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Jewish Journal

New Jerusalem Mayor Causes Concern

by Matthew Gutman

February 20, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Uri Lopolianski Photo by BP Images

Uri Lopolianski Photo by BP Images

The appointment of an acting mayor in Jerusalem has provided a new source of religious-secular tensions in the sharply divided city.

On Sunday, after Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert announced his resignation so he could take a seat in the Knesset, he was succeeded by Deputy Mayor Uri Lupoliansky of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael Party.

Lupoliansky, the first ultra-Orthodox Jew to lead Israel's capital, is likely to remain mayor until municipal elections are held in October.

Lupoliansky's appointment reflects the ascendancy of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Jerusalem's City Council -- of eight deputy mayors, six are ultra-Orthodox -- which has caused anxiety among secular Jews and officials of the liberal Jewish streams.

Nevertheless, in his inaugural speech as acting mayor, the 50-year-old Lupoliansky said people should not be "judged on the basis of their lifestyle and dress, but on the basis of their acts." 

"I extend my hand to all," he told the City Council, which includes a Conservative rabbi, an Israeli Arab and a leader of the gay community.

"I will be everyone's mayor and act to reduce the feelings of discrimination and neglect [among the Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem]," he said.

Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center and formerly a Meretz legislator in the City Council, said she believes his "major test will be his attitude toward Progressive Judaism."

Lupoliansky has been asked to meet soon with Rabbi David Ellenson, the president of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"He'll have to bite the bullet," Hoffman said, "If he accepts the meeting, then we know this is a man we can deal with, if not, there will be international repercussions."

Dudi Zilberschlag, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Orthodox affairs, expressed the stance of the ultra-Orthodox Council of Torah Sages when it comes to meeting with officials from the liberal Jewish streams.

"If the council of rabbis allows it, the meeting will happen. But we are not about to compromise on any element of Judaism," Zilberschlag said. "In fact, the sages prefer to deal with Hamas or the evangelists than Reform. We pay and are willing to pay a very high price to keep Orthodoxy."

Meanwhile, Roni Alon, a city councilwoman for the secular Jerusalem Now Party, has already reached her verdict about the new mayor.

"Lupoliansky is the worst thing that could happen to Jerusalem," she said. 

A ultra-Orthodox mayor would ban soccer games on the Sabbath, halt funding to museums that operate on the Sabbath and not issue licenses to the few restaurants and cafes open in Jerusalem on Friday nights and Saturdays, she said in an interview with Ha'aretz.

In order to allay the fears of secular parties like Jerusalem Now -- and indeed of the majority of Jerusalemites who are not ultra-Orthodox -- Lupoliansky pledged as one of his first steps as acting mayor to maintain the status quo on matters of religion and state in the city.

A devotee of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashev, head of the Council of Torah Sages, Lupoliansky said he intends to tackle poverty in what is Israel's poorest city, a condition that has become increasingly severe in recent years. He also plans to provide equal educational opportunities for all segments of the city's diverse population, he said in his inaugural news conference Sunday. However, he said, he has yet to formulate detailed plans for running the city.

"There is nothing easier than outlining a series of populistic plans that will win applause," Lupoliansky said. "All my acquaintances know that is not my work style." 

Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a lawmaker from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc and Lupoliansky's former teacher, called Jerusalem's new mayor "such a sweet man" and said he doubts Lupoliansky would change the city's status quo.

"We're not going to see the closing of coffee houses on Shabbat," Ravitz said. The ultra-Orthodox "are not supposed to force our minds on other people." 

Yet he did hint that Jerusalem residents might see a certain "Judaification" of the city.

"Jerusalem must be a Jewish city. It is not Naples or even Tel Aviv," he said. 

Lupoliansky's political career was born when the council of rabbis devoted to Eliashev appointed him head of the Degel HaTorah faction in Jerusalem in 1989. He was appointed a deputy mayor in Teddy Kollek's city government and quickly assumed responsibility for community and family services.

When Olmert won Jerusalem's 1993 municipal elections, Lupoliansky was again elected deputy mayor. By 1998, he was designated Olmert's substitute when the mayor was ill or traveling. As the ranking deputy mayor, he was responsible for municipal planning and construction.

While a controversial figure within the City Council, Lupoliansky is renowned in Israel for founding, along with his father, the Yad Sarah charity, which distributes free medical equipment to the sick and disabled. Started in 1976, the organization now has 6,000 volunteers and almost 100 branches nationwide.  

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