COMMUNITY • BY SARAH KRAUT
In 2007, right after County Executive Isiah Leggett was elected, two things happened: First, he took a trip to visit the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, and not long after that a sister city program was formed in Montgomery County. It seemed only natural then that Beit Shemesh would be put at the top of the list of potential partnership cities.
The idea was presented to Bruce Adams, the Director of the Office of Community Partnerships, who decided to turn the sister city program into a community nonprofit organization that would be a separate entity from the government.
“When the county executive approached me with the idea, I thought this is supposed to be people to people, not government to government” said Adams. “Beit Shemesh has had a 15-year partnership with the Federation of Greater Washington so the county executive suggested it as the first sister city.”
An endeavor like this could not run properly without public support, since virtually no funding was going to come from the county. To ensure there existed a cohort of people willing to put in the energy and resources necessary for this program to function, Montgomery County Sister Cities (MCSC) held a public form in June 2009 to get the community’s input. It was there that Susan Kerin first spoke up.
“Four of us there knew that Beit Shemesh was on the list and we knew there were human rights concerns,” said Kerin, founder of Human Rights Matter! Campaign. “We told them our concerns, and they said it was too premature and we couldn’t submit any official complaints at the time.”
The public forum was mostly dominated by El Salvadorians—the largest group from any one country of origin represented in Montgomery County, with more than 50,000 residing here. With such a strong support coming from that contingency of people, Morazan, El Salvador, became the first city to be formally signed into the program in August of 2010.
Meanwhile, the African advisory council to the county executive took on the challege of trying to identify a sister city in Africa. After a very public process involving about 300 people, Gondar, Ethiopia was selected. However, Beit Shemesh was still in the works and Kerin was not happy about it.
“Suddenly in October we saw an article in the Washington Post and realized they were actually going forward with the relationship,” she said. “No one had been transparent throughout the entire process and suddenly it was just happening.”
Kerin — a member of the Montgomery County Commission for Women, the Human Rights Commission and the Committee on Hate/Violence — decided it was time to take action, and she formed the Human Right Matter! Campaign to raise awareness of the pending partnership with Beit Shemesh and prevent it from moving forward.
For many years, Beit Shemesh has been home to a variety of controversial issues. Gender separation and discrimination, such as on the city’s “mehadrin” buses — where men sit in the front and women in the back—and racial segregation of the Ethiopians in schools are just a few of what human rights activists highlight as problems. Then, in September 2011, national-religious girls’ school Orot Banot was opened facing the windows of some ultra-Ortodox families’ homes and a whole new slew of civil conflict set in.
Last December, 8-year-old Naama Margolese’s tear-streaked face was broadcast on Israeli television as she walked to school through a crowd of Haredi (extreme ultra-Orthodox Jews) men, spitting and jeering at her. As Naama’s mother Hadassa Margolese explained in a letter to Mr. Leggett, “Starting the second day of school, we walked home through crowds of extremist ultra-orthodox men yelling, spitting and throwing objects at fathers, mothers and children…There was no one occasion. This was a daily occurrence.”
Margolese sent the letter to the county executive imploring him not to give up on her city in these dire times after reading the recent Washington Post article regarding the current suspension of the partnership.
“Rather than giving up on being our twin city, I think that you should be proud to be our twin city,” she wrote. “You should be proud to be part of the people of this city who have made a change, who are doing everything possible to continue making a change, and who are an example for the rest of the country, the region, and the world.”
It is not an easy decision to turn your back on a community during such difficult times, especially because a core value of MCSC is the idea of people helping people, said Adams. Others, like Kerin disagree, saying Montgomery County must consider itself and what it stands for first before connecting with such a morally controversial city.
“What these men are doing at the schools is really reprehensible, but it’s stemming from a much larger problem,” said Kerin. “I don’t want that name next to ours. I just don’t feel it’s appropriate for our needs.”
Former Silver Spring resident, Dov Lipman who now lives in Beit Shemesh, also sent a letter to Mr. Leggett addressing the concerns of Montgomery County residents surrounding the partnernship and explaining why they should choose to still press forward.
“Because the concerned residents of your county are only aware of part of the story. Bet Shemesh is not the model of religious extremism and coercion but, rather, the model of how to combat that phenomenon,” wrote Lipman. “We are the example of how an open and democratic society confronts whispers of intolerance and fanaticism.”
There will be a meeting on March 13 for the Humans Rights Matter! Campaign and the Middle Eastern advisory council to the county executive to voice its concerns and hear from the MCSC board. According to Adams, the board plans to meet afterwards with members of the community who are for the partnership.
“It’s a controversial question, and we’re not going to rush it,” said Adams. “It’s the Montgomery way to listen and to hear all points of view and respect them all, and that’s what we’re going to do.