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For years a pile of junk sat near the Elroi neighborhood of Kiryat Tivon, east of Haifa. Nahum Levy, a neighborhood resident, was one of the few who saw any value in it. In that neglected spot, he knew, once stood a station of the legendary Valley Train, built in 1905. The train went from Haifa to Damascus through the Jezreel Valley.

For Levy, it may have been a distant but powerful memory of a morning back in the 1940s, when he let go of his mother's hand and was swallowed up in a cloud of black smoke from the locomotive, that angered something deep inside him when he saw that a crane had come to destroy the abandoned station. Ten years ago, therefore, he drafted other residents to restore the crumbling station. The local council could not help, because the area belongs to Israel Railways.

"At first, we didn't approach Israel Railways, but when they found out, they agreed," Levy said, adding that he and his neighbors did all the work themselves. "Afterward, we contacted the Council for the Preservation of Buildings and Historic Sites (CPBHS); they dealt with the bureaucracy."

The community bonded

Now that the residents have restored the station, cleaned up around it, created a garden, exposed the tracks and placed a train car on them, "the community has bonded with the place," Levy said. "Schoolchildren come here, storytellers meet here, day-trippers stop, and so do cyclists and hikers."

Levy and his friends could not obtain a train car that had been part of the Valley Train. "After we exposed the tracks, we asked Israel Railways for a train, but they couldn't believe anyone would want one for the benefit of the public, and they asked for money," he said. "Only later, when they realized that we really wanted to create a public center, did they give us two. But it still pains me that we couldn't get an original car from the Valley Train. The car we have is wider than the rails. I still hope we'll be able to get an original train someday."

Reconstruction took a year, Levy said. "We collected testimony from old-timers in the community. That's how we did the signs; they're true to the originals."

Certificate of appreciation

Today, Levy and his friends will receive a certificate of appreciation from the CPBHS, which grants awards each year for outstanding preservation and restoration work. Other restoration projects honored by the CPBHS this year include the Weizmann House in Rehovot, home of Israel's first president; the Scots Hotel in Tiberias; the pilgrims' hostel at Tabgha on Lake Kinneret, restored by the German Association for the Holy Land; and the courtyard of Kibbutz Merhavia, where historic structures harking back to the days of the first cooperative were restored. Another prizewinner was the water tower in Moshav Kfar Yehoshua, founded in 1927 in the Jezreel Valley. All are examples of communities that worked together to restore the historical gems in their midst.

"I don't think we're getting the prize for the perfection of our restoration, but for the initiative and the enthusiasm, and the struggle to bring a crumbling place alive," Levy said. He believes that people should not wait for the state to take the initiative; rather "the community should start. Only after there are results should official help be called upon."

But in addition to complimenting the community effort, the CPBHS's panel of architects and public figures concluded that "the station was restored modestly and correctly."

Levy said that he has asked several government ministries to support the project, and is disappointed that they have refused.

Grass-roots initiative

According to Yossi Feldman, CPBHS director, "projects like the restoration of the train station in Elroi and the water tower at Kfar Yehoshua are prime examples of raising consciousness about the importance of restoration to such a level that the activity and initiative come from below, from the community itself."

And Levy is now ready for his next project: preserving the lime kiln built in 1939 at the northern entrance to Elroi. "The community can stop the disintegration of historic sites. It's enough for residents to come and sit here over a cup of coffee for the site to live and breathe again," he said.