When they sent her to the Protestant Exeter prep school in New Hampshire, Laura Wharton’s parents probably didn’t realize they were sowing the seeds for their daughter’s immigration to Israel. It was only when Laura realized, to her surprise, that most of the kids she was drawn to at Exeter were Jewish, that she became interested in her own Jewish identity.
A youth trip to Israel at 16 took her a step further.
“I became a Zionist,” Wharton says. “I still am. I think it’s an amazing thing to have a country.”
While Judaism and Israel were new in Laura’s life, political activism was not. Her mother was a city council member in Tenafly, New Jersey, and Laura helped establish the Exeter branch of Amnesty International. Today, those two strands of Wharton’s life have come together. She has been living in Israel for 33 years, is a veteran of the IDF and of a kibbutz, and is a Jerusalem city councilwoman (Meretz). She is the founder of Shabus – a practical, grassroots initiative to lift the ban on public transport on the Sabbath and guarantee people freedom of movement and freedom of choice on the weekends.
“As a city councilor I get a lot of complaints about transportation problems. Ironically the more Jerusalem and its culture flourishes, especially on the weekends, the more frustrating it is for people in the outlying neighborhoods,” she says.
Two and a half years ago, Wharton gathered a group of friends in her living room to brainstorm solutions to the issue of transportation in Jerusalem. Six months later, the cleverly named Shabus was up and running. Today it is a cooperative that runs mini-buses from Friday evening to early Saturday morning. Its 3,000 members pay a very small yearly membership free. No one handles money on the mini-buses which are largely driven by non-Jewish residents of the city. They avoid driving through religious Jewish neighborhoods.
Shabus receives substantial assistance from NIF/Shatil, including guidance on organizational development, fundraising, marketing and legal matters. Shatil is collaborating with Shabus on outreach to new audiences and NIF has awarded it a grant to help with outreach and awareness-raising.
“Without NIF and Shatil, it would have been difficult if not impossible to get a project like Shabus, or other projects I’ve been involved with, off the ground,” says Wharton. “I can’t imagine the third sector in Israel without it.”
Surprisingly, there was little opposition to the initiative, perhaps because, as Wharton says, “we went out of our way make it as inoffensive as possible to religious people.”
Wharton says most American Jews don’t realize that “from sundown Friday till after sunset Saturday, the majority of Jerusalemites are under a kind of curfew; that a vocal minority is battling to keep the rest of the city paralyzed over the Sabbath. Lots of cultural activities go on over the weekend but as long as this prohibition exists, many people can’t take part. This causes a huge amount of resentment and is bad for inter-group relations in the city.”
This year, Shabus expanded to the cities of Holon and Rosh Ha’ayin and have launched a fundraising campaign to expand their Jerusalem route. Similar copy-cat initiatives have been launched in other Israeli cities.
“It works,” says Wharton, a Harvard graduate who teaches politics at the Hebrew University. “I’m very proud of it.”