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Oct 3, 2013

BS elections guest post; Meeting Eli Cohen, Beit Shemesh Mayoral Candidate

A Guest Post by A..

During Chol HaMoed Succot the challenging candidate for mayor of Beit Shemesh, Israel, publicized an "open succah - succat shalom - public forum".  I attended with my wife to get some measure of the candidate.

The venue was a large kosher succah in his front yard.  A number of community (non-charedi) rabbanim were seated at a head table, and people were being invited to share statements or questions, and rabbonim to share divrei Torah.  The audience was primarily dati, mixed men and women (though they arranged themselves into separate seating) with a couple of charedi guys.

After a short time (from when I arrived, late in the event) it started raining hard, and Mr. Cohen invited everyone into his home.  As not so many people came in, I had an opportunity to speak directly with Mr. Cohen for about 15 minutes.  We spoke in Hebrew and then in fluent English.

Eli Cohen mentioned his background, including running the Jewish Agency office in Uruguay, and his current job as assistant director for the Israeli National Water Company (Mekorot).  Being he was speaking to an obvious Chabadnik, he did the political thing and related his interaction with Chabad, including being by the Rebbe for Simchas Torah in 1987, significant interaction with the Chabad shaliach in Uruguay as well as the Chabad chief rabbi of Russia in Moscow.

He mentioned he has had a meeting with the Chabad House rabbi of Beit Shemesh, though that the meeting had not been so positive.  I explained the difference between the Chabad House and the Chabad community of Ramat Alef and the one of Ramat Bet.

He emphasized fairness in allocating city resources and having professionally managed and functional city services.  Example, he said the city is currently short 100 school classrooms, but the city planning office has not scheduled building of additional classrooms and only reacts when groups bring pressure.

(Questions and Answers are not exact quotes, I wasn't taking notes or recording the conversation.  It's my best memory of his positions, not exact words.)

Question: Why are you running for mayor?

Answer: I have 3 children that I would hope would choose to live in Beit Shemesh.  But with the issues of city cleanliness and dysfunctional city services, why would they choose Beit Shemesh?  Further, I currently have a greater salary at my current job - so I'm only doing this to make Beit Shemesh a great place to live for all it's residents.

Question: What do you plan to do about the large numbers of teenagers on the streets, particularly in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef?

Answer: The city has resources it can allocate, as well as programs it can offer through the community centers (Matnasim).  And it can work together with the many religious and other organizations to make a difference.  Yet currently the city does nothing in this area. 

Question: What is with this city and planning?  (Meaning, why do they do it so poorly?)

Answer: The new Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel being built is planned with no retail space, no synagogues, no mikvaot, no parks, and in the first phase no schools.  The building process is being completely run by business.  What's going to happen when families move there and have no local services in their neighborhoods?  Why would they accept that and not move to Beitar Illit or Modiin Illit (if religious) or Modiin (if not)?

Further, why are synagogues being forced to build on top of gan yeladim's?  There are plots available, yet organizations are being forced to "do something for the city" rather than doing something for the residents, to get a place. 

This is an issue of professionalism.
Question: The local schools are overwhelmed, and the city education department is dysfunctional.  What are you going to do about it?
Answer: The city is short over 100 classrooms, and that does not include that many "classrooms" are caravans (trailer-rooms) without proper facilities.  I was asked by a 7 year old this week "are you going to get me a classroom that has a bathroom"?  Instead of running the office by responding to pressure, I'm going to analyze the need and fairly allocate the resources across all those in need.  I don't care if it's a charedi yeshiva or an Ethiopian neighborhood, if a school is in need we are going to make sure it get's what it needs, shared across all those in need.
Question: What is with the city forming it's own water company, resulting in the residents now being charged sales tax (18%) on water?  Is the city a jobs program?  And how did my apartment suddenly grow 10% (with associated additional arnona - city tax charges)?
Answer: The forming of city water companies was a national law (no choice).  But the city residents should be seeing that as a benefit, as they get more attention to local problems and profits are allocated back to the city for the benefit of the residents.  When it's being used as a jobs program we all lose.
Regarding the re-evaluation of apartment sizes, which suddenly took into account common areas, walking spaces and parking spaces, I intend to re-evaluate this evaluation and see if it's appropriate.  (He noted he was personally affected as well.)
Question: How will you deal with the sikrikim (the fanatics of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet), who are rioting and blocking roads, burning dumpsters, etc?  Is there anything a mayor can do versus this being a police matter?
Answer: The one thing that cannot happen is to ignore this problem.  Frankly, it's the charedi residents that suffer the worst as they're bullied by this group (and suffer from the impact, such as reduced bus service after they attack a bus).  As mayor I will do everything I can to confront and control this problem.  The first step is that I will speak out every time and call on the police and national authorities to act.  In addition, when they cause a problem - and we know who they are - I'm going to make them pay (to replace) every time they burn a dumpster or cause other damage.
This is NOT a religious issue.  All the residents of the city have to abide by the law to have a functional city, and we should all be able to co-exist together with shalom.

Mr. Cohen particularly noted the success of mixed religious/secular cities such as Netanya, at the same time noting that if the city continues on it's current path it will be the charedi residents that suffer the most (as they typically rely the most on local services).  He emphasized he's fully comfortable with Beit Shemesh continuing to grow as a religious city, filled with yeshivot, and is not opposed to the city giving discounts for those in need - noting the charedi family in Ramat Beit with 6 children and the Ethiopian family in Old Beit Shemesh should be receiving assistance equally if equally in need.
He seemed particularly concerned with being labeled anti-religious, something his opponent and the local religious newspaper is trying to do.  He repeatedly stressed he's perfectly happy with Beit Shemesh developing as a religious city, but also a city that operates fairly and equally provides services to all it's residents.  He'd like to meet with all the community rabbis and leaders, and PLAN for the whole city.
OVERALL, he presents well, is articulate, cognizant of the city situation and shows concern for the future of the city.  He's aware of issues across the city and it's wide range of differing communities - though is not so well aware of the nuances within the religious communities.  He strikes me as a reasonable manager and has good personal political skills.
I'm not endorsing Mr. Cohen NOR withholding an endorsement, this is an informational note.  But rather than just throw around a few slogans I find it valuable to actually know what direction the candidate would take the city.
Since initially writing this, it's become clear that Israeli politics is a bare knuckled sport.  Flyers were distributed around town stating Mr. Cohen together with Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid (with which Mr. Cohen is NOT associated as far as I know) are going to initiate bus service on Shabbos (with the tag line "BELIEVE IT").  Even if Mr. Cohen was a rabid secularist (he is DEFINITELY NOT), such an accusation defies any meaningful logic - most of Beit Shemesh being closed on Shabbat there's literally no where for buses to take people even if they were running.  (And just imagine a bus trying to get through Ramat Bet on Shabbat.)  Are we idiots who will just "believe it"?  This is a nasty anti-religious smear, absolutely disgusting.
It's interesting to note the worst they can come up with to smear Mr. Cohen is he's not charedi.  

Originally I signed this note, yet I've actually begun to wonder if I have to worry about retribution if I do so.  Both from my own community, segments of which are cutting deals for votes which has never helped my little segment in any way in the past, from various zealots out to make sure democracy means what their leader says goes, and maybe even from city administration officials who could show support for their candidate by harassing people publicly supporting the other (I am NOT making an accusation that they are doing such - just worried about the possibility given the other bare knuckled actions going on).
So I leave it... "A" from RBS-A

Note my opinions represent myself only.  I DO NOT represent or speak for my shul, kehila, rav, or chassidus.  
Happy election season!



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1 comment:

  1. Given that they are attacking Eli Cohen as a religious concern – it just shows that there is nothing to argue regarding his capabilities to better fix up our city. I don’t recall ever hearing anyone claim that Moshe Abutbul is a better mayor than Eli Cohen would be. The standard complaints against Eli Cohen are that he is not personally fully religious (which I’m not sure why that is necessarily an obstruction to being a good mayor – See Pesachim 112a that Rabbi Akiva instructs his son not to live in a city whose mayor is a talmid chacham since he will be spending his time learning and not properly taking care of the municipality requirements) and of course that now infamous “Believe it” campaign that Eli Cohen has some nefarious plan to initiate mass chillul Shabbat in the city by running busses in RBS on Shabbat and opening pig stores on Shabbat in the city. I also heard of his “plans” to close or stop funding of all chareidi schools and take away their buildings. The fact that Eli Cohen, or any of the people on his list for city council, or any of the numerous supporters, campaign staff or supporters (whom many, if not most, are fine religious people) have never mentioned or heard of this “plan” – and at almost every opportunity he has claimed just the opposite – that he will ascertain the religious and traditional sentiments of the entire city, is irrelevant to his detractors. It astounds me to hear people, who are otherwise quite intelligent, propose these claims that not only so blatantly false, but do not make any sense! Even if he wanted to, why would he promote busses (who would ride them?) and open pig stores on Shabbat in a predominantly religious and traditional city?? Why would he so antagonize 80-90% of the city’s population?? Except of course for his irrational “hatred of the religious” – as “proven” by the fact that Eli Cohen’s party, Bet Shemesh Chozeret, joined with the Bayit Yehudi party of Bet Shemesh, who are of course connected ideologically and financially with the national Bayit Yehudi party, who is headed by Naftali Benet, who wears a small kippa, and joined in the Kenesset with the Yesh Atid party, headed by Yair Lapid, who is of course known as anti-Chareidi, chad gadyah, chad gadya….

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