A September 2009 New York Times travel article (“West Jerusalem Shows its Hip Secular Side”) praised the many “secular” attractions the city has to offer, from trendy new shops and restaurants to cutting-edge architecture.
While Israelis were gratified to read a positive article about their country for a change, portraying Jerusalem as a capital of tourism and not terror, many were amused by the use of “secular” and “Jerusalem” in the same sentence.
“If you’re looking for secular Jerusalemites, try Mevasseret,” quipped one of my secular Facebook friends, referring to a nearby suburb with a religiously mixed population. “What’s a secular Jerusalemite?” joked another.
Like a lot of Israelis, these friends, who don’t live in Jerusalem, are convinced that Jerusalem’s ever-expanding religious population has all but eradicated secular life in the city, for all its outward show of modernity.
Actually, that’s not the case.
Though it’s true that, every year, more secular (and, for that matter, religious) Jerusalemites are leaving the city than moving to it, the number of restaurants and clubs open on Shabbat has actually sky-rocketed during the past couple of decades.
“When I moved to Jerusalem in 1978 there were no restaurants open on Shabbat and naturally no discos, cinemas or theaters open,” says Uri Regev, president of Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious freedom and equality.
Today, some 40 years later, there are countless pubs, discos and restaurants open on Shabbat, as well as cultural events taking place, Regev notes.
But despite a thriving nightlife, many who don’t feel a religious imperative to stay are gradually quitting the city. While very religious/ideologically motivated residents are willing to put up with dirty streets, sagging infrastructure and high property taxes, lots of others refuse to.
Jerusalemites are infuriated by the city’s housing prices, which rival those of Tel Aviv; yet Jerusalemites earn on average only $16,000 a year, while Tel Avivians earn $24,000.
Two factors have made Jerusalem the poorest Jewish city in Israel. First, there is no heavy industry or business center; second, because they have low workplace participation and large families, a sizable number haredi and Arab families (which together comprise two-thirds of Jerusalem’s residents), are exempted from paying city taxes. That burden falls mostly to the third of Jewish Jerusalemites who range from Modern Orthodox to secular.
A third of all Jerusalemites live below the poverty line, as do more than half the city’s children, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. With employment scarce, most of the thousands of students who attend the Hebrew University eventually leave for greener pastures.
And the educated residents who’ve remained could soon be on their way out, says Anat Hoffman, director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).
“Most of my secular friends have left,” says Hoffman, a non-Orthodox Jerusalemite who co-founded the Women of the Wall 20 years ago. “Those who stay give reasons that aren’t long-lasting: Their child is in a good situation in school or their lease isn’t up. They don’t say, ‘Every day there is something that makes me thankful to be a Jerusalemite.’”
Hoffman blames her friends’ exodus on a dearth of city services and on religious coercion. “Today, all kids in Tel Aviv can go to museums free. Why can the Tel Aviv mayor do this and we can’t? Many families can’t afford to take their kids to the zoo, the most visited leisure site in Jerusalem. There’s a law that says that every child in Israel must learn how to swim but most Jerusalem schools don’t teach swimming.”
Hoffman believes that Jerusalem’s haredi residents, who comprise about a third of all residents, are increasingly trying to impose their stringent religious practices on the public at large.
“Piety in this city is becoming defined as how distanced you are from a woman,” Hoffman says, ticking off a list of examples. “That’s what’s happening at the [Western] Wall, which is slowly becoming an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. That’s what’s happening with the segregated buses.”
In Jerusalem, more than anywhere else in Israel, women are forced to sit at the back of many public buses, in compliance with haredi religious standards, whether they like it or not.
Haredim have also pressured the city to ban public coeducational performances and the annual Gay Pride Parade, something that has riled many non-Orthodox residents.
Hoffman also criticizes the haredi school system, which does not teach secular subjects like math and science. “I think in five years, a quarter of the haredi student body under 18 will not be employable adults. What will keep the city afloat? Secular people have been very accommodating but they don’t want to be ‘friyerim,’” Hoffman said, using the Hebrew word for “suckers.”
Those who have left Jerusalem for Tel Aviv, Modi’in, Gush Etzion, and yes, Mevasseret, invariably say they moved for a myriad of reasons.
A gay 25-year-old who moved to Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb, said he was looking for a “freer lifestyle.”
“I grew up in Jerusalem and loved the architecture and history, but the community of people who are “out” is just too small. Jerusalem is also a political pressure cooker — people are judgmental, and I wanted to live in a more normal place.”
Tel Aviv artist Yoav Weiss, Anat Hoffman’s secular brother, said Jerusalem’s religiosity played less of a role in his decision to leave the city than terrorism and right-wing politics.
“We left in 2003, during the intifada. Bombs were going off right and left. When my wife and I went downtown, we plotted the shortest distance between two points. We thought, ‘This is crazy.’”
Weiss, who also makes a living selling parts of Israel’s security barrier, said he was upset at the treatment of Palestinians in Jerusalem and “the hatred and violence on all sides.”
Interestingly, Weiss said he didn’t mind growing up in a Jerusalem totally devoid of Shabbat entertainment.
“My favorite time in Jerusalem was Shabbat, when everything’s quiet and peaceful.”
With all its problems, Jerusalem is undeniably one of the most physically beautiful and fascinating places on earth. “This is my city where the vessels of my dreams are filled like oxygen tanks for deep-sea divers,” wrote the renowned Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. “The holiness there sometimes turns into love.”
Ideas abound to make Jerusalem a more vibrant, less problematic city. To help keep young people here, community activists are trying to persuade thousands of homeowners who spend little or no time in the city to rent out their Jerusalem homes and pied a terres to college students. They haven’t been very successful.
The municipality already gives housing grants to some students.
The mayor, Nir Barkat, a secular entrepreneur, is trying to woo more high-tech companies and is permitting the construction of a huge new movie theater next to the convention center.
Presentense, an organization that trains innovators and entrepreneurs, just ran an intensive program that spawned some out-of-the-box initiatives.
Ariel Beery, Presentense’s co-director, says the organization’s fellows have proposed a range of projects “based on non-religious life in Jerusalem,” including — of all things — a secular yeshiva, “which will be an opportunity to learn about Jewish identity and values without any preaching.”
Other projects include self-driven tours for tourists who don’t want to hire a tour guide; a youth hostel for the many people who volunteer in the city but lack accommodations; and a community garden initiative “to help create deeper community ties.”
Beery, who lived in Jerusalem before moving to Tel Aviv, says he wants to bring “hope” back to Jerusalemites.
“There’s a growing tide of coercion and repression that occurs due to the increasing number of the more extreme. We need hope to believe problems can be solved. Jerusalem can remake its own destiny.”
Asked what would bring him back to Jerusalem, Beery responds, “the opportunity for a social life that doesn’t have to revolve around religious observance.”
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.