This article is the final article in the series called “Living Together,” exploring how different kinds of Israelis share their neighborhoods and their lives.

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The Kiryat HaYovel neighborhood in southwest Jerusalem has been the center of strained social relations between the secular and Haredi communities in the city for the past decade. Conflicts have developed around such as issues as the opening of new educational institutions and the activities of the neighborhood pub on Shabbat, with the tensions reaching as far as the mayor’s doorstep.

Over the past several years, the demographics of Stern Street have shifted, with Haredi Jews now making up a more significant portion of the residents. The general demographics of Kiryat HaYovel are shifting as well, with hundreds of olim (new immigrants) from France, arriving each year.

Building number 24 on Stern Street is an old housing structure. It stands out from its neighbors with a well-kept garden, fruit trees, flowers, shrubs, and leisure and seating areas. Davar spoke with some of the residents of 24 Stern St. to understand more about the changing dynamics within the neighborhood.

Twenty-four Stern Street in Jerusalem. “On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, neighbors come around for a toast” (Photo: Jonathan Bloom)

 Ivan Cohen: “There used to be more bonding between our families”

Ivan Cohen (74) moved into 24 Stern St. in 1984. Despite having no previous experience with gardening, he has devoted his time to beautifying the building’s courtyard. “In Romania we had a big house with a garden and fruit trees,” Cohen tells. “Here I have [planted] lemons, grapefruits, oranges, and many kinds of flowers, and I even set up a lawn.”

Cohen immigrated to Jerusalem in his youth, and moved straight into the Asbestos neighborhood, which was inhabited by impoverished recent immigrants. Over the years, the Asbestos neighborhood was swallowed up into Kiryat HaYovel. Cohen worked at the customs crossing at the Allenby Bridge for 26 years. “The Palestinians in Jordan would shoot at us all the time,” says Cohen.

Cohen arrived at the building on Stern Street along with his wife and children some 37 years ago. Today, his eldest son lives in Eilat and his lives daughter in a nearby building. Cohen is the grandfather of three grandchildren.

Ivan Cohen in the garden he cultivates. “I have a letter on the refrigerator from children in the building, in which they apologize for upsetting me” (Photo: Jonathan Bloom)

He came to the building with his family thanks to a friend who lived there. “We were living in an apartment down the street, an eight-story building, with no balcony, no yard, nothing,” says Cohen. Ever since the family moved into 24 Stern St., they have been working on their garden.

“It was not originally my dream [to cultivate and tend to a garden.] I just love cleanliness and order,” Cohen admits.

“The kids here are afraid of me,” Cohen says. “They know not to throw things because I’m on guard. There are buildings nearby that haven’t been touched in 20 years. In those buildings there’s trash everywhere, things are broken, there are leaks, and everyone throws things out their windows. There are no servants here, so if you throw trash on the floor, who will clean it up? Slowly, we’re going to show them how to take care of their place.”

Among other things, Cohen built a table for the courtyard. “On Rosh Hashanah eve, neighbors will come around for a toast. There were a lot of volunteers who came to the area, who painted the fence and helped with tidying up the place,” Cohen explains. But since the outbreak of the pandemic the volunteers have not come back.

Regarding the question of whether his neighbors are “good”, Cohen does not have an especially meaningful answer: “There are good ones and there are not so good ones,” he says. “The problem is that someone always gets mad at me, and I am yelled at a lot. In return, I ‘punish’ them – I would fire the gardener or fire the cleaner.

“I said I would water the flowers no matter what, but whoever wanted to clean the stairwell would clean it. If no one wanted to, it wouldn’t happen. Until they apologized to me, I did not rehire the gardener, and so there was no gardener or cleaner for two or three months. You want to live in filth? Live in filth. That’s me. I’m Hungarian, I’m a little annoying.”

But Cohen also enjoys the positive responses: “Sometimes [the neighbors] say to me ‘thank you very much,’ ‘be well,’ or ‘it’s very nice how you take care of everything.’ It’s very nice. I have an apology letter from children in the building on my refrigerator.”

While Cohen’s family is secular, the building’s residents are from a mix of secular and Haredi backgrounds. But Cohen fears that soon religion will dictate the building’s agenda. “There used to be more bonding between our families. Every Friday we’d come downstairs, sit together and eat bourekas,” Cohen says.

“Over time, more Haredi residents came and the situation changed, the people changed and things were not as they were. If they close the street on Shabbat, which will happen when religious people comprise a certain majority here, I will leave the building,” says Cohen.

Regardless of the shifting demographics, the future of the Cohen family at 24 Stern St. is uncertain. “We are going through a process of huge development and construction,” he explains. “All of Jerusalem is going to be towers, and there is nothing we can do about it. If they build a beautiful building next door and give us an apartment, that’s the most ideal scenario. But I’m not holding my breath.”

Shai and Merav Fenigstein: “We came here mostly because of the people”

Shai and Merav Fenigstein (both 30), originally from Jerusalem and Modi’in respectively, moved into the building three years ago. They have been married for eight years, and are the parents of Yaela (5) and Ivri (15 months). Shai is a mechanical engineer and Merav is completing a doctorate in physics.

“We got married and moved to Jerusalem,” says Merav. “At one point we moved in with Shai’s parents in Armon HaNetziv [a neighborhood in East Jerusalem], but we never felt a sense of community there. We had friends who just got married and moved here [to 24 Stern St.], and when we visited them on Shabbat and went to the synagogue, we were immediately approached by others asking: ‘Are you new here? Are you guests?’ I said to Shai: ‘A place that speaks to me directly, this is where I want to live.’

“Half a year later, we were already looking for an apartment that would be a reasonable distance from the synagogue. We are here completely by choice, and for me things have improved. I’m now a 10-minute drive from Givat Ram, where I’m currently studying. We are not very far from Shai’s parents, but we came here mostly because of the people.”

The Fenigsteins. “If we get stuck, we know we can knock on the door of one of our neighbors here” (Photo: Jonathan Bloom)

For Shai, too, the human element played a major role in choosing to move into the building. “From the moment we arrived, Ivan [Cohen] showed us the apartment and the building. We felt that there was someone to talk to. Then we discovered that, in fact, there were a lot of families to talk to. Our kids connected with the other children, even though they come from different backgrounds.”

They are happy that their children are playing with the neighbors’ children. “We realized that everyone here is friends and I found myself bringing Badatz home to make sure all the kids had something to eat,” Merav says, referring to food labeled with a specific Kosher certification. “The kids all play together, especially on Shabbat, when it’s ride-on toy cars going everywhere non-stop.”

The Fenigstein family is Modern Orthodox, and this is their first experience living among Haredi neighbors. “My daughter asks me what is Haredi, what is Modern Orthodox, what is secular, why are we the way we are?” says Merav. “I really like these conversations.”

Shai agrees that the heterogeneity is a significant advantage in the building. “We wanted the kids to be exposed to things, to have cars driving on Shabbat and for them to ask why. It’s very easy to say why secular Israelis don’t do something and we do. But it’s a challenge on the other side. It’s much more difficult to say why the Haredi [neighbors] are strict on something and we are not. You need to simplify things to be understood by a five-year-old and that creates an interesting challenge for us. I want my kids to follow the path we believe in, and that makes us need to clarify and hone in on the reasons why we do things the way that we do. These conversations really come out of their daily encounters with their neighbors.”

Merav says that despite their differences, good neighborly relations are maintained. “We really are good friends. I don’t feel any personal friction. There will be things that will in principle bother me when I see them, but I keep those thoughts to myself. We are loving neighbors. People knock on our door if they need milk or something. I sit and talk with most of the neighbors. All the mothers sit down for coffee while the children run around. We talk about education, about the terrible fire that just happened, the everyday things, but do not touch on sensitive issues. On ideological issues, it is easier for me to argue with secular people. I feel like they’ll say that they accept and respect that that’s what I believe. I do not always feel that Haredi individuals will react this way.”

Encounters between the different cultures are not always comfortable. “In Haredi society, children go to bed very late,” says Merav. “Sometimes they’ll knock on our door at eight in the evening and ask if Yaela can come downstairs to play, but she has long since gone to bed. It bothers us. The cultural differences can be crazy: the amount of disposable utensils they use, or the sweets that we would never allow into our home. But I guess they also have things that we do that drive them crazy.”

For Merav, the building is proof that Haredi, Orthodox, and secular Israelis can live together in harmony. But this harmony is being tested by recent debates over a new kindergarten meant to be built in the neighborhood and whether it will be part of the Hared school system or the Modern Orthodox. “At the end of the day, there is a very limited selection of places where educational institutions can be put, and everyone is trying to influence the process towards their own desired outcome. If it gets to the point where we need to knock on the door of the municipality, I will do everything I can to make sure that it results in what will turn out best for me,” Merav explains.

The issue of the kindergarten has disillusioned Merav somewhat. “At first I believed in a kind of fairy tale of everyone together, and so on,” she says. “On the one hand, people say that they want to live together, but sometimes you feel that the other side is less likely to actually want it. I have no problem if Stern Street, which currently has mainly Haredi families, will open mainly Haredi kindergartens. But for that to happen, there also need to be secular and religious kindergartens nearby.”

She heard from a Haredi woman that when one of the buildings in the neighborhood was slated to be demolished and rebuilt by government order, the condition put forward by the residents was that the contractor would sell 90% of the new apartments to Haredi families. “They say, unambiguously, that they don’t want me here,” Merav says. She, too, like neighbor Ivan Cohen, marks the closure of the street on Shabbat as a red line: “If there is talk of closing the street on Shabbat, it is no longer okay. We also have non-religious friends who come by car to visit us, and as far as we're concerned, that’s fine.”

Shai actually finds hope in face-to-face encounters: “The walls come down, the monsters are vanquished. Things you were so sure about about the other, you suddenly realize are untrue. According to my worldview, secular Israelis do not care where they live as long as there is no [religious] coercion, religious people are divided between those who want an environment that is similar or different from them, and Haredi people are only looking for those who are similar to them. I see that public discourse often prevents people from seeing that this is the reality, and when people learn of this reality, they are initially reluctant to accept it.”

Natanel Cohen-Solel: “I like that the area is mixed”

Natanel Cohen-Solel (24) moved to Israel from Paris with his wife six years ago. “I did not see myself continuing to live in France,” he says. “My parents are still there and I hope they will come to Israel soon.” After graduating from a large yeshiva he began studying computer engineering. During his studies, he got married.

“We were looking for an affordable apartment in Jerusalem,” he says. “After wandering around, I came here, looked at the garden and said to myself, ‘wow, that’s amazing.’ In comparison to the building next to it, which is identical in structure, the place looks completely different. We signed the lease in ten minutes. It’s a matter of principle for me to stay here. Yes, my family and studies are here, but it’s more because of the atmosphere of the city.”

However, he is concerned about the prices: “This is the problem. Look at the prices in Jerusalem, even outside of Jerusalem, it’s very expensive. On the outskirts of Paris we had a 150 square meter house, here at this price it is impossible to buy a two-room apartment.”

Cohen-Solel is not only concerned about the prices. “These houses are very old,” he says. “I don’t care about beauty or [being built to high] specifications, but the weather is an issue. If is hot outside, the apartment is very hot inside, and in the winter it’s so cold, even with three heaters — we’re concerned for our daughter.”

Cohen-Solel sees positives in the encounter between the Haredi, religious and secular residents. “There are a lot of new immigrants from France here, mostly Haredi ones. It was important to me that the community around me be religious, including the atmosphere for the children, institutions, and so on. But I did not want it to just be Haredi.”

But he also mentions the difficulties: “When I moved to Israel I had a very hard time with the tensions between the Haredi, religious and secular residents. In France, when they asked me what I am, I said, ‘I am a Jew.’ Then I came here, and I just happened to belong more to the Haredi society, and people immediately make assumptions about you. In France there is nothing to look for, if you see a Jew on the street, you are happy. Here there are a lot of stereotypes: the Haredi is like this, the secular Jew is like that.”

Outside of these concerns, Cohen-Solel has also had positive experiences with his neighbors. “We had a neighbor we hardly knew, and as our daughter was born, she came to us and asked to help: ‘What do you need? Let me make you food for Shabbat.’ She really made a lot of food for us. The day after Tehila was born, we had a clogged toilet and Merav offered us to come and shower at their place. There’s a lot of help and support here.”

Cohen-Solel sees himself continuing to live in the building in the near future. “I like that the area is still mixed. It is important to me that my children will get to know everyone, as we are all part of the Jewish nation. If you have not dealt with someone from another world, it is difficult for you to understand him. If, in the future, it’s just Haredi families living here, I’ll be fine with it, I can compromise. If the opposite situation occurs, I will not stay here, because synagogues and suitable educational institutions for my children are important things.”