After 15 years of bureaucratic hassles, Jake Leibowitz has finally secured zoning permits to build his dream development - a gated community just half an hour outside of Jerusalem with luxurious multi-million dollar homes that have the potential to lure hundreds of wealthy and established American immigrants.
Eden Hills, which promises villas reminiscent of the Tuscan landscape, celebrated its cornerstone laying ceremony this week with much fanfare. It was a moment Leibowitz, a former New Yorker who now lives in Jerusalem, wasn't sure he'd ever see. But denied permits, unexpected relocations, bureaucratic runarounds and threatened lawsuits against the Israel Lands Authority are, it seems, now a thing of the past for Leibowitz.
"There were people who really wanted to see him fail," a member of the local regional council noted at this week's Tu Bishvat ceremony. "You can understand them - they don't want every hill and every open space to become a villa. But Jake [Leibowitz] redefines optimism. He just kept going."
For Leibowitz, the Eden Hills dream was born out of his own needs for a community that provided a somewhat bizarre combination of both capitalism and Zionism. Before immigrating with his family nine years ago, he sought out the perfect Israeli home in the perfect Israeli community - only to discover that the combination didn't actually exist. He settled in Jerusalem's upscale neighborhood of Rehavia instead, but not without first investing much of his personal wealth in building a community that would draw scores of potential immigrants just like him.
"There isn't a contradiction between Zionism and living well," he explained this week. "The new Zionism is a combination of realism and capitalism. We're not asking people to move to Israel and settle. They can settle the land, but they shouldn't have to settle in quality."
Israel, added his wife Devorah, should be a place of "best resort," rather than one of "last resort."
For Leibowitz, the ideal Eden Hills resident is a lot like him: wealthy, Orthodox and Zionist, all the while committed to maintaining the opulent lifestyle they've grown accustomed to in the U.S. He's given sales pitches in some of the wealthiest American Jewish communities, and buyers, he predicts, will continue to flock from places like Beverly Hills, Boca Raton, Florida and Las Vegas.
"These are people who love Israel, but they are not 18 anymore," Leibowitz said. "All that's keeping them away is quality of life and we can provide that."
According to Leibowitz's figures, "hundreds" have already put down the required $25,000 deposit, and though he won't divulge specific numbers, he says the interest in settling "a modern paradise on ancient lands" is growing. The community wasn't planned as a religious one, but Orthodox buyers have dominated the market thus far, keeping in line with the general increase of religious American immigration.
Some buyers will no doubt keep their Eden Hills estate as a summer home and continue to live in the U.S., but Leibowitz plans to keep those to a minimum so that the community doesn't become, in his own words, "a ghost town." Most of the buyers, he says, will be immigrating directly to Eden Hills, so that they can settle into life here with the help of their deluxe villas.
"Small" homes in the neighborhood begin at $400,000, but some buyers have already expressed interest in $3 million mansions, complete with pool and tennis court. The average lot size is 1.5 dunam to allow for a spacious home and backyard, and though only 500 units have been planned for the first stage, Leibowitz is hoping to get permission to build an additional 1000 homes.
Eden Hills, which will be ecologically-friendly, complete with water recycling and solar technology, will also be graced with artificial lakes, fountains and tree-lined pedestrian paths. Schools and synagogues will be privately funded and the entire community will be connected by a system of underground roads. There will be public parks, pedestrian areas, and a community amphitheater overlooking an artificial lake for concerts, lectures, and community events. "The design is meant to give a community feeling," Leibowitz explains.
Leibowitz expects to begin building in the coming months and hopes to begin distributing keys to the first batch of immigrants within three years.
"I know the warts of Israel," he said, "but I can't imagine living anywhere else."