“I feel a heavy responsibility,” says Mayor Rabbi Avraham Rubinstein of Bnei Brak. While Bnei Brak might not have the historical significance of a city like Yerushalayim, it’s the largest city in the chareidi world, so Rabbi Rubinstein often ends up being the spokesman for the entire community. A number of the most important yeshivos in the world are located in Bnei Brak, as well as a number of chasidic courts including Vizhnitz. It’s also the place where many gedolei hador of the past and current generations resided, disseminating Torah ever since the Chazon Ish settled there. At the same time, Bnei Brak sits in the middle of the chiloni heartland of Gush Dan and Tel Aviv, which results in occasional tension with its secular neighbors. Most recently, tensions have been high after Rabbi Rubinstein confronted the mayor of nearby Ramat Gan, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, who stated that “Bnei Brak is an existential threat to Ramat Gan” because of the spread of its residents over Ramat Gan’s borders. Rabbi Rubinstein responded by referring to Shama-Hacohen as another Pharaoh. “Pharaoh also said ‘pen yirbeh (lest they multiply)’ about Bnei Yisrael,” he explained.
Yet, while Rabbi Rubinstein is the titular mayor, the longer our conversation goes on, the more it becomes clear that the real rosh ha’ir is not the person I’m sitting with in this office on Rechov Yerushalayim. Rather, the real rosh ha’ir lives a few blocks away on Rechov Rashbam, namely Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who recommended Rabbi Rubinstein for this position and worked to have him appointed.
“It isn’t easy to run the capital of the chareidi world,” he continues. “It’s a very hard city to run. This is one of the most crowded cities in Israel, with 27,000 residents per square kilometer and it’s still growing, with the local hospital having many births every single day, bli ayin hara. We also have representatives of so many parts of the chareidi tzibbur. It can be hard to take care of every group and rav. We have to do whatever we can to mediate and unite people so we can find a way that everyone will be satisfied. It isn’t easy.”
It’s important to mention what Rabbi Rubinstein did for the achdus of Bnei Brak when the rav of the city, Rav Moshe Yehuda Leib Landau, passed away, by appointing two rabbanim—his son, Rav Chaim Yitzchak Aizik Landau, from the chasidishe kehillah, and Rav Shevach Tzvi Rosenblatt from the Litvishe kehillah. They now both lead the city in a way that is unprecedented.
“There was a unique siyata dishmaya here. Anyone who thinks that it was simple and easy is mistaken. There was a precise moment we needed to make it work, and that’s when we had the siyata dishmaya and it happened. It was after midnight on the night Rav Landau passed away and I knew that before I do anything else, I had to get the brachos of Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Gershon Edelstein. I went first to the home of Rav Chaim. I was afraid that he might be asleep, but when I arrived I saw that the lights were on and Rav Chaim welcomed me in. I told him about my idea of having two rabbanim who will work together and he gave his brachah right away. I then went to the home of Rav Edelstein, who was also awake and he also gave his brachah. At the same time, there were people who went to discuss the idea with the admorim of Bnei Brak. Baruch Hashem we succeeded. Everyone was happy with the idea.
“At the levayah, together with Deputy Mayor Rabbi Chanoch Zeibert, we announced the joint appointment of the new rabbanim. Along with the mourning for Rav Landau, who had been Rav for over 30 years, there was also a sigh of relief from the crowd that there was a transition plan. Four months later, this idea is working very successfully and has had positive ramifications that go beyond Bnei Brak. There’s a new feeling of cooperation between the different groups. The kashrus and hashgachah of restaurants are also done jointly now and with mutual respect. Hopefully it will continue this way.”
I asked Rav Rubinstein about challenges particular to running a city like Bnei Brak.
“Not a day goes by without the need to solve serious issues. It’s very crowded and there’s almost no room for public buildings. You can’t just look at what others are doing and copy them. Bnei Brak is a unique city. Every building has its own kindergarten. Every building has the amount of garbage output equal to entire neighborhoods in other parts of the country. Sanitation is a very serious challenge, but we are currently working on a new plan that will rebrand Bnei Brak as a clean city, with an emphasis on the environment and green projects. That includes working to improve our aging sanitation system and hiring more sanitation workers.
“Another challenge for us is congestion. This city is very reliant on public transportation; the demand is high and the streets are narrow and crowded. Anyone who tries to cross Rechov Rabbi Akiva in the center of the city knows what I’m talking about. We’re now developing a new transportation plan for the city. The plan includes a pilot program to use smart traffic lights to better control the traffic jams during rush hour, changing the bus routes in order to ease the traffic jams during the worst parts of the day, and building a central bus station in the future, which will also alleviate a lot of congestion.