Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

4 Tammuz 5764 - June 23, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








An Exclusive Interview with Jerusalem Mayor Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky at the End of His First Year in Office

by Betzalel Kahn

One year has gone by since Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky of Degel HaTorah was elected to the City of Jerusalem's highest office. Never before has a representative of chareidi Jewry been in a post so central to the State's ruling institutions and with such a broad range of responsibilities in municipal, political, international and security affairs.

Evidence of the Jerusalem Mayor's wide array of tasks lies in the fact he has a weekly briefing on security, military and police affairs; and the fact that the Foreign Ministry often advises him because of his contacts and meetings with representatives of nations around the world. Even more salient proof is the fact that one of the first issues Rabbi Lupoliansky undertook was accelerating construction of the separation barrier around Jerusalem. "The Gates of Life" -- as the Mayor calls it -- which has been given a considerable push in the government, is under construction and making progress.

Today, one year after the elections -- which set a significant precedent for chareidi Jewry -- the Jerusalem City Hall has taken on a new look. The service residents receive took a turn for the better. Suddenly the city is much cleaner, suddenly flowers bloom in every corner of the city, and in general, residents are more satisfied. A recent survey found that 92 percent of the chareidi public is pleased with Rabbi Lupoliansky's work as mayor so far.

With 14 chareidi representatives on the city council (nine from UTJ and five from Shas), four NRP representatives and two Likud representatives (out of a total of 31) the mayor has a broad and stable coalition capable of advancing far- reaching reforms.

One of the bigger challenges the Mayor has taken on is the recovery and streamlining program, which entails the dismissal of 1,150 of the municipality's 7,000 employees, in order to reduce salary expenditures and to improve service for residents. Obviously, this plan has encountered resistance from workers, but the Mayor is resolute in his decision to execute the program, which is subject to the recovery program approved by the government ministries that will grant hundreds of millions of shekels -- once the plan is approved -- for future operations at the municipality, to pay suppliers and salaries and to cover the deficit Rabbi Lupoliansky inherited when he took office.

At the end of his first year, we met with the mayor, Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky, to conduct a comprehensive interview surveying the year that was and his plans for the four and half years left until the end of this term.

The Whole World is Watching

The interview could begin with the day Rabbi Lupoliansky began serving as mayor, one-and-a-half years ago (upon Ehud Olmert's election to the Knesset) or the day of the elections, two days before Shavuos last year. The Mayor preferred to focus on his period in office since the elections.

"For a while I was a replacement without real authority or the ability to advance matters," says the Mayor. "I couldn't make changes, I could barely maintain routine activities based on Interior Ministry directives for pre- election local authorities. So until the elections, I didn't have an opportunity to act. As soon as the elections, were over of course I immediately began to implement plans because in the final analysis to run a `ir gedoloh le'Elokim ve'odom' like Jerusalem it is not enough to implement patchwork operations and certainly not merely `la'amod lifnei haporitz,' but rather it must be run in an orderly fashion based on a multi-year plan. This year we began operations and be'ezras Hashem we have already seen progress and success.

How was the first year?

It was a year in which half was devoted primarily to determining the pathway and, together with professional officials and the municipality administration, to achieve an intelligent and agreed upon multi-year plan for how to proceed in a city as complex as this one.

A recovery program or a program of action?

Among other things a recovery program that would give us the opportunity to act in a very intensive and efficient manner with a great deal of service to the public in the coming years. And therefore the first half of the year was primarily plans. We prepared a multi-year strategic program for the city's future direction and activity and during the past six months we have been implementing it, including a great deal of badly-needed changes to give residents better service.

For example, today any resident who calls 106, the municipality hotline, on any area or matter, will receive a response and follow-up after handling the complaint, within timeframes designated in advance.

As a representative of a chareidi party like Degel HaTorah (within UTJ) heading the biggest city in the country how is it for you to cope with so many religious, international, policy and political conflicts?

Personally, I certainly see in our task in general and in my own task in particular a path of kiddush Hashem. Everybody is watching, everybody is anticipating, each in accordance with who he is and his expectations, to see success or choliloh failure. For me, therefore, it is a mater of kiddush Hashem or chilul Hashem that everything must be done to sanctify the Name of Heaven.

I said everybody is watching, not just with their eyes but really through a magnifying glass or microscope. Therefore, the importance of success goes beyond the importance of the city's success, for the consequences are for the State of Israel and I would go so far as to say for many things that take place in the whole world.

One of the interesting things is how much of an interest is taken by the US President and various figures around the world regarding activity in this city.

What area interests them?

Routine areas, technical and municipal matters, as well. For example when we announced we would place emphasis on cleanliness and improving the appearance of the city, they wanted to know to what extent this would be manifested.

Why does this interest them?

Because, among other things, it interests them to evaluate the efficacy of a chareidi mayor in such a large city, with so many components. The issue interests them in terms of the country and of the world.

They are interested in the nature of things, not just simple issues or technical ones, but also issues of a city that everybody can live in, a city that is holy to everybody -- and to them as well.

When I met with the US Ambassador to Israel for the first time, immediately after the elections, it was an urgent and rushed meeting. The US State Department pressed for this meeting because they wanted to know what my plans were, who the man was. I asked the Ambassador why the urgency, why the rush.

I was told that the issue of Jerusalem, its impact on the world, is so significant that what happens in Jerusalem could cause a world war. Jerusalem can have an impact on the Christians, the Muslims and the Jews -- not just from a political standpoint but also regarding international and domestic relations in various countries. This is why they are so wary.

I have regular meetings with government representatives, American and European, and it places quite a burden on me. No other mayor in Israel, not Tel Aviv or Haifa or Ashdod, has to invest this time and I know that this is part of my daily schedule in order to maintain contact with all of the international officials.

I also feel this is a kiddush Hashem, but it also influences various issues; on more than one occasion I am contacted by Jewish communities around the world and in the merit of this influence as Jerusalem mayor I can assist them.

Surveys and Kiddush Hashem

On the eve of the municipal elections UTJ election headquarters was unsure of how to persuade the indifferent public to go out to the polls and vote for the party candidate for mayor and for the party list itself. At first, the campaign focused on voting for the list and only during the final days before the election did the mayoral campaign commence. The result was astonishing: close to 52 percent of the votes were for Rabbi Lupoliansky. The chareidi constituency had turned out at a much higher rate than anticipated.

No study has yet been conducted on the reasons for the mass mobilization (besides the fact the chareidi public voted in response to calls by gedolei Yisroel shlita) but without a doubt one of the central and leading factors was that for the first time in the city's history, opinion polls indicated a chareidi candidate was on his way to victory. Yet the election results surprised everyone, even those who were sure he would win.

The next surprise, or perhaps not, was three weeks ago when a survey conducted by Dr. Tzemach of the Dachaf Institute and published in a local weekly indicated that more than half of the city's residents (from all sectors of the population) -- and 92 percent of chareidi residents -- were pleased with the mayor's work.

Rabbi Lupoliansky, what have you done for the chareidi Jerusalem resident in one year to make him so pleased, as the surveys attest?

I am not a survey man or among the readers of newspapers.

But it provides an indication.

True. I was glad to hear it. I always said that the public is much smarter, more serious and more understanding than the politicians or the reporters. And this comes to the fore in your question. The public definitely wants to know that it is receiving the needs and service it deserves -- and rightfully so -- and this also involves compensatory "discrimination," which I say without embarrassment.

We make every effort and it becomes apparent at holidays such as Pesach or Shavuos, for instance. On Pesach the city was spotless. Throughout the year flowers are planted, with more and tidier gardens and with cleanliness, repaving roads in many neighborhoods, more efficient service for the resident -- and this is definitely an integral part of what chareidi residents want and deserve, and this also involves a kind of compensatory discrimination.

But I think that to transform the chareidi residents into the kind of people who are most interested in themselves would be a travesty to which I will not lend a hand. At the end of the day they are interested in the inner soul, kiddush Hashem or chilul Hashem. I think therefore they look not only at what happens to them, but also at whether the city is progressing, developing, is running smoothly, whether there is kiddush Hashem or not.

What is required of you in order to make a kiddush Hashem in your post?

A whole lot is required of me. I work night and day, many hours, and think about doing as well because, as I said before, I know that everything can lead to a situation of kiddush Hashem or chilul Hashem, which means I must be very careful. In the course of the year I attend thousands of events, some of which are even broadcast on all of the television channels, and sometimes even in the international media. And everywhere I say divrei Torah.

The Beitar Connection

Often people are disappointed when the Mayor does not show up at the events they hold. Right or wrong, it must be understood that Rabbi Lupoliansky is "the mayor of everyone" and he must divide the time he sets aside for attending events among all sectors of the public.

The staff of the mayor's office presents an astounding figure: every day at least 50 invitations to various types of events arrive. Every week there are at least 20 invitations to events held abroad. And since he was elected to office, the Mayor has only left the country twice (unlike his predecessor, who flew abroad at least once every two or three weeks).

My primary interest [in attending various events] is not political exposure. I was charged with working for the public's sake. This takes a lot of time, a lot of doing. Some have more of a political interest and for them it is a matter of making an appearance. I think that first and foremost I must do [my job]. Nevertheless I do not absolve myself by not appearing. This city is bigger than Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak, Petach Tikva, Haifa and Herzliya put together.

There are three principle groups in Jerusalem, the chareidim, the general population and the Arab population. There are events and official ceremonies held in this city. There are events every day in all three sectors that must be attended. The task of a mayor must be understood.

Nevertheless during the past year I went to 350 to 400 events in the chareidi sector, for in our city boruch Hashem we have hundreds of yeshivas and thousands of events of various kinds.

This is a very big responsibility.

Definitely. Never was there such a large gathering of Jews, a half million people, in the last several hundred years of history. This is nearly twice the number of residents in Tel Aviv. The number of chareidim in Jerusalem is twice the number in Bnei Brak, especially if we keep in mind that the cities Beitar Illit and Beit Shemesh are like an integral part of us; I keep in contact with these places and work with them. When all is said and done they are a part of Jerusalem.

Are you then, the mayor of an entire district?

No, but I understand that the residents of these cities consume a considerable portion of their services in Jerusalem. Beitar Illit is a satellite town of Jerusalem. Most Beitar residents work in Jerusalem, some of them are educated in Jerusalem. The childbirths are in Jerusalem. The events are held in Jerusalem. Is there someone from Beitar whose day-to-day life is not connected to Jerusalem?

Do you see Beitar Illit and Beit Shemesh as neighborhoods of Jerusalem?

I see Jerusalem as a city that provides services to these residents, particularly the chareidi residents. I am working on a plan to perhaps make a train from Jerusalem to Beitar Illit. I have spoken about this several times with Mayor Rabbi Pindrus. The day-to-day exchange between Beitar and Jerusalem is unbelievable. Therefore, everyone must understand that I was elected to a demanding, big, central post and one needs to know how to get things done in order to go forward. And for the municipality to succeed, all of the members of the municipal coalition received my blessings to proceed with various activities- -the deputy mayors Rabbi Uri Maklev, Rabbi Yehoshua Pollak, Rabbi Eli Simchayof, Rabbi Shlomo Attias and all of the members of the city administration.

Building Extensions and New Neighborhoods

During the previous term, Rabbi Lupoliansky served as chairman of the Planning and Construction Committee of the city. The previous mayor, Ehud Olmert, had little involvement in these issues and allowed his deputy to act freely. Someday, the public will realize how much was invested in long-term planning. When the new neighborhoods are built near Bayit Vegan, Har Nof, Sanhedria Murchevet and in Mitzpeh Neftoach (beneath the entrance to the city, along route 1 and the chareidi neighborhoods), thousands of housing units will have been added, the vast majority, if not all, for the chareidi public.

Not to speak of the revolutionary plan for building apartment unit extensions. Never before have so many extensions been built, while once upon a time there was nobody to talk to at City Hall. People add on two rooms to their apartments and sometimes more. Today it has become much simpler and faster. And to make it possible to build add-ons more quickly Rabbi Lupoliansky, starting in the previous term, initiated a move to grant the local committee exclusive authority to approve extensions, doing away with the red tape.

In the meantime, until these issues go forward, the city is undergoing changes. There are neighborhoods (primarily Ramat Eshkol and parts of Ramot Alef and Ramot Beit) where secular residents are migrating out and more chareidim are migrating in. But still the majority of young couples leave Jerusalem for the surrounding cities: Beitar Illit, Beit Shemesh, Modi'in Illit and Tel Tzion.

"The problem is not a lack of buildings and apartments," says the Mayor. "the problem is the price of land and the price of apartments in Jerusalem, both because they build with Jerusalem stone and because of excavating into rock."

In Beit Shemesh and Modi'in Illit, they also dig into rock and build with Jerusalem stone.

But there the value of the land is different. Therefore, much must be done to change the situation so that young couples can purchase an apartment in Jerusalem. I've already had several conversations and meetings with Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and he is willing to advance these plans.

This is an issue the national government has to decide. We prepare the plan and I very much hope that the situation in the government is such that a decision will be reached that not only will Jerusalem be `surrounded with [housing] discounts' instead of `surrounded with mountains,' and the development grants, government mortgage loans and location grants will be given in Beit Shemesh, Beitar Illit and Maaleh Adumim, but that Jerusalem itself will also be significantly strengthened in this matter.

But MK Rabbi Porush's Jerusalem Law was legislated for this very matter.

The Knesset froze it and therefore there is no law. I have been in contact with the Finance Minister on this matter for a long time and there is a consensus. The question is how to get it done. The government has to stabilize and it has to be understood that there really is a need to invest in Jerusalem so that residents live here and not outside the city. One thing I am happy about is that the births from all of the surrounding cities are in Jerusalem.

But the municipality already approved construction plans for new neighborhoods that will add thousands of housing units. Why aren't they being launched?

It's a problem of the chicken and the egg. The approved neighborhoods can go ahead with construction. But the costs are such that we know it will be very hard to sell them to the public. Therefore the whole matter has been delayed and I hope they will go forward together so that thousands of housing units can be built and also sold to the population, so that people can afford to purchase an apartment in Jerusalem.

A good example of this is Har Chomah, which was built at reduced prices.

By the way, Har Chomah was intended for chareidim, in the plans as well, but the chareidi public decided not to come. There were several meetings about it in the Degel HaTorah Housing Committee in Jerusalem too, and at first they talked about this. The issue fell off the agenda because of the security incidents that took place there at the onset.

In the end it was the national-religious sector, which today constitutes the majority at Har Chomah, which took the matter into their hands--to their credit or perhaps also because a lack of alternatives.

Long List of Accomplishments

When asked what plans he succeeded in advancing during the past year, something residents can point to and say, "Look, we've made progress on something," Mayor Lupoliansky doesn't know where to start.

His list runs long: the housing expansion program to prevent large families from leaving the city, accelerating and completing construction work downtown, raising the Sanitation Department budget by 25 percent and raising the urban improvement budget by 28 percent, the "Yerushalim Berosh Naki" (cleanliness drive) project at a cost of NIS 13 million ($2.9 million) and the Pashut Latet Sheirut project to instill a sense of service in municipal employees.

There is also a long list of achievements relating to the chareidi public: increased enforcement of the Chometz Law this year and a list of fines of businesses that violated it; a battle against missionary activity and refusal to take part in a meeting with a group of tourists headed by a missionary leader; NIS 25 million ($5.5 million) invested in chareidi education to find solutions for thousands of students suffering from a lack of classroom space; increasing the youth movement budget, developing a wide-scale enterprise to promote music through the Department for Torah Culture and continuing the construction of an enormous library of Jewish music in Bayit Vegan.

What progress have we made in the past year and what have we done, besides the cleanliness, which everyone can see plainly?

We have progressed in general issues, but I do not make light of cleaning.

Take, for instance, the issue of housing expansion. This is an issue I started in my last job and I really fought for it, because I said families that expand have to be assisted in expanding their apartment. A sweeping decision was made in the municipality and in the district committee that in Jerusalem, as a special city, there would be apartment expansions with the expansion of families, and this provided such significant add-ons that in my opinion changed the feasibility of housing in Jerusalem. This is something I started back then and I am continuing today and b'ezras Hashem now the resident does not have to go to the district committee at all and instead the local committee considers and gives approval.

From a day-to-day standpoint, within this year and [despite] all the difficulty, we invested an additional NIS 25 million in chareidi education, in all kinds of things that not everyone sees in the boy's or girl's bag when they come home. Additional places were found, particularly on the issue of classrooms. A lot of activity was done quietly but very intensively regarding education, and this is ongoing.

We found initial solutions for next year. We have other solutions. We are still not totally organized because this is a process, but little by little we are beginning to arrive at menuchoh, but not yet at nachaloh.

You've mentioned educational institutions. In what areas have we progressed? Will there be more classrooms for chareidi education in contrast to the decrease in the number of students in government schools?

Everybody realizes that when 1,000 classrooms are lacking, the government doesn't give classrooms at all and the situation is so critical it cannot be solved in a short period of time. But we are making rounds of the buildings. I set up a committee to check every place that has available classrooms to see how to arrange the matter.

We are about to begin building 12 classrooms in Ramot [and] we have added mobile structures. On this issue more has been invested than has been for years, in an intensive manner and relatively speaking there are already solutions regarding many places. Next year we will reach more solutions and b'ezras Hashem I hope we'll be able, within this term, to achieve a situation in which everyone has an orderly classroom of their own. These are things that are already being solved, which was not the case during the previous period.

Preserving Jerusalem's Public Spaces

How is it that there are still streets open to cars on Shabbos?

In all of the chareidi neighborhoods the streets are closed. There's no driving on Shabbos.

There haven't been requests to have more streets closed?

Nothing has been heard so far about any sort of problem on one street or another.

Except for Rechov Bar Ilan, where perhaps the time has come, in light of the light car traffic on it on Shabbos and the detour routes, to talk about closing it completely.

This is a traffic artery that does not depend on the municipality. The High Court has determined that this street is under the authority of the Transportation Ministry and the government. I think that the matter has to be investigated, but it has to be in a rational way and in a period of tranquility. When making war, one has to know it's a two- sided affair. We have problems with those who do not understand how to handle issues in a rational manner.

And in Jerusalem, the King's palace, there are still restaurants open on Shabbos!

We are familiar with Judge Procaccia's precedent, but in the municipal ordinances there is a prohibition against operating stores on Shabbos. Several stores that tried to open -- clothing stores, shoe stores, etc. -- were closed, and no possibility was given to any store to open on Shabbos. And b'ezras Hashem aside for the pure chareidi towns like Bnei Brak, Jerusalem is the only city that does not have any stores or malls open on Shabbos. True, there are eating establishments, but unfortunately the law calls this `ochel nefesh' and therefore it does not allow for closure and they exist.

We are working a lot, generally through understanding and dialogue along with enforcement, to prevent this from being an external affair, not to put chairs outside, in order to preserve the public atmosphere of Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh. But this is not a municipal issue. On the other hand there are no stores open on Shabbos.

The Mayor also has another long list of issues on his agenda for the coming year: the continuation of the recovery program, a change in organizational structure, the dismissal of hundreds of city employees, a reduction in the number of municipal departments, transforming the municipality into more of an overseeing body and less of an executive body, accelerating road construction, advancing the plan for the preservation of greenbelts, entrenching the cleanup program in the neighborhoods, continuing implementation of the Pashut Latet Sheirut project, expanding the encouragement and appreciation project and awarding new prizes for Torah literature, opening new libraries in chareidi neighborhoods and more.

Another issue slated to be solved is the matter of the community administrations. The Mayor and a professional team at the municipality prepared a comprehensive plan to change the community administrations outlay with the goal of having them truly serve residents in a more professional way, without the political involvement common in the past, and in order to save municipal funds.

In conclusion, Rabbi Lupoliansky, one of the newspapers wrote that you do not intend to run for another term as mayor. Have you contemplated retirement already?

"I am not looking for a job or for a livelihood. I know, b'ezras Hashem where I came from and where I'm going to," says Rabbi Lupoliansky, paraphrasing Pirkei Avos. "And I have satisfaction from the challenge of working to advance Jerusalem, to help its residents, to sanctify the Name of Heaven. This task fulfills me. I hope -- and I said this once to someone who asked about the arrival of Moshiach, whose arrival all of us as Jews are awaiting -- that besides the normal matter of a Jew waiting for Moshiach to arrive I have another interest: that Moshiach will come and I will give him the key to the city and I will be able to tell him, `Here, I did all that I could.'"

The Separation Barrier Prevented Major Tragedies

"I don't call it a separation barrier," says Rabbi Lupoliansky, "but the `Gates of Life' and `an anti-terrorist fence.'"

This is one of the first issues the Mayor began to address intensively upon taking office. And as part of his efforts to pressure the government to move forward with the fence plan Rabbi Lupoliansky met with the Prime Minister, with the Finance Minister, the Defense Minister and the Transportation Minister to accelerate the project as much as possible. Within three to four months his efforts bore fruit and today the fence is being built around Jerusalem.

"There are a few delays in the High Court from the Arab population," says the Mayor. "There are also attempts by the Palestinians to build on the designated lines. But we are proceeding very resolutely, destroying [the property] of those who endeavor to sabotage this matter. In addition, we are in contact with the Interior and Defense Ministries in order to take intensive action in the matter."

Do the parts of the fence that have already been built already add security?

The activity in this matter is clear, firm and I must say that while `Im Hashem lo yishmor ir shov shokad shomer,' the hishtadlus has to be done and in this matter I hope we will be able to see the fence completed. Even today, when the fence has yet to be completed, because someone is also in charge of guarding the planned fence line - - and this is an opportunity to thank the security branches, the army, the government and the Border Patrol, which work to prevent and thwart the terrorists who tried to enter Jerusalem from Jenin, Nablus and Hevron with explosives -- b'ezras Hashem major tragedies were already prevented in the city.


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