UPDATED: 1/21/20 at 3:28 p.m.
Six years ago, Washington’s Jewish community severed its longtime sister city relationship with Beit Shemesh, some 10 miles west of Jerusalem.
Last week, the town’s mayor, Mayor Aliza Bloch, was running around Washington, meeting with leaders of Jewish organizations, talking to children in schools and speaking at multiple synagogues about her experiences as the first female mayor of her largely haredi Orthodox city.
In an interview, Bloch, 52, who was brought here by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said she wants to reconnect the two cities and their families.
“I want to build [the partnership] again, I think that it’s very important … for both communities,” she said. “We have a lot of the same challenge in Beit Shemesh and in Washington. We have different groups that need to learn to live together.”
The two had been sister cities for 19 years. But in 2014, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington ended the partnership, ostensibly to find new ways to connect local residents with Israel.
But Bloch’s predecessor in the mayor’s office was seen as a problem to the socially and religiously progressive Washington Jewish community. Mayor Moshe Abutbul, of the haredi Orthodox Shas party, outraged Federation leaders with anti-gay statements. In the October 2018 mayoral election, Bloch, a woman and modern Orthodox, fought to oust Abutbul from office.
Haredi Orthodox rabbis in Beit Shemesh told their communities not to vote for her, Bloch says. Secular and Orthodox Zionist parties backed her.
Bloch won by about 500 votes, aided, according to the Jerusalem Post, by many haredim who stayed home on Election Day.
In the interview, Bloch said her biggest goal is to teach the residents of her town to live together in peace.
In 2011, haredim spit on an 8-year-old modern Orthodox girl as she walked to school. Two years later, haredi men smashed the windows in a bus when a woman refused to move to a back seat. Beit Shemesh is home to 132,000 residents, according to the mayor’s office.
“I need to say for everybody, relax,” she said. “The difference is not bad, difference is good for us. But it’s not easy to say, because it’s a complicated message. People like to hear a clear message, and a clear message is to say, ‘He is bad, I am good.’”
She said she didn’t run for office emphasizing her gender, but sees being a female mayor sets a good example.
“When I went to get elected I didn’t have a flag that said, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me.’ I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t talk about the gender. I don’t like it,” Bloch says. “But I see that when I see myself as an equal, our boys and girls see it equal.”
She also believes she has given women in her city “a big voice.”
As mayor, she’s made a point to clean up trash from roads, build parks and classrooms, and put benches on sidewalks.
“I think that now, [they’re not] afraid of me. Because they know, they say, I work for them. I work to help them,” she says of her earlier opponents. “They saw that I care about subjects that they never thought the mayor cares [about] … When I decided that the road must be clean, it was very new for them. You know, it’s only garbage, but it’s very important.”
Bloch and her husband moved to Beit Shemesh 27 years ago after they were married. She said they wanted to raise their family in a diverse community.
She said she’s home among diverse people.
“For me, it’s a way of my life. When you see our family, my parents come from Morocco, some of my sisters are religious, some are not. And we are very, very good friends.”
That’s the kind of Beit Shemesh she wants Jewish Washington to take another look at.
“I think it inspires them that we can make the change.”