Friday, June 5, 2020 -
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Mayor Abutbul relishes building Bet Shemesh

THIS would be unimaginable in an American city — a stark reminder of the difference between this country and the Middle East.

I am sitting with Moshe Abutbul, mayor of Bet Shemesh, the 16th largest city in Israel, located about half way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Population is 72,000.

Abutbul, in his mid-forties, sees himself as a bridge-builder, a peacemaker, between different constituencies in Bet Shemesh: secular, religious nationalist, and fervently Orthodox (haredi) Israelis. I ask for an example.

He outlines a conflict over the rules of one of the two mikvehs in a local neighborhood. Some want to be lenient on the preparations, some want to be stringent. Before I am able to absorb the details, I wonder: mikvehs?

“They bring this to you, the mayor?” I ask. As much as I am astonished, he is nonchalant. “Of course.”

He is proud that he is a trusted adviser of different factions in the city, and he tells me how he resolved the conflict to everyone’s satisfaction.

Can you imagine, in the land of separation of church and state, an American mayor being asked to resolve a dispute over church property or . . . mikvehs?

ABUTBUL takes it all in stride. He loves being mayor. He gets home every night by midnight at the earliest; often, as late as 1 and 2 a.m. “And I have to be ready to go by 7 in the morning.”

When does he see his children?

“I am known as ‘Abba shel Shabbat,’ the father for Shabbos,” he says.

Abutbul and his wife have eight children. One is already married, is a full time Torah student, and another is trying his hand at building Jewish life in Columbia, South America.

He himself came to Bet Shemesh 20 years ago, one of 100 haredi families who settled in a secular neighborhood. Housing was cheap. Jerusalem and Bnai Brak were too expensive; and he harkened to the call of religious leaders to try to bring a message in a friendly way to a sector in Israel that had little or no contact with Jewish religion.

An activist from the start, Abutbul opened a study hall, a bet midrash, shortly after settling in Bet Shemesh.

Three years later he was encouraged by Rabbis Yosef and Elbaz to run for office. He took a seat on the city council, rose to be deputy mayor and two years ago ran for mayor. “The secular supported me,” he says proudly.

The key to getting the religious and secular to live in peace, he says, is equality in services from the municipality. “I aspire to create a beautiful atmosphere.”

Which doesn’t mean he has a solution to the Arab-Israel conflict, as no Israeli Arabs live in Bet Shemesh.

And which doesn’t mean he can escape tough decisions. Certain building codes were not enforced, and the mayor had to play the heavy. That, too, is a form of equality: making sure all builders play by the same rules.

ANOTHER one of Abutbul’s constituencies: former Ethiopian Jews. Prior to becoming mayor, and, no doubt, one of the reasons he was elected, Abutbul traveled around the world raising money for kindergartens for Ethiopian children.

Stack your image of shiny new kindergartens against the images of the old Bet Shemesh, 60 years ago.

The corridor to Abutbul’s office doesn’t let you forget. Pictures of the original residents of Bet Shemesh line the walls: pioneers in tents, earnest looking farmers atop old tractors, others in homes with corrugated roofs, vast expanses of empty land dotted with only a few small buildings.

Bet Shemesh has come a long way.

About 14 years ago, construction on an adjoining neighborhood, “Ramat Bet Shemesh,” began. It was designed for young religious families. It has grown so much that now there is Ramat Bet Shemesh 1, Ramat Bet Shemesh 2, with plans underway for Ramat Bet Shemesh 3.

Between “Ramah,” as it’s called for short, and all the new construction in Bet Shemesh, the remaining, dilapidated, original Bet Shemesh is confined to a few small areas.

In many ways, this is the story of Israel: pioneering idealism, leading eventually to a dramatic rise in living standards, with religious Jews occupying an ever greater proportion of the population, and with “Anglos” (Jews from the West) occupying an ever greater proportion of the religious population.

ABUTBUL’S captivating smile telegraphs a clear message: He loves his work, loves the beautiful new swimming pool and basketball court and sewage plant he oversees.

He loves making Bet Shemesh attractive for small start-up industries — 150 in total.

He loves having the confidence of leading rabbinic lights, such as Rabbis Ovadiah Yosef, Reuven Elbaz and Yosef S. Eliashiv, all of whose photos occupy a large portion of his walls.

He loves trying to find the middle ground, avoiding “black and white,” as he puts it, being creative in order to be “helpful to all.”

He has about 300 million shekels in tax revenues (roughly $80 million) to keep the city running.

On the thorny issue of army service, which the religious Zionists embrace and the haredi substitute with full time Torah study, Abutbul says:

“I honor those who study Torah day and night, and have educated my own children to do this. And I honor those who serve the state in the army and pray for their welfare. The state needs both types. Both deserve appreciation and dignity.

“The truth is, this is more of a national issue.”

On the international front, Abutbul is preoccupied with Hung Chu in China, Ramapo in New York state, and Cocoa, Florida — Bet Shemesh’s twin cities.

Abutbul knows Hebrew, Arabic, a little Yiddish and almost no English (our interview took place in Hebrew; my quotations of his words are translations).

He cites as a role model Rabbi Mordechai Elefant (late brother of Denver’s Dr. William Elefant), who founded the ITRI yeshiva from scratch. Abutbul admired Rabbi Elefant’s fundraising abilities and capacity to make large visions come true.

“Four thousand apartments are becoming available in Bet Shemesh,” says Abutbul. “We have a strong educational system, strong culture and sports — a beautiful population from the whole world. South Africa. North America. Ethiopia.

“I want to call on Jews in the Diaspora to come live in Bet Shemesh.

“If you’re coming to Israel on a tour, visit here. Invest in the city.”

Is this mere hype? The mayor turns on his computer, as if to say, see for yourself. He dials up

Indeed, see for yourself.

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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