Religion isn't a stranger in Kiryat Gat. The southern city has always had a majority of people who maintain Jewish traditions, and these have always lived peacefully with the city's secular residents. The religious residents were mainly from the national religious group, people with Zionistic leanings who serve in the Israel Defense Forces, work for a living and are an integral part of community life.
Yet over the past few years, a major demographic change has been felt throughout the city as 52,000 residents, one fourth of the city's total are classified as haredim. This change has brought a revolution in the city's construction and land holding plans which is not in line with a majority of the secular residents' outlook.
Illegal construction of caravans in the small hours of the night in order to erect yet another synagogue or haredi kindergarten has become the norm over the last few years. The most forgiving of municipality critics will say that it looks the other way when it sees these outrageous breaches in planning and building laws, while the harshest critics will say the municipality is giving the behavior its full support and a stamp of approval.
Secular residents are also complaining over the fact that more and more buildings are being handed over to the haredi community out of necessity due to their demographic power.
Due to the illegal construction on lands meant for residential areas, the municipality appealed, at great expense, to the Israel Land Administration to change the city plan so that areas designated for residential areas would be allocated for public buildings while promising to allocate alternative lands for residential use. But the process was never completed. Meanwhile, the illegally constructed caravans stand tall, and are being used by the haredi population.
Illegal school Kiryat Gat. (Photo: Tsafrir Abayov)
The city's veteran secular residents, including some of its founders, cannot ignore the 'haredization' trend and the municipality's conduct over the illegal construction that has come with it. "For 15 years this city is getting more and more haredi" said one veteran, "the haredim have no problem sticking their kids in caravans on every corner in order to open another 'Heder' (kindergarten for boys) or yeshiva and this city looks like one big marketplace – a caravan or building for haredim on every corner.
All we need is for the municipality to give them the building where the high school in honor of Yitzhak Rabin is situated".
The high school named in honor of Yitzhak Rabin is an important way point in the cultural conflict that is growing in Kiryat Gat, is a real watershed line: A site that could either mark the border of the expanding haredi neighborhood, or mark the breach in the border between the secular and haredi areas.
The haredi neighborhood was established 18 years ago in the area surrounding Ha Gaon street, the mayor at the time was Knesset Member Ze'ev Boim (Kadima).
The then Rebbe of the Gur Hasidic sect understood that young couples couldn't afford to buy an apartment in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak due to the steep price tag and instructed his followers to go settle in smaller cities like Kiryat Gat, Arad and Hatzor HaGlilit and to carry out a collective purchase of apartments which would decrease the already moderate prices.
Seculars leaving as city turns into 'big market' (Photo: Tsafrir Abayov)
The first 500 apartments were bought by the haredim at ridiculously low prices and marked the establishment of the first haredi neighborhood in Kiryat Gat which was swiftly followed by its expansion, but the expansion created a situation where the Rabin high school which caters to the city's secular or at most, traditional residents, is being 'swallowed' by the haredi neighborhood.
The haredi community won't admit it, but behind closed doors they are already taking into account the possibility that the building will be handed over in order to create continuity. Instances where high school girls arrive at school wearing 'permissive' clothing only hasten the wish for land continuity.
A City Council member belonging to the Gur Hassidic sect, Shmuel Shapirah refutes claims that his people are eyeing the high school but admits that the demographic reality has changed and may have repercussions.
"The school was constructed as a demarcation of the haredi neighborhood", he claims, "but what can we do if our number have grown and the neighborhood continues past the school area. We always aspire to more land because in the current situation, our children have no place to learn and we are forced to teach them in caravans and apartments."
Across from the Rabin high school is the illegally built haredi school which was constructed four years ago. One day they simply put a caravan on the empty area and use it as a school. After a lengthy battle, the municipality came to an agreement with the haredim. But later another caravan arrived, and another and another until the school became a widely constructed existing fact.
Complaints of discrimination are rising from within the illegal school: "Why do schoolchildren from neighboring council areas need to come all the way over here and go to school within the haredi neighborhood?" They ask and wonder "why do our children have to freeze and study in caravans or in classrooms in private homes?"
800 haredim from different Hassidic movements live in Kiryat Gat. The city sees the illegal construction which is meant to serve the growing community's needs as a safety hazard – as they remember how two years ago a huge fire broke out in one of the caravans, which was used as a daycare center in the middle of the night due to faulty electric wiring, most likely because the electrical connection was illegally connected to the national network. It was a miracle that no one was hurt and yet a short time later the caravan was already being used by a different haredi sect.
But the illegal construction is not the only thing that is raising concerns among secular residents. The authorized construction of huge buildings, specifically for the use of the haredi residents as homes for rebbes, synagogues and yeshivas, were all built on city grounds while not one project has been earmarked for public buildings or cultural enrichment.
For example, two years ago, residents of Tziklag Street which is part of the government supported Self Build project implemented in many periphery towns in a bid to encourage people to remain in the periphery rather than move to more central cities, were surprised to find notices from the city's planning and construction committee outside their homes alerting them to the fact that a building designated for haredi daycare centers would be built across the street.
Synagogue under construction in Tziklag Street (Photo: Zafrir Abiov)
They protested the decision, but their protests were in vain. Today the building is in the final stages of construction and has caused many to sell their homes and leave the city. One resident stated that: "We have done everything but the municipality shows secular residents nothing but contempt so we decided to leave".
It is not a coincidence that the Rabin high school always comes up when discussing the future area of the haredi neighborhood – transferring buildings is not a new idea. "in my time the haredim made up 10% of the local population and many were the times that we discovered that they had been carpooling children from nearby areas in order to fill the kindergartens", says former Mayor Albert Erez.
This way he says, they tried to create the appearance of substantial demographic growth in order to receive additional properties.
"Wherever I could, I allocated buildings for public use" he explains. Since then, the haredim have learnt how to take advantage of the system: "They bring in the caravans and place them on every corner, staking their claims, and as you can see – the illegal school they constructed is still here today".
The current mayor, Aviram Dehari points a finger at the State which is his opinion, isn't doing enough ad leaves the municipality to deal with the issue of the haredi community. "Just this year we've established an Education Ministry authorized temporary caravan school in order to supply a solution for 350 students from the Sephardic community.
"It will take time before they have a permanent school building. Israel's
standards do not include the haredi community, and the State is wrong – their raw potential and charitable efforts must be taken into consideration."
These days, the haredi population of Kiryat Gat is facing a major problem – rising prices have left the 500 new apartments being constructed in the city with no interested buyers. That said, they already have plans for existing buildings. City Council member Shmuel Shapira says that the haredim have already agreed on how to divide the land among the different sects: "Each sect knows which land it will take after the municipality allocates the land.
"On that at least, there are no disagreements, and happily the Education Ministry has authorized the construction of 11 additional classes within the existing school. For some reason the State doesn't allocate funds for us but we have children and they need to study somewhere".
The General Manager of the Gur Hasiddic group's institutions in Kiryat Gat, Rabbi Shlomo Greenberg insists that: "It is time for the municipality to assign us land for legal construction".
Mayor Aviram Dehari's response to the article is that the illegal school was constructed on land which had already been designated for an education institution, and that the haredi children have the right to reasonable school conditions as much as anyone else. Which is why, he says, the municipality is taking steps to improve their situation.
He added that it wouldn't be right to look at haredim as people who are stealing from the public purse, I would be better if people would take advantage of their potential and their willingness to take part in volunteer efforts.