As I write this article, I have preferred not to use the term “haredi” to describe traditional Orthodox Jews, since the term “haredi” conveys a pejorative meaning that connotes fanaticism and a lack of tolerance. I would not use “haredi” to describe Orthodox Jews any more than I would use the word “cofrim” to describe the general population of Israel, a term that would connote a heretical attitude to Judaism and to Jewish religious observance.
The city of Jerusalem witnesses the exodus of about 16,000 Jews every year, and the immigration to Jerusalem of about the same number. Over the past few years, a slew of politicians have made it a point to warn that a traditional Orthodox Jewish population is replacing a less observant Jewish population that is leaving the city. Among the politicians who have been quoted on this matter of late have been Mayoral candidates Shimon Shitrit, Naomi Chazan and Arnon Yekutiali, along with former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. It has become almost an axiom in Israeli politics that traditional Orthodox Jews are entering Jerusalem in droves while less observant Jews are leaving.
Well, this axiom may has little basis in reality. Perhaps the greatest social crisis faced by traditional Orthodox Jews today in Jerusalem remains THEIR emigration from Jerusalem. That emigration from Jerusalem now stands at about 5, 000 a year, and it will grow by leaps and bounds in the near future, as more young Orthodox Jerusalemites get married and begin new families. Why the sudden mass exodus of traditional Orthodox Jews from Jerusalem? Has the term “Next Year in Jerusalem” that will be proclaimed in synagogues after the shofar blows to complete Yom Kippur become antiquated? Has Jerusalem lost its holiness to a population that devoutly prays for Jerusalem’s restoration three times a day? Or are there other reasons?
When you visit Orthodox communities in the most traditional of venues, both in Jerusalem and outside of Jerusalem, you find out. In all cases, I have fictionalized the names of the people whom I refer to, out of respect for wishes of confidentiality. After all, what observant Jew would want to go on the record to express his disdain for living in Jerusalem?
Moshe and Chanah live in two adjacent apartments in a crowded building of about forty apartments near Meah Shearim, where they have raised eleven children since they came to live in Israel twenty eight years ago. Seven of their children are now married, and only one is staying on in Jerusalem. The rest of their married children have moved out of Jerusalem to six different cities in Israel. Moshe, who works as a scribe, mentions matter of factly that with limited resources, they could only afford to help one of their children to buy an apartment in Jerusalem, near the family, and that for purely economic reasons that his children were now living and raising their families in diverse places such as Ramat Zvi (near Zichron Yaakov) Beit Shemesh, Tzfat, Kiryat Sefer, Chatzor and Betar. Moshe went on to predict that his other four children, all soon to be of an age to marry, would also probably not live in Jerusalem. And this was the case for the young couples throughout their building. Moshe jokes that the subject most spoken about after every wedding, where the song of “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem” is where the young couple will find an apartment outside of the city – again, for what Moshe and Chanah describe as purely economic reasons. They estimate that among the one hundred or so soon to be married young couples whom they know in their circle in Meah Shearim that maybe ten will remain in Jerusalem. That means a ninety percent emigration from their community in Jerusalem.
In Beit Shemesh, Avraham and Yocheved, a traditional Orthodox couple who have moved there with their three children, note that the transition has not been easy for them. Like Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh is a mixed city that has both observant and non observant Jews living side by side. Even though the neighborhood where Avraham and Yocheved live is exclusively traditionally Orthodox, the three neighborhoods on each side of them are not, and they are getting used to that “with some pain”, as Yocheved put it. They had lived in Matesdorf, an isolated neighborhood in Jerusalem, and they had simply not been exposed to many neighbors who did not keep the Sabbath the way that they do.
Yet Yaakov and Esther, residents of Kiryat Sefer, are traditional Orthodox Jews who regret that they left their respective families in Jerusalem and who say that they could no longer enjoy Shabbat walks through the city because of all the shops, coffee houses, cinema and traffic that no frequent the center of Jerusalem. Esther mentions that this is not the way it was when she grew up in the capital twenty five years ago, when there was little traffic and hardly any store open on Shabbat. Yaakov chimes in that a walk through Jerusalem today on the Shabbat is like a carefully navigated horse drawn buggy with horse blinders, so they he and his children would not have to see all the “chilul Shabbat”, the breaking of the Sabbath, that now dominates the center of Jerusalem. Who remembers now that it was not until 1988 that cinemas showed movies on Shabbat in Jerusalem, or that only two coffee shops were open in the center of town in the early 1980’s. Today, almost all movie theaters operate on Shabbat and more that twenty coffee shops flourish, not to mention discotechues. Yaakov and Esther say with some sarcasm that if the intention of this commerce was to drive them from Jerusalem, it worked. In Kiryat Sefer, where they have lived for five years, Yaakov perks up and mentions that his children have yet to see anyone ever breaking the Sabbath, except, of course, when Yocheved’s water broke on Yom Kippur and was rushed in an ambulance to give birth on Mount Scopus last year.
Another isolated traditional Orthodox community which has attracted tens of young couples from Jerusalem is Ramat Tzvi, a self sufficient area that lies about three kilometers north of Zichron Yaakov. Miriam, recently widowed with four children, remarks that she might not have gotten the same “chesed” in one of the larger Orthodox communities in Jerusalem, where she and her late husband had been living. Neither she nor he had come from traditional Orthodox backgrounds, and they had trouble “fitting in” to any particular group in Har Nof, where they had been living. Moving to a community where almost every family was also new to Orthodoxy had its advantages. The town council immediately provided baby-sitting help for Miriam during her husband’s illness, and the community has become her children’s extended family. “Frankly”, says Miriam, “I do not know if a big city would have been so accomodating – especially since we were not part of any traditional Orthodox community before we became observant”.
Shaul and Rivka have moved their large family of ten to the Jewish quarter of Tzfat, where they have taken an old home and renovated enough rooms for the children. Shaul mentions that he never minded the mix and the ambiance of Jerusalem, but he says that he had a problem with a three room apartment with the option of putting his children to sleep on the porch, the roof, or in the downstairs shelter. “Tzfat is built on the ruins of Jerusalem” goes the expression, and, while Jerusalem is not quite in ruins, Shaul is pleased to note that new apartments are springing up throughout Tzfat and that they are at least affordable for his kids, if they should find either a Kollel or work in Tzfat in the future. Shaul comes often to Jerusalem, explaining that Jerusalem is close to Tzfat, even if Tzfat is not so close to Jerusalem. Shaul says that “It is a common thing to casually suggest to someone in the streets of Tzfat that they go to dovon Mincha, the afternoon prayers, at the western wall”. What’s a three and a half hour trip to the Holy City. Yet Shaul says that he never remembers anyone ever coming up to him on the street in Jerusalem and saying, “hey, how about a dip in the Ari’s Mikveh in Tzfat this afternoon”. Traditional Jews from Tzfat simply frequent Jerusalem more than their traditional counterparts from Jerusalem visit Tzfat.
Only last year, Yizthak and Leah moved from Bayit Vegan to Emmanual, while their children moved to Beit El and to Shilo, all in the Shomron. For what they sold their apartment in Bayit Vegan, they were able to make down payments on three places north of Jerusalem. Leah says that trading the view that they had of Sheerai Tzedek hospital and Mount Herzl for the views that each of their families now have of the hills of Samaria is “quite a change”. Another change for them is that while Emanuel is of a traditional Orthodox nature, with no TV’s and little education for Zionism per se, Beit El and Shilo represent the epitome of modern Orthodoxy and nationalist Zionism. Leah’s children, Pinchas and Devorah, now living in Beit El and Shilo, respond philosophically, saying that they had lived their whole lives side by side with secular neighbors and that now, for the first time, they are meeting a “different kind of Orthodox Jew”. Both Pinchas and Leah seem confident that their kids will adjust to the change.
Shlomo and his wife Rivka are both teachers in Talmud Torahs in Jerusalem. They had been living in Makor Baruch with their five children. They now live in Nechalim, and commute every day to Jerusalem. Again, the price of the apartment brought them to leave Jerusalem. Even more interesting, though, is the story of Shlomo’s brother Shmuel, who has moved to Bnai Brak to a more expensive flat than the one he had in Geula. Why the move to Bnai Brak? For a Rabbi? No – for business. Shmuel describes a burgeoning high tech world that has expanded into Bnai Brak, with tens of firms that seek out young men with Yeshiva backgrounds and young women with Beis Yaakov backgrounds. The firms set up a system where young men are employed by a business in the neighborhood while the business offers to install a computer in the home and train the wife with computer skills. The firms interact with other high tech companies in near by Tel Aviv. Shmuel remarks that “they have even attached a bassinet and all the necessary arrangements for my wife to breast-feed our newborn at the computer” This Orthodox exodus from Jerusalem also seems to be spilling over to Brooklyn. London and to Antwerp, as parents describe the opportunities that their children are getting from abroad. The sheer amount of travel agents in Meah Shearim that make a business of connecting families between outside of Israel and Jerusalem speaks for itself.
The issue of Orthodox emigration from Jerusalem is very real indeed. My impression is that it is not confined only to Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews of European or American background. The leaders of the burgeoning Shas communities of traditional Sephardic Jews are delivering weekly sermons in which they encourage teachers and Rabbis to move to the periphery of Israel, to places like Chatzor, Kiryat Malachi, Kiryat Gat, Yerucham and Dimona. As one Sephardic rabbi put it recently, “we must bring the light of Jerusalem to ignite the whole country with the spirit of Torah”. What that means in practical terms is that some of the best and the brightest of Shas also plan to leave Jerusalem in the years to come.
Many Orthodox Jews might as well say “Next Year not in Jerusalem”.