ROCKVILLE – The mayor of an Israeli city spent several days last week in the Metropolitan area, raising funds for her town and spreading her message of tolerance.
Mayor Aliza Bloch, a former teacher and principal, made time in her busy schedule that included meeting with Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to speak with the 12th-grade class at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville on Jan. 15.
She spent about an hour telling them about life as the first female mayor in the city of Beit Shemesh, which lies between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and has a population of about 120,000. Although the city was founded in 1950, its roots run much deeper. It was mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in the Book of Joshua. It is also where David was said to have slain Goliath.
It took a lot for a female to become mayor of a community were the religious and secular struggle to live together, she said. “For five months, every day, I walked door to door,” campaigning.
Bloch said she operated on a simple premise. No matter what religion, what ethnicity, what gender a person is, everyone still “wants to eat, be warm, have a salary, have dreams,” she said. “Most of our lives are the same.”
Therefore, she mostly stays away from the conflicts that separate people and works for the common good, she explained.
That is why Bloch said she promised all the residents – secular and religious, native Israelis and the immigrants of Beit Shemesh who come from Ethiopia, Russia, Morocco, India, the United States, and elsewhere – that she would clean the streets and bring industry and jobs to their community.
Bloch proudly said she has placed benches and flowers along the roads and at parks, noting it has helped her reach out to those who usually would have nothing to do with her.
“We must learn to live together and learn about others,” she said. Living together, she said, “it’s not compromise, it’s strength. You must build the bridge.”
The key is to respect everyone, whether or not you agree with them, she told the students.
“Too many people say their way is best, and everyone else must agree,” she noted, sadly.
About 10 years ago, Montgomery County attempted to become a sister city with Beit Shemesh but tabled a vote after that community’s ultra-Orthodox section made the news for harassing and physically attacking females, whom they said were not dressing modestly and otherwise living up to their own stringent religious standards.
Bloch said her town has come a long way since then. She credits herself for some of the inroads she has made to help all her residents feel welcome and part of the mainstream.
Now, she said, it is time for this area to work together again. “I think it’s good for both communities,” she said.
“We have the same problems with immigrants. Some of the stories are the same, and I think we can learn to do it,” Bloch said.
“We need respect for everyone. It is difficult. It’s really difficult,” she said.
Multiethnic communities are wonderful places to live, she told the high school seniors, and she is glad her four children were brought up there. She welcomed the students to come to visit and even move there,
Her love for her city has brought her to America to fundraise, she admitted. Her trip was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC).
Israel’s government will have its third election in less than one year.
The country’s lack of a working government right now is a big reason Bloch traveled to this area.
“When the national government is dysfunctional, then the money you need is not available,” she said, adding, “We are looking for resources to help.”
Besides talking to students, Bloch spent her days meeting with area community leaders, including board members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the JCRC and the Israeli American Council. She also met with Israeli professionals and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
Besides meeting with Mayor Bowser, Bloch spoke at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac.