It was another sweltering Friday in Rehovot, a city in central Israel, and Chaya Hitin and Odelia Tsaidi-Zommer each left their homes for a swim.
Ms. Hitin, 38, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, headed to a complex where she and her daughters could swim without being seen by men or boys, one that closes for the Jewish Sabbath.
Ms. Tsaidi-Zommer, 43, a secular Jew, chose a place where she can swim alongside her son and nephews seven days a week.
They were, in fact, going to the same swimming center — one that caters to both religious and secular Israelis, and that in some ways embodies the country’s deep disagreements about the meaning of a Jewish state and the role of Judaism in public life. It is a rift that partly underpins the bitter, ongoing debate about the future of Israel’s judiciary and the shape of its democracy.
Roughly 45 percent of Israel’s roughly seven million Jews define themselves as secular, according to government data from 2018, and typically want a society with Jewish character — marking Jewish holidays, for instance — but with a secular state. The ultra-Orthodox make up about 14 percent of the Jewish population, and prefer to live according to religious edicts. Other Jews, spread across a wide spectrum of religious observance, are typically content to be governed by secular law.
Arguments regularly break out over familiar questions: What should be open on the Sabbath? (It varies widely from place to place.) Should ultra-Orthodox men be exempt from military service in favor of religious study? (They are.) Who should supervise marriage, divorce and the regulation of kosher food? (The ultra-Orthodox authorities have that power.)
And how do you run a public pool, which ultra-Orthodox groups want closed on Saturdays and separated by sex, and which secular Jews want mixed and open all week?
Rehovot landed on a compromise, the kind that illustrates the hybrid reality of daily Israeli life, in which Jews of different backgrounds find fraught but functional common ground. The swimming center gives Israelis two doors: one on the left for the religious pool, where men and women take turns swimming, and one on the right for secular swimmers, where women and men swim together all week.
The two pools, just 40 yards apart and separated by a narrow fence, are run by the same management of a united complex, the Weisgal Recreation Center. On both sides of the fence, parents sprawl on the grass, munching watermelon slices. Children paddle around on inflatable circular floats, firing water pistols at passing adults.
“Honestly, it seems pretty amazing,” Ms. Tsaidi-Zommer, an art therapist, said as her 3-year-old son splashed about in the wading pool. “It’s a lot more equal for both sectors.”
“I definitely feel seen here as a religious Jew,” said Ms. Hitin, a payroll accountant. “It’s just nice to be with the girls.”
Religious difference often drives tension in Israel, not only between Israelis and Palestinians, but also among Jews themselves. Those tensions have been deeply strained by the contentious push by the government, the most religious in Israel’s history, to reduce the power of the Supreme Court.
The government’s push is partly driven by ultra-Orthodox frustration at the court’s opposition to the military exemption and financial subsidies for their community, known in Hebrew as Haredim. The backlash against the plan is partly fueled by fears that, without a powerful court to protect secular interests, Israel will gradually become a more conservative, religious and patriarchal country.
For months, the plan has provoked arguments among families and neighbors and drawn hundreds of thousands of mainly secular Israelis into protests. The demonstrations have grown to include a wide swath of society, bringing scientists, businesspeople and military reservists into the streets. In turn, hundreds of thousands of government supporters have occasionally held counter-protests.
But in everyday life, this friction rarely ends in mass protests or frontal collisions. Secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews often live in separate areas, with their children educated in separate school systems, generally allowing each community to live by its traditions.
And in cities with mixed populations, people make compromises — like at swimming pools and bus stops. When several municipalities expanded public transit on the Sabbath in 2019, officials said they had taken care to place new bus routes away from religious areas and institutions. And in some cases, people actively embrace a fusion of cultures: Singers from religious backgrounds increasingly play at secular venues to mixed audiences.
“Israel’s polarization between two purported camps, secular-liberal and religious-conservative, conceals a third camp characterized by secular-religious cooperation and hybridity,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based academic who researches the subject.
Rehovot’s two-pool center is a case study. While other cities invite the different communities to share a pool, Rehovot built two large pools in the same complex, each with a wading pool and picnic area attached.
The compromise was forged in 2015, when religious and secular residents offered clashing visions of how the center — which previously had one pool — should be renovated: closed on the Sabbath and separated by sex, or open and mixed.
Mayor Rahamim Malul found a way to thread the needle: one pool for each community, side by side. The extra work raised the cost by roughly $2.5 million, to $7.5 million — money well spent, the mayor said.
“We’re living by a live-and-let-live principle,” said Mr. Malul, an observant Jew. “I never want to be in a position where I’m compromising too much for one of the sectors.”
Compromise is essential in Rehovot, whose 150,000 residents come from an unusually diverse array of Jewish backgrounds. Fewer than 1 percent are Arabs, compared with about 20 percent in Israel as a whole. Roughly a quarter are ultra-Orthodox Jews, according to Mr. Malul — still a minority, but large enough to require careful mediation.
Mr. Malul’s own family is an example of this melting pot, he jokes: Of his seven children, one is ultra-Orthodox, two are religious but not Haredi, and the rest are secular. He himself once belonged to an ultra-Orthodox party, but now represents Likud, the secular party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The mayor and other city officials must constantly juggle interests.
Licenses to open on the Sabbath are granted to bars and restaurants north of a particular street, but not south of it. A major cultural center will close on the Sabbath, Mr. Malul decided, but a stadium will stay open. Despite secular resistance, a new synagogue will open in a mostly secular neighborhood, but with only two floors instead of five.
To make these deals, Rehovot relies in part on a dedicated mediation center. Established in 2011, the center has 50 mediators, who help resolve hundreds of community disputes each year.
They host feuding groups in private rooms, attempting to broker truces between not just the religious and secular, but also sparring neighbors and couples, and residents who disagree on the judicial overhaul.Before Israelis gathered for this year’s Passover, the center published tips for families hoping to overcome their differences on the issue.
“We have conflicts, we have challenges, and we are not hiding that,” said Aviva Chalabi, the center’s director. “But my message is complexity is part of our life.”
The pool compromise hasn’t made everyone happy. Some ultra-Orthodox residents still don’t want to swim in a complex where one section is open on Saturdays. Others feel that the ultra-Orthodox community got shortchanged: The religious pool isn’t fully shielded from the sun, unlike the secular pool, and the religious picnic area is smaller than its counterpart.
Among secular swimmers, there is also an ambivalence about whether this kind of solution fosters a fusion of lifestyles or enshrines their segregation.
“I think to myself, ‘But wait,’” said Ms. Tsaidi-Zommer, the secular swimmer. “What if this separation grows and expands into a full trend in Israel, where such recreational places become divided and open to separate publics? That scares me.”
But for the most part, swimmers are just happy to have a pool where most people feel at ease.
Yitzhak Katz, a religious 33-year-old, never learned to swim properly until the religious pool gave him the chance to train. On this Friday, he had come with a secular friend who headed for the mixed pool, while Mr. Katz stayed mostly on the religious side.
“We disagree on everything — except that we’re best buddies,” he said. “And we both love this pool.”