah was added to Birkas Hamazon when its dead were finally allowed to be buried.

After nearly 2,000 years, the town was rebuilt in the 1980s, and today — as back then — its main emphasis is chinuch and ensuring the future of the Jewish nation.

In an interview with Hamodia, Mayor Rabbi Meir Rubinstein notes that this was the slogan of his recent election campaign: Put Chinuch at the Fore.

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The population is closing in on 60,000, bli ayin hara, and continues to grow by leaps and bounds. An overwhelming majority of residents are under 18, hence the emphasis on chinuch.

Beitar, with its affordable housing, wide open spaces and close proximity to Yerushalayim, has become one of the leading and most in demand chareidi towns in Israel.

“Our city is a mosaic of the chareidi communities,” says Rubinstein. “Fifty-five percent of the residents are Chassidim, 25 percent are Litvishe and about 20 percent are Sephardim. And the balancing act of trying to keep all communities happy, to give them what they all rightfully deserve — that in itself is a full-time job.”

Beitar is ranked No. 1 in nearly all areas, notes Rubinstein. “In values, in spirit, we are No. 1, no doubt about that. … Cleanliness, again the top. We have the most parks per square kilometer.

“We have won the five-star award for city cleanliness for 15 years straight. No small feat, considering the number of children in the city,” he says.

“Another achievement we are proud of is the vast number of those receiving discounts in arnonah [municipal property taxes], due to their full-time learning. Over 80 percent of the families receive discounts.”

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What effect does this have on the city budget?

“Obviously, our budget is hit by this. The Treasury does take this into account, giving us about 2 percent more for our budget, but that is minuscule.

“Our current annual budget stands at about NIS 400 million. Arnonah bring in NIS 40 million — a grand 10 percent.”

And where does the rest come from?

“The job of the mayor of a chareidi town is to run after government officials, to try to persuade those in power to understand what we are, where we’re coming from, and to help us with the funding.

“Here’s a small example. For us to open the new school year we need hundreds of new classrooms, to accommodate our growth of about 2,200 children each year. A real Krias Yam Suf. Actually, this could be considered even more than Krias Yam Suf. There, the water split and they could walk through. We don’t even have the water parting or the pathway to walk through. Krias Yam Suf was one time, while we have this on a daily basis: schools without enough classrooms, children learning in caravans. And if we’re comparing this to Krias Yam Suf — there is no lack of classrooms or caravans with leaks that are not suited for the weather.

“Based on the number of schoolchildren, the Education Ministry ‘owes us’ something like 500 classrooms.”

So how do you manage?

“Baruch Hashem, the vast majority of mosdos in Beitar are housed in proper buildings. And this is all thanks to the many days and nights that we have dedicated to this very worthy issue, knowing and understanding that this is ultimately the reason we are in this office. With much siyatta diShmaya, we have seen success. Not full success, but it all adds up.

“In a nutshell, this is the difference between a mayor in a chareidi city and one in a secular city. I’ll give you an example that I have used in the past. The city of Modiin was established after Beitar Illit. When people registered to buy apartments there, they already knew exactly where their son would go to school and which gan their daughter would attend.

“And that is the question I ask them time and again: ‘Who says that your blood is redder than ours?’

“So they come up with all sorts of excuses, the usual one being that we have different Talmudei Torah for each community, hence the need for more classrooms isn’t genuine. My response is that even taking this into account, even if all our classes were 30-plus children, we still deserve to get more classrooms.”

UPHOLDING TZNIUS AND KEDUSHAH

Another one of Beitar’s features is its advanced transportation system, both intercity and intracity. This is especially important in a city in which so many residents don’t own cars.

“We are proud to have mehadrin-only bus lines,” Rubinstein says. “This might go against the grain of public opinion and outer influences, but we, as a chareidi city, are proud of it. Obviously, the Transportation Ministry and others were against this, but we explained to them that the women in our community prefer not to sit together with the men and that it would be unfair to use, or misuse, claims of ‘women’s rights’ to force them to mingle with the men. That is the basics of tznius, and we will continue to uphold these guidelines.

“And, b’siyatta DiShmaya, this received the approval of the legal adviser of the Transportation Ministry!

“In the public domain we must be more vigilant to ensure that any safek, any doubt, should be treated with the utmost care so that it doesn’t become tamei, chas v’shalom.

“In a nutshell, that is our responsibility as public representatives and as parents, wanting to raise our children in a proper and kosher environment.”

Which brings us to the next point: What can be done to safeguard the younger generation and to deal with the unfortunate problems that prevail on the street?

“Anyone who claims that there are no problems with youth is either a liar or blind,” declares Rubinstein, with the pain obvious in his voice. “We in Beitar do our best, with various activities on behalf of at-risk youths. Not everything we do can be reported on and discussed publicly, but there are many things done on behalf of the youth from all communities.

“Not that … any Rabbanim need my haskamah, but from the little I see and know, undoubtedly the enemy of the chareidi community in this generation is the pitfalls of technology.”

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Mayor Rubinstein dances with supporters at his campaign headquarters after winning the election on October 31, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

CLEANLINESS

Cleanliness is a source of pride in Beitar, and the plaques adorning the walls of the mayor’s office attest to this. Beitar has received the five-star award for the cleanest city for 15 years running.

Lich’orah,” says Rubinstein, “a chareidi city with so many children would be the most difficult to keep clean. If there are 700 children in the neighborhood park after school, all you need is one in 10 to throw their waste near, and not into, the garbage, and the park will look like a war zone.

“So how do we do it? That is the question I am asked time and again — even from mayors of nonreligious cities, who are impressed by the kiddush Hashem that we bring year after year.

“The most important thing is personal example. All of our efforts to educate our children regarding cleanliness are worthless if we, their parents, aren’t role models.

“If we show by example that it is important to us, the message seeps in. As for the results — go down the street and have a look for yourself.

“It’s not just one or two parks in town — we have over 150 parks in Beitar! Every family, every child, has somewhere to play and to relax in the afternoons.

“And they’re all kept clean!”

SAFETY

Beitar’s slogan is “The City of Torah and Chassidus in the Judean Hills.” Beitar is over the Green Line, and we asked Rabbi Rubinstein what is done to secure the safety of the residents.

“On a daily basis, we have 1,500 Palestinian workers coming into Beitar. They all need to have proper permits, which are only issued after the Shin Bet checks their background, their family and whatnot. It would be rather frightening to have them wandering the streets of our young town with construction tools without knowing their legal status.

“I never allow residents to expand without approved plans and never allow Arab workers into the city who haven’t been screened.

“We are all for allowing residents to build out and extend their porches, et cetera, but it all needs to be done with proper plans, engineer-approved. Do it, by all means — but do it properly. Not allowing any leniency in these matters is not to upset the residents, it is for their good and welfare.

“I have also established a control room with cars patrolling the city at all hours of the day as an extra security measure. This model has been emulated by other cities in Yehudah and Shomron, and is promoted by the IDF as well.”

THE ENGLISH FOREST

Last month, two years after the interior minister first brought the English Forest industrial zone project to the government, it was approved for construction in a move that will add tens of thousands of jobs in Beitar. We asked the mayor to elaborate on the project.

“After nearly 25 years on the City Council, 12 of those as mayor, I can bring more tidings for the residents.

“The future industrial zone of the city, known as the English Forest, will be built on 800 dunams [200 acres] and will include a combination of different types of businesses from the fields of commerce, industry, knowledge, training and more. This will also bring prosperity to the entire region.

“To date, NIS 1 million has been invested in planning the industrial zone, which has already been approved by all the relevant bodies and committees. The municipality has also hired a leading planning and management firm to promote the project, which is working with great vigor.

“This is great news for the community, which will create many new places of work for residents.

“Unfortunately, the approval for these projects comes after the recent murder of three Jews, Hy”d. It is sad that it only comes ‘in response’ to such things and our needs aren’t self-understood by those in power.

“The hope is that in the future government the chareidi representation will be able to push for more housing and building for young couples.

“Despite all that, we are opening a new neighborhood — Givah C — in the coming months, hopefully before Pesach.

“About 1,000 new housing units have been approved on the hill area. Two years ago, the cornerstone was laid for the neighborhoods, with the attendance of many Gedolei Yisrael.

“The contractors are completing the final stages of the project, which include environmental development.

“In order to enable residents to enter their apartments immediately, I met with the relevant parties and discussed the allocation of shuls. We decided that the municipality would provide caravans to serve as shuls until the construction of a huge building is completed that will house chassidic, litvishe and sephardi shuls.

“All in all, Givah C will bring thousands of new residents. But we could really expand to another 10,000 apartments, if not for the government freezes on building in Yehudah and Shomron.”

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(Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

THE FUTURE

Coming in for the third time, what are your plans for this term?

“Beitar is a symbol of achdus. Our large coalition, of Agudas Yisrael, Degel HaTorah and Shas, works in tandem and we all have a joint agenda, to better the city on behalf of all residents, all communities.

“Shalom and achdus doesn’t just happen by themselves. If we don’t nurture it, it won’t happen. Standing at the side also won’t help the cause. With much siyatta diShmaya, we have kept the achdus in the city.

“To maintain and expand all that we have started, we need continued siyatta diShmaya, which we daven for on a daily basis.”

A final message?

“Beitar, as is any venture of its kind, is a nes. Yet the nes keeps happening.

“Our residents are pleased to live here. We invite anyone and everyone who can connect with our ideology to join us in our dream, our vision, and settle in Beitar Illit.

“All communities are welcome here. Beitar is the home of all communities, and we are more than willing to accommodate all those who seek to make Beitar their new home. There are over 250 shuls in Beitar; no one is turned away.

“We have a Shabbos generator in the city, and as per the request of Hagaon Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, we are working on a water system that will function without chillul Shabbos. Not that every resident has asked for this, but being that some residents have demanded it, we have set up these systems, to make sure that they have their shemiras Shabbos to the maximum of their expectations.

“And to the overseas readers I say, when you meet a Beitar resident — a Rav, a Rosh Yeshivah — welcome him warmly, b’sever panim yafos. Ultimately this is our future, this is the future of Klal Yisrael and of Eretz Yisrael.”