Israeli Students Start Their Own Revolution in Lod

A short drive from protest tents on Rothschild Boulevard, a student village is being built to revitalize the struggling city of Lod.

"It was a heart-breaking phone call, I even cried afterward," recalls Rotem Alon, smiling bashfully. "The day after I made the decision, my grandmother called me in a panic. When she talked I was trembling; her request was so heartfelt and it was hard for me to reassure her ... She said: 'Rotem, I've never asked you for anything, I love you, I care about you. Please don't go to Lod. Do whatever you want, be anything you want to be, just don't go there.'"

Despite her grandmother's pleas, Alon, a 25-year-old student of psychology and political science at Ben-Gurion University, did not back down from her decision to assume the management of the student village in Lod that is due to open in October.

Lod students - Yuval Tebol - 19082011
Yuval Tebol

"I live with my boyfriend Omer in the student village built by the Ayalim Association [a Zionist nonprofit founded in 2002 to strengthen communities in the Negev and Galilee] in Ashalim in the Negev," she explains, sitting in a cafe on Rothschild Boulevard, near the student tent city where she has spent an entire week. "We're happy there. I love the place and thought about staying there, but about a month ago I was told about a new village that's going to open in Lod. I thought that Lod could be a big challenge for me."

She went to Lod to take a look around. "It was a decisive moment," she says. "I went there with Omer. From the start we knew that the move to Lod would have to be something we both wanted, that it was a joint decision. During the visit there, something happened to us. As we got closer to the place and the people, very interesting things suddenly began to occur. When we got home, after a late-night discussion - we decided to go for it."

A few weeks ago actor Mariano Edelman came to Rothschild, where he did an impersonation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As such, he promised: "We will build 50,000 new apartments for you within an hour and a half. Pardon, I mean a year and a half. Oops, I mean 10 and a half years. These apartments will be in the city center, and when I say the city center, I mean the Lod city center."

It seems like you took the joke seriously. Can you really see yourselves staying in Lod?

Alon: "Today, with everything that's going on, the move to Lod only becomes more meaningful. It's no joke. The student village is proof that there is an alternative. I'm not making light of the struggle to live with dignity in Tel Aviv and pay a reasonable rent, but I also know that there are equally good alternatives. I believe that it's our responsibility to create them. It's something that we need to do for ourselves."

A natural capital

A 25-minute drive away from the Rothschild tent city, right near Lod's Old City, in an area bounded by Herzl Street, a municipal park and the police headquarters, an architectural wonder is taking shape on two-and-a-half dunams (a little more than half an acre ) of land. Ironically, in May, two months before the outbreak of the social protest that is sweeping the nation, the socioeconomic cabinet headed by Finance Minister Yuval Steinetz approved construction of the complex in Lod. Construction is moving along swiftly, and in the first stage it will house 24 college students, and a "commune" of seven young men and women who are doing a year of community service (organized by the Ayalim Association ) before starting their army service. In return for eight hours a week of volunteering in the community with children who may be at-risk or need tutoring or other support, the students, who attend various universities and colleges in the central region, will be eligible for a full scholarship and housing in the village at the reduced price of NIS 500 per month.

The moving force behind this ambitious project is attorney Aviv Wasserman, who heads the Lod Community Foundation, which raises money for projects in the city, among other things. This particular morning he is walking around the exposed concrete walls of the emerging village, as the sun beats down. Wasserman, in a wide-brimmed hat, a little nervous because of the movement of all the cranes around, suggests that we head over to the nearby Abu-Michel restaurant. Here, amid quiet conversations in Arabic and the aroma of frying food, he relates that he came to Lod a year and a half ago after quitting his doctoral studies at the London School of Economics.

"In 2007, when I was in the middle of my studies, I received a surprising phone call from my commander in the reserves, Ilan Harari, who was serving as acting mayor in Lod," says Wasserman. "Ilan told me: 'Forget about London, come help me in Lod. I want you to start a foundation here, like there is in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv." He set up a meeting with Harari and then a tender was issued for the job. Wasserman submitted his candidacy and won. His first step was to move into a rented apartment in the Pisgat Lod neighborhood.

Wasserman, who is now married and has a daughter, sings Lod's praises, describing how the city has been continuously inhabited for some 8,000 years, and talking about its importance. But things have changed rapidly here in recent years: Ever since Mayor Maxim Levy left office in 1996, there have been no fewer than seven mayors - four of them elected, and the rest heading the appointed city councils.

"This lack of stability has significantly hurt the city, and municipal services became dysfunctional," Wasserman explains. "At the same time, two other things happened in the 1980s that led to Lod's decline. The first was the absorption of a large Bedouin population from the Negev and of Arabs from Gaza and the West Bank who had worked with the Israel Defense Forces.

"These two groups, which now make up a third of Lod's population, brought with them a culture of serious violence. Meanwhile, the government decided to build two new cities: Shoham and Modi'in. The growth of these two cities led to another phenomenon: The 'stronger' elements of the population left Lod for those places. This is still going on, more than ever. In the past you saw businesspeople and lawyers leaving Lod, but now even the school secretary will move to Modi'in or one of the new neighborhoods of Be'er Yaakov."

Representing every 'tribe'

Wasserman's first days were tough. "I saw that the situation wasn't easy," he recalls, gazing out the window. "I didn't know anyone, and I wasn't getting the salary that was promised me. I started wandering the city like an anthropologist. I tried to understand what was happening. I found that the 75,000 residents are divided into tribes and communities that don't speak to each other. The first decision I made was to convene representatives from every group. At that meeting we had an ultra-Orthodox man, veteran Ashkenazi and Sephardi residents, the rabbi of an Orthodox garin (a core settlement group that came to live in Lod ), women representing the Russians, the Ethiopians and the Christians, and a representative for the Bedouin. I told them about myself and they looked at me as if I came from Mars. But I ignored the awkwardness, I took out forms and had them sign a document that authorized them to be founders of the Lod Community Foundation."

Wasserman, who volunteered for three years for Kav La'oved (an NGO that helps migrant workers, Palestinians, ethnic minorities and others ) when he was at university, told those attending the meeting about two endeavors he had led. The first was the founding of the Socioeconomic College in 2003, which now operates more than 10 branches around the country.

"I wanted to start a nonprofit educational institution whose objective was to promote a new socioeconomic order in Israel," he explains now. "I wanted to create a place where a platform would be given to anyone who wants to present an alternative solution to capitalist policy. Everybody told me, 'Forget it - it will never work. Who's going to come there? Who would want to study there?' But in less than a year we opened four branches of the college and had a staff of 100 lecturers, including Ariel Rubinstein, an Israel Prize laureate in economics; Prof. Danny Gottwein of the University of Haifa; and Aviya Spivak, a former deputy governor of the Bank of Israel. The college brought together students from different worlds: managers with janitors, unemployed people with teachers. Everyone wanted to study together how the labor market, the education system and the health and pension systems could be made to operate in a social-democratic way."

Then, when Wasserman was just 29, in 2005, he was appointed head of the human rights department at the Academic Center of Law & Business in Ramat Gan. That year, he also persuaded that college to submit its historic petition against the Privatization of Prisons Law, which was to allow local jails to be operated and managed by a private corporation. His critical involvement halted at the last minute the deal that was about to go through between the state and businessman Lev Leviev, who won the tender to operate a prison built near Be'er Sheva. Five years after the Knesset approved the construction of the privatized prison, the High Court justices accepted Wasserman's petition and ruled that the prison system would not be privatized. The justices said that "transferring the authority from the state to a private franchisee would cause serious harm to the basic civil rights of the incarcerated prisoners and to their human dignity."

But all of this past success didn't open doors quickly for him in his new city.

"Basically, I went through a very hard time," he admits. "I had to survive somehow. I borrowed money from friends. I was always trying to look just one month ahead. Luckily, at some point I met Yarom Ariav, the director general of the Finance Ministry at the time. Ariel Rubinstein introduced us. Ariav was finishing his term there, and I invited him to take a tour of Lod. He was quite shocked by it and ever since, for the past year and a half, he has been coming here at least twice a week. He started as a volunteer and now he serves as the chairman of the Lod foundation's managing committee. Ever since Yarom came into the picture, things have stabilized financially and we're not dependent on getting by on donations from month to month. Today we have six 'angels' - donors who are committed to us."

Ariav was also the one to first bring up the idea of building a student village in Lod.

"Exactly six months ago he told me about his son who was finishing a year of service at the Ayalim student village," says Wasserman. "He said that a place like that was the easiest way to help bring a strong population to Lod. I thought it was an excellent idea and we immediately contacted the Ayalim Association that operates in the Galilee and the Negev. Since we didn't really know how to run a student village, we tried to convince them to help us, and they agreed to come into the project as consultants. When they gave us the okay, Yarom got the Finance Ministry to back the project. It all happened very fast. In May we were promised a budget and we went to the mayor, Meir Nitzan. He was very responsive, right away. Within a week he had allotted a space for us; paradoxically, it was supposed to be the site of a soup kitchen."

What are your expectations?

Wasserman: "The vision is for at least half the students from the village to make their homes in Lod. Like I did. That's what will make the change. Lod may be perceived as an impoverished and tough place, but we think it could become an example of a model society that harmoniously brings together all the cultures that live in it. Cities decline as soon as a strong population leaves, and take off when such a population moves in."

Ten years ago an Orthodox core group moved to the city and the community that developed around it now numbers 1,000.

"This is certainly one developmental model," says Wasserman. "But unlike them, I want to bring in a strong population, period, regardless of religion and background. When we recruited the students we paid attention to this issue and tried to end up with a mirror image of the people who live in the city. We didn't want to change the demographic balance in any way, and we got students who are Arabs, Jews, religious, secular, Ethiopian, women, men, singles, couples and even a couple with a child. Everyone."

Total dedication

The selection process for the student village took place last month, at the Beit Hanoar at the corner of Katznelson and Hannah Szenes streets. Of the dozens of applicants who came, Hadas Peretz, 23, who is religious and studying educational administration at Bar-Ilan University, was among those accepted. "I knew about the concept of a student village through a friend of mine who lives in the student village in Ashalim," she says. "It sounded like a cool thing because you get to live in a place that has a student atmosphere, but is also a place where you're doing something more. I don't like the atmosphere in the university dorms, where studies are the only thing."

Peretz has a gold stud in her nose and her green eyes sparkle in the sun coming in through the window of her parents' home in Rehovot, where she lives now.

"I didn't know how the selection would be done," says Peretz, who was preparing for a trip to Ethiopia. "The process was pretty short, a half-hour of group dynamics that included coming up with a project that we would put into effect if we were accepted to live in the village. The important thing, I think, is that the selection process was held in Lod, because just coming to the city itself gave us an idea of what to expect. A week later I found out I was accepted, and I was very happy. Ever since I finished my national service, I felt like I needed to volunteer again, but it was always just a thought that I never did anything about. So for me Lod is an excellent opportunity to be involved in doing something in the most intensive way, just as I wanted. It's about total dedication, in a very cool way, which I don't think I would have an opportunity to experience otherwise."

For Kazem Hajazi, who is studying communications and advertising at Ramat Gan College, participating in the new venture is a means of fighting for his home. Like Peretz, he now lives with his parents - but in Lod.

"I grew up here, and the sights I see outside my window are what brought me to the village," he says. "A friend and I were looking for organizations that work on social projects in Lod. The goal was to contribute to the city, but also to obtain a scholarship. A friend found information about the village on the Internet. We went to the selection process together, but unfortunately he didn't pass. Ever since I got in I've been full of energy. I am very eager to start working, to improve and change my city. Lod needs reinforcement from the students; it needs people who will lead it. It's true there are other organizations here, but they are not creating a dramatic change. I think that the students can bring a lot more strength."

Hajazi, 20, who dreams of being a "leading figure in advertising," is troubled by the image attached to his city.

"There is social stagnation here, a lousy social consciousness," he explains. "People have gotten used to living up to what is thought about them, to what they hear from outside. People here 'live' the stigma - they identify with it and embody it as if taking part in a play. It's very painful to see. I'm coming to the village with a lot of feeling: My main goal is to work with young kids, from elementary through middle school. I want to take them 'out of the box.' Together with other students who come from different parts of society, we can make the people of Lod identify with our message, which is directed at the entire community and does not encourage separation between people. If we are successful, we can prove that there is another way, that equality can exist in Israeli society."

Realizing dreams

Two more key players in the village are Zvika and Avivit Bengus, who currently live in a small mobile home near the beach in Moshav Michmoret. Zvika, 28, from Rehovot originally, recently completed a degree in marine science at the Michmoret campus of Ruppin College. Avivit, 25, from Ramle, will begin studying social work this year at Tel Aviv University.

"We got married 18 months ago," say Zvika. "We met at a special cafe in Rehovot, where the employees are all at-risk youth. I was the shift manager at the cafe, which worked in conjunction with the Aroma chain and with community centers in Rehovot. As part of my job, I was also a kind of social counselor, like a father and mother to kids who could have wrecked the place if they happened to forget to take their Ritalin in the morning."

Avivit came to the cafe as a counselor after finishing a year of national service in the Aharai organization founded by Omer Bar-Lev, a former commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, with the aim of grooming future leaders.

"From my experience, as someone who comes from an impoverished background and having met people at critical stages of my life who really helped shape my identity - I want to help people find and realize their dreams," she notes. "I feel that this is tremendously important. I want to encourage youths to volunteer and do a year of national service. This is a very effective way to learn about the power you have inside you and also how to express it. The service year is a crossroads where you come to realize your capabilities and it really boosts your self-image. In my mind, this is my main task in Lod."

"I remember when Avivit first told me that she was from Ramle and I thought, 'Wow,'" Zvika interjects, and smiles. "Even though I lived in Rehovot, 10 minutes from Ramle, I thought that if I went there, I might get a bullet in the head. Ramle made me nervous. But after I went there I understood how much we are all influenced by stereotypes. The other day there was a murder in Netanya, and yesterday in Tel Aviv, but no one thinks that it's dangerous to visit those cities. For some reason, a murder in Lod or Ramle remains in our consciousness as a kind of warning sign. So, maybe because of our backgrounds, we look at things a little differently. We can screen out the background noise. Lod doesn't scare us one bit."

Nor is the couple fazed when reminded that life as a volunteer isn't the same for a person who also needs to support a young family. "Having a career is certainly important," says Avivit, "but in our view there has to be something beyond that, too. Without that extra something, we'll just drown in life and not make the most of it. The question is: Do you want a new villa, an expensive car, or do you want to live in a way that makes your soul feel fulfilled? Helping others is what makes us stronger. I don't want to sound like a superhero out to save the world, but we just love this kind of lifestyle."

Meir Nitzan, who took over in February as acting mayor in Lod, is thrilled with young people like the Bengus couple.

"They see the tremendous potential in Lod," he says, relaxing in his office at the end of the workday. "These students are crucial here, they're a blessing. A good portion of the children in Lod are in desperate need of help. Out of 17,000 children in Lod, 5,000 are defined as at-risk. Almost a third. So, to me this is just the beginning. We're just a 15-minute train ride from Tel Aviv University and from the Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot. There's no reason there shouldn't be at least 200 students here. With that number of students getting involved in the life of the city, supporting the children, it will be a revolution. This is how a revolution is made."

Isn't that a bit of an exaggeration? You were summoned to the city after a series of murders that led Prime Minister Netanyahu to announce a special crime-fighting program in Lod. It includes 130 security cameras that effectively put the city under constant surveillance. You think a few dozen students can make a revolution happen? Isn't it just a drop in the bucket?

Nitzan: "As soon as a trickle starts it can turn into a powerful river. You have to start somewhere. Since the law allows for construction of student housing in public spaces, it was easy to get quick approval to start building the village. But I don't mean to stop there. The village has fired my imagination. I intend to build more housing units with advantageous conditions for students who will come to live in Lod. But at the same time - you're right, it's not a simple matter. Because Lod is a city without a 'heart,' it has no central downtown area, no place to go out or have a cup of coffee. So we have to do both things: bring students here and also create an infrastructure that will help smooth their arrival."

Warm home for children

Meanwhile, Rotem Alon's cell phone will not stop ringing.

"Sometimes it's students calling and other times it's Lod residents who need volunteer aid," she says. "I really believe in personal mentoring, I think that's the way to get into the families, to really get to know them from the inside, to empower the children, to make connections with the place. The main effort will be focused on the Ma'apilim School. We mean to open what we call a 'hothouse,' where the pupils, together with the university students, will learn about issues connected with agriculture, nature and ecology. We know, from experience in other schools, that a successful school setting boosts academic achievement."

Rotem also plans to open an informal club for children that will operate from the afternoon until the evening, where students can come and teach and share their skills.

Are you ever worried that it won't succeed, that the complex reality will foil all of your dreams and good intentions?

Alon: "No, but I'm not saying so out of arrogance, but out of faith in the place and in the students' ability. I am confident that even if the entire vision I have in mind is not fulfilled - it won't be a failure."