Coronavirus Leads Israelis to Give Country Life a Try

Many say they like the change, and remote employment may let them stay. But experts question whether it's permanent

Adi Cohen
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Moshav Ben Shemen near Tel Aviv.
Moshav Ben Shemen near Tel Aviv. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Adi Cohen

During the first week of the coronavirus crisis, when the restrictions were just beginning, Yanai, his wife and young daughter felt squeezed in their tiny three-room, 60-square-meter apartment in Tel Aviv. “We really needed to escape,” said Yanai, a 35-year-old teacher who asked not to be identified by his full name.

They did just that. For the last several weeks they have been living in a house on a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee. The house is small but it makes up for that with a big yard and greenery all around. They haven’t used a car for weeks. Yanai’s wife, a manager for an international marketing company, works from home while he teaches using Zoom. Their one-and-half-year-old daughter is having a great time, he said.

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The experience has given them an alternative to city life. “The short time we’ve been here has shown us that we can live without cafes and restaurants, without the temptations of city life,” said Yanai. “We’ve found a warm and friendly community and small pleasures, like playing with our daughter in the yard or drinking coffee in the quiet on the patio.”

Yanai and his wife have decided to quit urban life for a home on a kibbutz or moshav, albeit somewhere in the center of the country, even though it will mean fighting traffic on the way to and from work.

The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown has caused many Israelis, not to mention others around the world, to consider how they want to be living their lives when the crisis is over. Do they want to go back to their old patterns of consumption? Will they resume their old work routine? What kind of home will make them the happiest?

Yanai and family in the Upper Galilee. Credit: Tal Ader

As to that last question, many Israelis say they are thinking of giving up the cities for country life. After trying it during the lockdown, they say they don’t want to go back.

“We’ve always toyed with the idea of moving to a moshav, certainly after we have our first child. When the coronavirus business began, the transition occurred on its own,” said Amit Stroll, 31, who gave up a small apartment he was sharing with his fiancée in Jaffa.

Two weeks before the lockdown began, he traveled to the United States for a surfing trip. He cut his trip short as the coronavirus rules were getting stricter and went into quarantine at a house in Moshav Bnei Tzion, where his parents live. His fiancée joined him when his quarantine period was over.

Stroll said he enjoys the quiet and pastoral atmosphere and the absence of FOMO – fear of missing out – that he feels in the city. He wants to stay.

For the birds

“We’ve discovered that you can wake up to the sounds of birds chirping rather than the sounds of a garbage truck,” said Stroll. “Sure, the time spent commuting to the city when things return to normal will be an obstacle, but we don’t see ourselves going back.

We’re both in high-tech and so long as the situation continues, we can work from home. One of the things the crisis has taught us is that you don’t need to be in the office every day.”

Like other developed economies, the last few decades have seen a flowering of urban life in Israel. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly three quarters of Israelis live in cities. Only 1% live in places so remote that there is no local or regional authority at all.

One reason for the heavy urbanization in Israel is the cities are where the jobs are. Efforts by the government over the years to increase employment in the Negev and the Galilee and generate quality jobs there have consistently failed.

But the coronavirus pandemic has shown Israelis the world of working remotely, which before the crisis had been a marginal phenomenon – only about 4% of the labor force worked from home.

“If after the crisis ends, some sectors enable more workers to work at home, even part-time, it will have a significant impact on the property market,” said Prof. Danny Ben-Shahar, head of the Alrov Institute for Real Estate Research at Tel Aviv University.

“That could soften [housing] demand in major employment centers and increase it in the periphery. That could result in a small gap between prices in the center of the country and the periphery. If an extreme scenario, where people aren’t required to come to the office at all, as is the case today, there may be no reason at all to live in the city,” he said.

However, a change like that hinges on a fundamental change in the labor market, and Ben-Shahar believes it’s much too early to say with any confidence that it will happen. “You have to remember that we’re social creatures that don’t like being alone – and there is a value to working in an office, having coffee breaks and conversations in the corridors,” he noted.

Ben-Shahar added that urban crowdedness almost certainly contributed to some degree to the rapid spread of the coronavirus, but warned against jumping to the conclusion that this is what would drive people to abandon city life when the crisis is over. 

“The real estate market for the most part has a short memory. So there might be some impact from the coronavirus on demand and prices, but it won’t be for the long term,” he said.

Tamir Ben Shahar, CEO of the market research firm Czamanski & Ben Shahar, said he doubted that any imminent changes in the labor market would be enough to shift housing demand from the center of Israel to the periphery.

“The talented young people of Tel Aviv want to work, live, enjoy themselves and eat out in the same place – it’s hard for me to believe that will change,” said Ben Shahar. “The main reason the government has failed until today to disburse the population is because it hasn’t been able to create those same competitive advantages outside of the center of the country.”

On the other hand, he said, changes in family income and shopping patterns after the crisis could have an impact on the Israeli real estate market. In a survey his firm conducted recently, respondents made quite clear they didn’t plan on riding buses or joining large gatherings for the six months after the crisis winds down. They said they will also give higher priority saving money.

“My guess is that most people learned from the crisis that they are alone in the world, that no one will be worrying about them in the next crisis, so they need to save more so they can manage without earning income for an extended period,” Ben Shahar said.

Spending power 

“Things like this will without a doubt have an impact on our ability to a buy a home, on its size and the place we chose to buy,” he added. “We’re constantly talking about the million people who were put on unpaid leave or fired, but the fact is the number of people hurt by the crisis is a lot larger. If the virus continues much longer and the economy enters a recession, home prices will fall. But’s too early to know.”

For Sivan Freeman, 26, doubts about the future actually encouraged her to give up Tel Aviv for the Galilee – something she said she had always dreamed of, but that her job as a Pilates instructor didn’t allow for.

“Before the crisis, I was teaching at gyms and fitness studios, and gave private lessons, mainly at high-tech companies and law firms. When the crisis began, everything stopped and I lost a lot of clients. I wasn’t at all sure how long the situation would last and even if or when I could return to work when it was over,” she said.

Sivan Freeman in Tel Aviv.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“Instead of getting stuck, I decided to hitch a ride [on the crisis] and act on my dream to leave the city and move my life and work to the Galilee, where I plan to open a studio for touch and motion therapy.”

The pandemic and the lifestyle changes coming in its wake may also have an impact on urban planning, said Sharon Band, a member of the board of the Israel Planners Association. In her view, it will hasten the move away from suburb-oriented planning and encourage more mixed-use construction.

“The crisis will enhance the need to reduce commuting and create new options for shopping and employment within walking distance of the home. The coronavirus era broke the paradigm and has shown us that we can work from home, which opens all kinds of opportunities,” said Band.

But what about a return to country life? Shahar Solar, deputy director for strategic issues at the government’s Planning Administration, expressed doubt because there simply aren’t enough attractive employment opportunities in the periphery.

“Quality jobs bring people and, even more so, good schools, culture, health and welfare facilities,” he said. “Maybe – and I say this cautiously – the ability to work remotely together with a quality transportation infrastructure and good health and welfare systems could reduce the gaps between the center and the periphery.”

He added, “The coronavirus has sharpened our realization that a high quality of life doesn’t square with increasing crowdedness in the cities and that we have to worry more about the right mix of uses, for pubic parks, open spaces and a better quality public sphere.”

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