Jerusalem Ultraorthodox Gain With Large Families

CURRENTS IN JUDAISM

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE streets of Jerusalem turned black. Traffic curled into huge jams as more than 300,000 mourners dressed in the long dark coats and top hats of devoutly religious Jews brought the Israeli-controlled city to a standstill.

The occasion was the funeral of a prominent religious scholar, Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach, in February. But for the ultraorthodox community, now emerging from obscurity to become the dominant political and social bloc in Jerusalem, it was also a potent demonstration of their new demographic might.

Once a small community occupied with religious study and the raising of large families in the style of the old European shtetl, Jerusalem's ultraorthodox leaders are moving into positions of key political control in the new city administration of right-wing Mayor Ehud Olmert.

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The trend is likely to have a profound impact on the social and religious character of the city holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, even as Israelis and Palestinians continue to debate Jerusalem's larger political fate.

The emerging ultraorthodox power is born out of sheer demographics. Calling themselves the haredim, or God-fearing ones, ultraorthodox families average six children each, a birth rate that is twice the Israeli average, equal only to that of Jerusalem's Palestinian community.

As an estimated 40 percent of Jerusalem's Jewish population today, haredim are likely to become the majority within the next two decades, says Yosseph Shilhav, a professor at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. Jews currently make up 73 percent of the city's 567,000 residents.

Mr. Olmert, an ambitious secular politician in the Likud Party, who has aspirations to become prime minister, formed an alliance with Jerusalem's haredi leaders during the 1993 city elections to unseat veteran Mayor Teddy Kollek.

While Mr. Kollek sought to enhance the city's appeal to secular Israelis by creating parks, cultural centers, and a city economic base, Olmert has made long-neglected haredi needs a city priority -- directing millions of dollars into over-crowded schools and religious institutions.

But the alliance also has exacerbated secular Israeli fears -- as well as Arab Christian and Muslim fears -- regarding their future place in the city.

''Our friends are moving to the suburbs, and their children are moving to Tel Aviv,'' says Nurit Yardeni-Levy, a representative of the opposition Labor Party on the City Council. ''The Haredim consider other Israelis as a foreign regime.''

Israelis split in Jerusalem

The chasm of suspicion and fear dividing the two Jewish communities runs almost as deep as that between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mutual ignorance is reinforced by an educational and social system where ultraorthodox and secular Israelis study and socialize separately from birth. When most 18-year-old Israeli youths enter the Army, religiously exempt ultraorthodox girls marry and begin child-bearing, while ultraorthodox men devote themselves to a spartan life of religious study.

However noble their aims, it is a lifestyle of grinding poverty and dependency on state welfare payments and religious subsidies.

Since the 1993 city elections, bitter battles have erupted between Jerusalem's secular Israelis and increasingly assertive haredi neighborhoods.

The city's cosmopolitan cultural life has been called into question as the new haredi leadership quietly seeks to slash city support for activities that they regard as ''immodest'' and ''immoral'' from avant-garde art shows to dance troupes and drama. A film on the Biblical King David, commissioned as part of the city's 1996 celebrations of Jerusalem's 3,000-year anniversary, has recently raised ultraorthodox Deputy Mayor Uri Lupolianski's ire.

There, too, the collision between secular and haredi values is profound. While Kollek sought to preserve Jerusalem's Ottoman and British Mandate-era architecture and the city's dramatic open vistas, the ultraorthodox agenda calls for new high-rise development to accommodate growth.

''Jerusalem will grow up and outward ... more high rises, more roads and infrastructure that a big, modern city requires,'' boasts Mr. Lupolianski, who is in charge of city planning. He envisions the ancient city swelling into a metropolis of 1 million people.

Even in Jerusalem's walled Old City and other carefully restored historical neighborhoods, architectural restrictions are being loosened to allow for new expansion. ''It's like taking the Mona Lisa and adding a mustache,'' says architect Elinor Barzacchi who resigned from her job as Jerusalem's chief planner last August in dismay.

But it is in the educational system where the city's rapidly changing demographics are most apparent. As secular residents flee the older city center, schools and cultural centers in transitional neighborhoods become fields of battle.

''It's a struggle over every classroom,'' says Milke Bakenroth, a haredi educator as she tours a nursery school in the ultraorthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mekor Baruch, where 37 three-year-old girls are crowded into a small, rented apartment. The neighborhood of once-elegant, turn-of-the-century stone homes has been transformed into low-income haredi housing.

''The haredi population has been oppressed,'' says Haim Miller, deputy mayor in charge of haredi culture and community education. ''We want to equalize the conditions for our children.''

Raising quality of life

And Mr. Miller argues that ultraorthodox society also is increasingly interested in quality of life issues. ''We want youth clubs and playgrounds. We want an attractive and clean city,'' says Miller, who has a new $3.6 million budget to promote haredi sports, art seminars, and school trips in which subject matter is carefully controlled and the sexes are strictly separated.

Ultraorthodox leaders, like most other Israelis, oppose any sharing of sovereignty over Jerusalem with Palestinians. And while ultraorthodox communities receive vastly expanded budgets for improving education and other city services, Palestinian education, housing, and infrastructure continues to be ignored by the new city administration, says Darwish Darwish, an Arab community activist from north Jerusalem.

Still, the ultraorthodox community is ideologically less militant against Palestinians than nationalist Jewish settlers who have deliberately moved into Arab areas of Jerusalem and the West Bank in order to press territorial claims.

Westward bound

In the haredi view, redemption of Biblical Israel, and of disputed religious sites such as Jerusalem's Temple Mount, is the work of God, rather than man. Jerusalem, as Lupolianski envisions its growth, will expand westward into pre-1967 Israel, rather than eastward into West Bank areas.

While ultraorthodox politicians would hardly encourage Christian or Islamic pilgrimage to the city, they have traditionally observed a live and let live attitude toward other faiths. ''We have mixed feelings,'' says Msgr. Richard Mathes, director of Jerusalem's Notre Dame. ''There is a tolerance built into the Old Testament law; the question is how the ultraorthodox will abide by it.''

Because of their fundamentally antinationalist religious philosophy, Shilhav believes that Jerusalem's ultraorthodox community may eventually prove more receptive than secular Israelis to a peace settlement that gives Palestinians control in Arab parts of the city. ''The haredim are much more realistic ... than their national religious sectors of Israel,'' Shilhav says. ''They would be more accepting of an administrative division of the city -- which is in fact already divided into three cities -- haredi, Arab, and general Israeli.''

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