Bnei Brak Mayor Rabbi Avraham Rubinstein speaks to Hamodia about his vision for the City of Torah and Chassidus
Rabbi Avraham Rubinstein’s route to the mayor’s office in Bnei Brak is paved with Torah and community work.
Born in Bnei Brak about 60 years ago, he learned in Yeshivos Ohr Yisrael and Ponevez, and, immediately after his marriage to a great-granddaughter of Harav Meir Karelitz, the brother of the Chazon Ish, in Kollel Chazon Ish.
“My first communal work was installing a neighborhood generator, which was possibly the first one in Bnei Brak,” he tells Hamodia. “It was a relatively small device that nearly 100 homes were hooked up to.”
The combination of his organizational abilities and Torah knowledge made him a natural to fill the post of secretary of the Rabbinical Committee of Degel HaTorah, and later that of secretary of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah.
At one point, he was the coordinator of the Toda’ah outreach program in Ramat Hasharon and Herzliyah. Hundreds of shiurim were started, and several well-known Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshivah began there as Maggidei Shiur.
Twenty years ago, Rabbi Rubinstein was offered a seat on the Bnei Brak City Council, at the recommendation of his Rebbi, Hagaon Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita. He was summoned by Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz, who as head of the Degel HaTorah list, was the city’s new mayor.
“Rabbi Karelitz offered me a few positions,” he relates. “The first, and seemingly most tempting, was membership in the city administration. The second was to be the chairman of the Discounts’ Committee on the city council. I was a rookie in communal work and politics, and I deliberated which of the two positions to accept.”
Rabbi Rubinstein decided to forgo the prestige and honor, and to take on the discounts post, one of the most complex and draining tasks in the municipal arena. “In this job, I was given the ability to help the residents of the city in an exceptional way, and to learn about the municipal workings on the highest level,” he says.
“I walked through the corridors of city hall, running my soles to the ground. At the beginning, my pockets were full of little notes, and I didn’t have my own office. My office was on the benches in the corridors, and I went from the discounts room to the planning and construction room, and that’s how I spent days wandering around as a young city council member without any influence on how the city was being run.
“I put all my efforts into helping private individuals. Rabbi Karelitz and all the others were busy with the macro, and building the industrial zone in the north of the city, but I was working on the never-ending job of helping individuals, a porch for this one, an addition for a sukkah for that one. That was the beginning.”
During these past 20 years, Rabbi Rubinstein has become identified more than anything with helping individual residents with their personal needs. The door to his office, which grew over the years, has become a locus for thousands of residents, who visit there regularly. It’s hard to find a Bnei Brak resident who hasn’t been in this office at least once and emerged with a big smile.
In time, Rabbi Rubinstein became the deputy mayor and then the mayor for nine months. “Then my friend Rabbi Chanoch Zeibert came and ran the city for five years very skillfully, and now it is my turn to continue this blessed work.”
Goal: Daf Yomi B’Iyun
But if you ask him, Rabbi Rubinstein will tell you that he did not see his destiny in the municipality at all. He established Beis Medrash Nachalas Moshe on Rav Meltzer Street in central Bnei Brak, and coordinated extensive Torah activities there round the clock.
“The innovation of the kollel we established was the Daf Yomi B’Iyun, learning one daf a day,” he relates. “In addition, there was a shiur in Daf Yomi almost every hour, from morning to night, for nearly 24 hours, every day. To this day, there are shiurim throughout the day. There are shiurim for laymen and for those seeking to learn more in depth with Rishonim and Acharonim on the page.”
What made you decide to establish a kollel for Daf Yomi?
“When the shul was active, and had dozens of mispallelim, I went to Harav Shach,” Rabbi Rubinstein relates. “We wanted to establish a Daf Yomi B’Iyun shiur, something that did not exist till then. I explained the idea behind the initiative, and Rav Shach was pleased, and tasked his close confidant, Harav Baruch Dov Sorotzkin, with carrying out the mission.
“That’s how the shiur was established, in the evenings, and it was attended by both avreichim and laymen. This shiur blossomed into an empire. The number of hours of learning increased, and over the years, a morning kollel and afternoon kollel opened. Today, there are 11 kollelim throughout the country that teach the iyun shiur. There are kollelim in Afulah, Modiin Illit and elsewhere, and it all began on Meltzer Street.”
Today, Rabbi Rubinstein’s kollel network has about 1,200 avreichim. From the first day the network was founded, Rabbi Rubinstein relates, he has had to raise the funds to support the kollel. As part of his activities, he travels abroad often, and although today he doesn’t formally manage the kollel’s finances, with a turnover of about NIS 15 million a year, he is the driving spirit behind this tremendous Torah center.
How do you see yourself, more as a Rosh Kollel or as a mayor, or is there no contradiction between the two in a place like Bnei Brak?!
“There’s no contradiction. Gedolei Yisrael expect me to be a mayor, and it is a mitzvah to obey the words of our sages. At the same time, I will not give up on Nachalas Moshe.”
And you are also the secretary of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah.
“Indeed. That is a very sensitive job with a lot of responsibility. People try to attribute all kinds of positions of power to this role. The truth is that the one in the role of secretary has no authority to intervene, chalilah, in any decision and has to be devoted only to the words that he hears in the homes of Gedolei Yisrael and to convey them further, based on the instructions he receives.”
How does Harav Chaim, shlita, perceive this job that you, his close confidant, holds? What does he see in it besides the fact that you are his personal representative?
“I have several jobs, but the one that most interests Rav Chaim, and has over the years, is the Bnei Brak Municipality. The function of the Bnei Brak Municipality for him is top priority.”
Indeed, in Rav Chaim’s home, Rabbi Rubinstein enjoys a favored status and closeness that only few merit.
But Rabbi Rubinstein doesn’t get excited: “For me, Harav Chaim, shlita, is the pillar of fire that walks at the head of the camp. He guides me every step of the way, and specifically because he is very involved in everything relating to the municipality, I receive constant and clear guidance from him on every subject and issue. I don’t ask my Rebbi ‘why?’ Rather, I do what he asks.”
In the Plans: New Housing Units
If we look at Bnei Brak, it stands out in the complexity of its management and in the denseness of the population. How do you plan to deal with the housing problems in the city?
“We put priority on assisting with expansion, and in addition, to make it easier for people. We have to remember that the first urban master plan of the city when it was founded under Rabbi Yitzchak Gerstenkorn, z”l, was for no more than 10,000 people in the city. Today we have an urban master plan of 230,000, and it’s still going strong.”
Is there where to expand? Up or out?
“There is definitely room to expand. Regarding building up, there is a long-standing decision by city Rabbanim not to allow construction of more than six and a half stories so as not to require a Shabbos elevator. Harav Shmuel Wosner, zt”l, fought valiantly over this and all the Rabbanim joined him, led by Harav Nissim Karelitz. When they built the Ramat Elchanan neighborhood, there were buildings of four floors, and the Steipler Gaon was upset, saying that was too high. But with time, the demands have grown, so today the master plan permits construction of up to six and a half stories for residential buildings.
“As we speak,” Rabbi Rubinstein adds, “hundreds of new housing units are being built in the northern part of the city, in the Pardes Katz and Kiryat Herzog neighborhoods. There are other projects within the city itself. Some of the shells are already standing, and within a year, people can move in. There is another large plan for 2,000 housing units across the Eim Hamoshavot road, which borders Bnei Brak and Petach Tikvah.
“Bnei Brak is a unique city and cannot learn from any other city how to manage it,” the mayor stresses. “With most cities around the world, you can ‘copy and paste.’ You can take a city’s sanitation plan and see how it works in another city. But Bnei Brak is different, because 210,000 residents live on 7,000 dunams of land. That is something unmatched anywhere else. I try to ease things for residents because people want to live here, and if it’s important for people to live in this city then we have to make it possible for them.”
It’s very expensive today to live in Bnei Brak. Who are you building for? Young couples? Mature families?
“True, there is a very big price gap between Bnei Brak and other cities in the central region. Even now, anyone who can’t afford it will go live in Ashdod, Modiin Illit or other cities. One can certainly live in Afulah; I have a kollel there; there are schools, jobs, and anyone who wants can buy a secondhand apartment in Afulah for NIS 500,000 instead of NIS 1.5 million for an apartment in Bnei Brak.
“But there are baruch Hashem enough people who want to live specifically in Bnei Brak and they have the NIS 1.5 million in one form or another. So we have to give them options.
“Anyone who wants to live in Bnei Brak will live there, no matter what. When we market new apartments we also help bring down prices.
“Harav Chaim Kanievsky sometimes tells people of means who come to him, ‘Buy a house,’ and if the person says, ‘I bought an apartment in Yerushalayim,’ he then says, ‘So buy one in Bnei Brak as well.’”
Vision: Continued Progress for the City
What is your vision for rehabilitating the city, in addition to the housing plan?
“My vision, along with my partners, and especially with my predecessor Rabbi Chanoch Zeibert — what he began I will continue, and even more — is that the city needs to be clean and well cared for, so that people can learn and daven in its streets without the places being dirty and unsuitable. It should be spiritual and material.”
In addition to cleanliness, what else is there?
“Transportation is a very serious problem in this crowded city. For years, it has been talked about, and there are future solutions. The mayors throughout the generations have had their input, such as building a central bus station at the entrance to the city, and other things, but these plans are at least five years in the future. Immediate plans can be implemented within a few months to improve the situation.
“In addition, classrooms are a constant headache in the city. It is a real drama to always come up with solutions for classrooms. Because of the population growth, we need to add more space in the schools, and we need to look out of the box for solutions to the problems of schools.”
There is a subject that has been a source of angst the past year in Bnei Brak, and that is the cameras that target people who park on certain streets and are then given steep fines. The business owners have taken this very hard. How do you deal with this?
“I have now formed a professional team to examine the issue. The cameras are not meant to impoverish the business owners, chalilah. I say that every so often you need to stop and rethink things. In recent years I was part of the city management, and I am in favor of the cameras, but perhaps we have to rethink things. We see how bitter people are.”
Closing stores early is also something that is attributed to you.
“Rabbi Zeibert and I are in total agreement about this. It is important that food establishments in Bnei Brak should not be open all night. It does not bring yiras Shamayim to the city’s residents and the yeshivah bachurim who go down at midnight and wander around. It does not dignify the city. They attacked me, saying that if the stores won’t be open they will leave the city; we didn’t see that happening. I think that it’s good news for the city’s residents. Bnei Brak is allowed to be quiet at night. Later, Rabbi Zeibert came and he did the same thing, he cleared the sidewalks and forbade stores from putting their merchandise on the street. Baruch Hashem, our crowded city has seen some improvement on this front.”
How do you deal with employment? Is there a solution for all the people who live here?
“I think that there isn’t any unemployment here. What there is, is willing unemployment. All the avreichim in kollel are not part of the labor market.”
So you don’t take arnonah from them. You are making your city poor.
“My city is one of talmidei chachamim. It is only because there are poor people here that we are upgrading the northern part of the city, building towers there, which will be a source of revenue and strengthen the city. As to the point you mentioned, arnonah is not enough to sustain the city even if everyone paid 100 percent. Arnonah discounts amount to about NIS 110 million out of a budget of NIS 1.2 billion. The arnonah discounts are comprised of many parameters. There are those who are exempt by the state, such as a person over age 65 and the like. If you take the NIS 110 million and analyze it, you will see that the arnonah discounts for the needy are about 50 percent. The bnei Torah will not impoverish our city.”
Battle: Shabbos Observance in Public
In the last elections, the opposition in Bnei Brak grew, and it generated a lot of background noise. Things reached a peak when the second city council meeting erupted into chaos, and supporters of the Likud imploded the meeting.
The opposition is making life difficult for you.
“Indeed, we had a surprise at the city council meeting and were not ready for it, but from now on we will prepare for it. We work according to the law, and we have nothing to hide. There is oversight by the state comptroller, the regional district, and the district committee. Each authority has countless oversight measures, and we meet them all.
“We will learn to live with criticism from within as well, and I don’t think it will be such a big problem. We have ways of preparing, and I think that if you meet me in a month or two you will see that everything was settled peacefully. We will not let anyone ruin or destroy our city that is built on the foundations of holiness.”
Were you really afraid for your seat on the eve of elections, when you organized a huge rally in the streets of Bnei Brak?
“We were primarily afraid of indifference. In elections there are a few things. You have to know who obeys — Mi laShem eilai — and another thing is to increase the strength of United Torah Judaism, the Gimmel list. People would have sat at home, and then the Likud representatives would have gotten another mandate. There is a price to pay for indifference.”
A word about the Shabbos desecration of Israel Rail on the outskirts of Bnei Brak, on the construction of the railway. Do you plan to take action on this issue?
“I said at the first city council meeting that there are those who sent messages that a new mayor is coming and maybe he will get along with them, but they should know that it will be much harder for them with this new mayor. We are not going to concede anything; we will thwart their efforts.
“Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz tried to bypass us by expropriating the disputed lot from the Bnei Brak jurisdiction to the state, so that they could brazenly continue their Shabbos desecration. We are going to fight it out in court. We will not give a hand to public Shabbos desecration.”
How do you see Bnei Brak in another decade?
“I believe that in a decade, Jabotinsky Street [which links Bnei Brak to the other cities in the Dan Region — A.D.G.] will be closed on Shabbos.”