Beit Shemesh, Israel — Next to the Modern Orthodox Orot Banot girls school in Beit Shemesh, fresh mounds of dirt and a huge hole in the ground indicate the spot where a community center is being built.
Orot Banot was at the center of conflict between local haredi Orthodox extremists and Modern Orthodox residents in late 2011, after a group of haredi men spit upon an 8-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, as she walked to school through their neighborhood. The incident marked a high point of internecine conflict in this city of 80,000 near Jerusalem and made headlines around the world.
Today, Beit Shemesh activists are hoping the community center under construction augurs a more harmonious future in which all Beit Shemesh residents coexist peaceably.
“The reputation that Beit Shemesh got bothered everyone,” said Ilan Geal-Dor, executive director of Gesher, a nonprofit group that fosters secular-religious dialogue. “We’re all going to live here, so let’s see what we can do together,” he said.
A year ago, Beit Shemesh represented a stormy microcosm of the increasingly tense relationship between Israel’s haredi Orthodox community and the state’s Modern Orthodox and secular residents. But 14 months after the city became an international symbol of Israel’s internal strife, Beit Shemesh has retreated from the brink. Though underlying tensions remain, a tenuous calm that has taken hold.
Orot Banot has operated without incident for a year. Construction on the community center, meant to serve the whole city, continues unabated. A host of programs have been launched to help foster mutual respect and coexistence between the city’s various communities.
A roundtable of community leaders, from haredi to secular, now meets every six weeks to try to head off future conflicts and collaborate on issues of shared concern. Several times a month, secular, Modern Orthodox and haredi young men gather to study Torah and celebrate Shabbat together. A mixed group of 16 women has spent a year creating documentary films about Jewish women’s issues. And a larger women’s council spent 2012 encouraging dialogue between Beit Shemesh’s various groups.
“What creates tension is that nobody knows the other,” said Shmuel Pappenheim, a haredi participant in the community roundtable. “When you sit at a table and say what you think, you understand what motivates the other.”