First Foray into Israeli Politics

For those who have followed our lives since we immigrated to Israel over two years ago, you may remember my interest and “calling” into involvement in Israeli politics. This past week was the inaugural event. In the Fall there were municipal elections throughout Israel including the mayoralty election in Beit Shemesh, originally a Biblical town. Beit Shemesh is located on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Until the 1990’s Beit Shemesh was a typical Israeli city comprised of Jews from around the world. However, beginning in the 90’s, thousands of haredim (ultra-Orthodox) moved into the city. As their numbers increased, tolerance for alternative ways of life diminished, including spitting on young girls “improperly” dressed, forcing women to the back of buses, demanding government services and payments without reciprocal civic duties on the part of the recipients, etc. The Fall election brought the increasing divide to a head when the secular community, i.e. those who are not haredim, rose up and supported a popular and experienced candidate to oppose the current haredi mayor.

The Fall election was very close, but the incumbent mayor won. There were numerous allegations of election fraud, resulting in court decisions to undo the results and to redo the election. Apparently, many members of certain haredim sects who refuse to acknowledge the existence of the State of Israel and who don’t vote, gave their identity cards to non-residents of the city who voted in their stead for the incumbent mayor. Chicago, sound familiar? This past Tuesday was the new election.

The Israel Leadership Institute,,  headed by my friend Eeki Elner, assumed a lead role in supporting the “secular” candidate, who interestingly was also supported by most of the modern Orthodox in the city. The Institute recruited hundreds of young volunteers around the country to assist in a get out the vote campaign on election day.  When I saw the information about the plan, I contacted Eeki to see if I could serve in some capacity. He said of course. He told me to meet him at party headquarters at 1 PM. He wanted me to organize and supervise a cadre of young folks who would troll certain apartment buildings for non-voters and encourage them to vote.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Because of my limited Hebrew, I knew there wasn’t much I could add. I arrived at the headquarters, and there was a war room of sorts, like what you’d see in the States. Folks were on computers, monitoring election turn-out. Maps were spread on tables where certain areas were targeted. A marking board was used to identify precinct captains and areas currently being worked. A young guy who seemed to be in charge explained to me in English what areas they were targeting and what percentages of turnouts they were hoping for.

Because the buses of young volunteers were delayed, Eeki drove me and a few others around the city to observe what was happening. Traffic jams were galore. It was interesting to observe the divide in the city. There were areas exclusively inhabited by the haredim. They had their own election tables set up in front of polling booths. Hundreds of black coated haredim swarmed around the tables. With the exception of the few haredim sects who refuse to participate in elections, the remainder votes in huge percentages because they’re directed to by their rabbis, who have almost dictatorial control over their communities. Beit Shemesh is a beautiful city, located in the hills just outside of Jerusalem. But sadly haredi areas of the city were in shambles and dirty.

Late in the afternoon the young volunteers arrived. They were briefed by the political leaders. They were to knock on doors, explain who they were, ask the inhabitants if they had voted, encourage them to vote if they hadn’t and give them phone numbers if they needed assistance to vote. Most of the volunteers were late teens to early 20’s and were quite enthusiastic. I would guess about 200 actually came. Everyone was to wear a shirt which says in English, “I am fighting for Israel both Jewish and democratic.” See the pic of me wearing it.

I was assigned one large group to oversee, and we headed to an area of older and probably poorer apartment buildings. I noticed a number of Ethiopians lived there. The leader told everyone where to go and identified me as the one to resolve problems. (That’s laughable!) We hit 3 large apartment buildings. I positioned myself outside them to keep an eye on everyone. While there, the winds picked up, the temperature plunged, and it started raining. I had left my jacket at headquarters. The most excitement occurred when some young kids discovered a tarp in the entrance way and out popped two tiny kittens, just days old. I put them back into the tarp and covered them, but the mom seemed non-existent. After 45 minutes the volunteers emerged from the apartment building seemingly quite pleased with the results, and I directed them to another building in my halting Hebrew (probably appeared to them as some old demented fool).

By now it was getting late. I was hungry, tired and cold, and honestly, didn’t feel like I was contributing much. I hitched a ride with another staffer back to headquarters. The leaders looked concerned because their numbers weren’t as high as they had hoped. I asked about an area in the city, almost exclusively Ethiopian, as to whether volunteers had gone there. They said no; they couldn’t afford the manpower for what they considered would be a difficult community to persuade. Personally, I disagree; I think it may have been a fatal mistake.

Around 8:30 Stacy showed up with the car (she’d been visiting Rebecca and family in Jerusalem), and we headed home. I felt pretty discouraged because I couldn’t follow most of the intense Hebrew spoken all day and didn’t feel I’d contributed much. The next morning the results showed the incumbent haredi mayor won again by about the same margin of votes as the last election. I wrote to Eeki thanking him for letting me participate and apologizing for not doing much. He wrote back a very encouraging note, saying that was not true; I had contributed a lot by watching out for the young people. All in all, I’m glad I went, but it showed me I have a long way to go if I’m going to contribute to this society.

The Rains Finally Arrived

 After the massive rain/snow storm here in December, little rain fell. By the end of February, it was the driest winter in 50 years. February was the driest in 150 years! For most of the country, rainfall was about ½ of normal. Due to the recent opening of desalinization plants along the Mediterranean, Israel is not as dependent upon annual rainfall as before. However, a prolonged drought would still be devastating. Suddenly, this past week the rains returned. March is part of Israel’s rainy season, but really the tail end. January and February historically are the wettest months. It’s been raining in our area the entire week, and some of the storms were pretty intense, bringing a lot of rainfall. In fact, we even had one or two thunder storms, not as common here as in States because it doesn’t rain here when it gets warm, the normal prerequisite for thunder storms. Pray that the rains continue. Rain is a sign of God’s blessing.

‘If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.” Lev. 26:4-5.

Adonai Shamah Congregation

As I’ve shared before, our small group meets every other week, now in different locations. Recently, we had another couple about our age join us who have lived here for over 20 years. That was an encouraging development. We decided to hold our last service (last Shabbat) at their home in Netanya. When we arrived, there were other couples there. As it turned out, one of the couples was David and Lisa Loden, Messianic Jewish pioneers in Israel, who have written many of the Israeli Messianic community’s songs. David left before the service started due to conflicts over time, but Lisa remained. The other couple was Ron and Marlene Pfefer, Messianic Jewish pioneers in the States who helped start the first Messianic Jewish congregation in Chicago (one of the first in the US) and later the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. I was really honored to have such esteemed and veteran folks in our little group. They seemed to enjoy the service. It seems there is an increasing hunger for a more Jewish traditional based service. I’ve also been in touch with a young Messianic Jew, who is also seeking a more traditional approach. Please pray for guidance for our small group. We have both Messianic and non-Messianic Jews who attend.