Safed: A Real Estate Diamond in the Rough?

That’s what the heavily Haredi city’s new mayor hopes to prove as he embarks on massive urban renewal after years of neglect and poor planning

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Homes in Safed, Israel's celestial hill-top city
Homes in Safed, Israel's celestial hill-top city Credit: אייל טואג
Gili Melnitcki
Gili Melnitcki
Gili Melnitcki
Gili Melnitcki

In March 2018, the top Likud luminaries made their way up to Safed one by one with the aim of getting out the vote for Shuki Ohana, the party’s candidate for mayor of this poverty-stricken city in the Galilee. The social media clips showed the members of the ruling party exerting themselves mightily: Yariv Levin, whose speaking voice is usually monotone, fired up the crowd; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat next to his spouse Sara and alongside Amir Ohana as he showered praise on the young party activist, a sixth generation native of Safed; Yisrael Katz donned a skullcap for the benefit of his audience and related that Shuki Ohana could have had “other things” but chose instead leadership of Safed. Gilad Erdan bore witness that Ohana “knows how to harness the government ministers and have them come at any given moment.” Gila Gamliel recommended voting for the man who will know how to make good use of “his qualifications and connections,” and Haim Katz, Miri Regev, Yoav Galant, Miki Zohar and Yuval Steinitz were also among the enthusiastic supporters.

Presumably this show of support helped Ohana oust Ilan Shohat who had served as the mayor for a decade, catapulting Ohana straight from the opposition benches into a run-off contest against the ultra-Orthodox candidate Nachman Gelbach, who was backed by United Torah Judaism and Shas. Today, a year and a half after he was elected, Mayor Ohana is already accustomed to picking up the phone to a cabinet minister, as though to the manor born.

In a neatly pressed suit, a pin of the city symbol on his lapel, Ohana gazes at a new neighborhood that has just begun to be marketed after years of near total stagnation in construction in Safed. Together, all the new neighborhoods – Moradot Razim, Hashkediot and Hahadassim – are expected to add 6,700 families to the town as part of a grandiose vision to double the current population of 36,000 by 2030.

Ohana stands on the land of the future neighborhood and despite the summer haze and the dust on the trucks busy with the earthworks, he manages to see with eyes wide open the Safed of which he dreams. Where the Mahanayim airfield now stands, Ohana sees an international airport that will link Safed to the tourists of the world; instead of a congested road without easy access to the old city and clogged with private vehicles, the mayor sees a new train station that will be operative within just two years and new interchanges that were promised to him by Transportation Minister Miri Regev in her first days on the job; instead of electricity wires, cables of a funicular carrying passengers up to the mountaintop town and instead of a dusty quarry – a new academic complex.

The neighborhoods of the city of SafedCredit: Eyal Toueg

“Safed is an unpolished diamond and in the past year and a half we have been working with the best machinery to polish all its facets – education, infrastructure, culture and sanitation,” says Ohana, who in his first days on the job invested in constructing traffic circles and installing the first stoplight in the town. “We undertook a deep reorganization, we divided the city into seven districts and we got busy with what seems to be trivial but was significant – changing the face of the city and investing in its appearance. My aim is to bring new, strong populations to this neighborhood. Safed is going to be the next big thing in real estate.”

The mayor’s dream echoes as we turn our gaze towards the tidy houses of Safed’s pastoral neighbor, Rosh Pina, which has attracted a strong population over the years, including Safed. It seem, in fact, that for the past two decades the aim of the city’s young people has been to leave town. Now, too, despite the new mayor’s efforts, many students who are enrolled at the Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Medicine in the Galilee – which is located in an ancient building in the center of Safed – prefer to live in Rosh Pina.

“In Safed, there’s nowhere to go out, no place to see a film, no pub where it’s pleasant to drink beer,” relates Nir, who asked not to be fully identified. “I admit,” says his friend Ma’ayan, “when we started looking for an apartment in the area we had only one consideration – anything but Safed.”

Although there are students who, during their studies in the Galilee, have fallen in love with its atmosphere and varied population, many say that they intend to leave the area in the near future, either due to lack of employment for their life partners or to the paucity of possibilities for culture and a social life.

Nonetheless, Ohana radiates optimism. “It used to be that people were dead set on leaving town, but in the past two years we have managed to stop the negative migration. Thanks to the new neighborhood we will be able to create housing and give people a reason to remain here – an education system that has undergone a facelift and includes English and Chinese starting in kindergarten, a medical faculty that will triple in size and strengthen the activity at the hospitals in the region and the medical services, sports facilities, parks, the University of the North that will go up here, cultural centers and two huge festivals – Klezmers and Ladino. Zappa, a chain of live music clubs, will also be coming here and so will tourism with the renewal. I want young families to have every reason to be the new and strong population for which Safed is waiting.”

A different sort of Haredi

Tourists on a pedestrian street in SafedCredit: Eyal Toueg

Behind the phrase “new and strong” hides one of the most sensitive issues in Safed – the fragile relations between the ultra-Orthodox population and the secular and traditional inhabitants of the town. According to a study conducted by Dr. Eitan Regev and Gabriel Gordon of the Israel Democracy Institute, in 2017, the Haredim constituted 44% of the population of the town.

Although most ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel prefer to remain in the “Haredi triangle” of Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Ashdod and in the smaller cities of Beit Shemesh, Modi’in Ilit, Netivot and Elad, the study found that among municipalities in the north Safed is considered the favored Haredi destination and from 2014 to 2017 about 140 starter homes were purchased there annually by Haredi families.

“The percentage of Haredi home-buyers in Safed increased from 17% in 1999 to 2002, to 43% in 2013-2017,” says Regev. “More than 35% of the homes in the city are inhabited by Haredim and another 10% are Haredi-owned but not yet occupied. This is indicative of the growth potential of the ultra-Orthodox population in the city. Safed is one of the leading destinations for purchases and investments among the Haredim.”

Regev notes an important point that is also evident in the general atmosphere there. “In Safed, there is a high percentage of Chabadniks, who work more, want general education and to integrate into the labor market.”

“The plumber is Haredi, as are the practical engineer and the contractor who are now refurbishing the bed-and-breakfast rooms with me, and the bakery where I buy bread and cakes is under Haredi ownership,” says Ze’ev Pearl, a secular liberal, a mayor of Safed in the past and a resident of the town in the present. Pearl contends that the town’s diversified Haredi populace and its distance from the leaders of the closed Haredi communities in the center of the country have enabled Safed to create a different model for relationships between the Haredim and the traditional and secular residents.

“Haredim who want to live far from the closed communities of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem come to Safed. A Haredi who wants freedom and spirituality is a Haredi who comes here.”

A road in SafedCredit: Eyal Toueg

Pearl adds that Safed is unique among towns with large Haredi populations. “There isn’t a single, powerful Haredi leadership here that manages the resources and around which the agenda coalesces, but rather quite a broad spectrum of ultra-Orthodox who belong to various sects and live together – with the knitted skull caps [more modern observant Jews] and the secular people,” says Pearl.

However, this idyllic description could be misleading. This is not a town without friction. On the billboards in the southern part of town are pashqvilim – posters with a warning – prohibiting purchases in certain shops and naming many municipal resources that are to be shunned in favor of synagogues and Haredi public buildings. On the other hand, Safed has forged a unique model of Shabbat observance, in which no businesses are open but automobiles can be driven freely.

The problem: poverty

Neighborhoods in the city of SafedCredit: Eyal Toueg

One of Safed’s main problems is poverty. Along with its low socio-economic ranking, the city is also characterized by low salary levels, according to studies. In their study, Regev and Gordon found, for example, that ultra-Orthodox couples who move to the north to places like Safed and Acre suffer a 12% to 30% decrease in their income because of the lack of job opportunities. The Safed Industrial Park and the Tsahar Industrial Zone in Rosh Pina have not attracted enough new industries and factories and the competition for every company that looks northwards – in the strip between Kiryat Shmona, Carmiel and Nof Hagalil (Nazareth Ilit) – has not worked in Safed’s favor in recent years.

“This is our Achilles heel and we are doing significant work with the Economy and Industry Ministry to ensure and develop sources of employment,” says Ohana. “We have a number of anchors and we are investing in developments,” he says, citing the city's college, medical school, hospital, the Northern Command of the army located in town, as well as its tourism and the hospitality industry.

“In September we will market about 200 dunams [50 acres] for an industrial park in Safed and we will grant benefits to create more jobs along with the establishment of two new hotels by Dan and Isrotel, which will add 400 new rooms, and the opening of a visitors center – all of which will boost employment in the hotel and restaurant industries in the city,” he says, clearly looking at the long-term post-coronavirus picture.

On the plus side, there is this utopian vision and there are the mayor’s close ties with top people in government who are willing to help with funding for the city. But in taking stock of the town’s prospects one must also note a quality that haunts every holy city: the gaping abyss between terrestrial Safed and celestial Safed. Within the space of a few blocks, the spirit and the vision of the Old City and the neighborhoods above it clash head on with rows of grey, neglected housing projects in the southern neighborhoods (including Ofer, Shikma and Canaan) – home mostly to ultra-Orthodox and new immigrant families. Within a few blocks one encounters the vagrancy and poverty of both young people and old people, shabby and uninviting commercial centers and an 11-year old girl pushing a baby carriage and dragging along five siblings on their way home from school.

The municipal building that overlooks the Old City for years has a record of turning a blind eye to takeovers of public space, illegal construction and an absence of proper and transparent management of assets. The State Comptroller’s Report published in 2017 related to this extensively.

In contrast to the new neighborhoods, where according to the planning vision there will be active neighborhood centers, public buildings, parks and many low-density homes with gardens, in the old neighborhoods the shabbiness and neglect are evident. The 35.8 million shekels ($10.4 million) provided by the Ministry of Housing and Construction from 2009 to 2019 did not succeed in doing any magic, and it is not clear whether the 23.5 million shekels invested in statutory planning will indeed make things better in the coming years.

Houses in SafedCredit: Eyal Toueg

“Safed is one of the outlying towns that have been left behind, where because of the low land values it’s not worthwhile financially to invest in urban renewal projects,” admits Haim Avitan, chairman of the Urban Renewal Authority, which recently began to operate in Safed in an attempt to refurbish the Canaan neighborhood in the south of the city.

“If we were solely dependent on the free market, the multiplier would be monstrous – 12:1,” he says, referring to the ratio of new housing units built in place of every one demolished to make the renewal economical. “To create quality urban renewal (pinui-binui) projects and not overburden the municipal infrastructures, we are now working on plans that try to preserve a low multiplier of three new housing units for every unit that is demolished – and in a way that will obligate the state to subsidize the projects.

“The moment there are detailed plans for renewal in the city, the state can take advantage of a historical opportunity here for rehabilitation and social justice,” Avitan promises, adding that in Kiryat Shmona, to the north of Safed, similar moves are underway with plans that have already begun to be implemented. “Within two years we will see similar projects in Safed as well.” However, at this stage, the declarations and the promises regarding the renewal of Safed still look like distant economic and real estate dreams, and it is doubtful whether the state will be in any rush to fund them extensively.

A bitter taste of missed opportunity

The tensions between the historical and cultural heritage, the mystical attraction of spiritual and religious people to the holy city, the ancient paving stones and the striking blue window frames on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the dreary atmosphere on the Jerusalem Pedestrian Mall – Safed’s neglected touristic main drag – is evident on the faces of visitors who have been coming for years and leaving with the bitter taste of a missed opportunity. Even in the updated 2014 master plan for the city, which provided the framework for the new neighborhoods, planners ignored the town’s real challenges.

At the municipality, they are now working to promote a detailed plan for the Old City and the pedestrian mall, and Ohana has no hesitations about using his connections in the government to advance the issue. When Yariv Levin was minister of tourism, 8.8 million shekels were allocated to Safed for improving and renewing the Old City with an eye to spiffing up the streets of interest to tourists and improving access to them and the services provided there. This, after the Tourism Ministry had already budgeted about 15 million shekels to Safed for improving Keren Hayesod Street and the Hameiri House historical museum in the Old City.

The failure in the preservation and development of the Old City as the main tourism asset in Safed is also distressing to the professionals and planners who are working there. Recently, the area has become the apple of the eye of the new municipal engineer, Aviva Shmila, a native of the city, who dreams of renewal and change in the area with the help of bustling European-style piazzas. For now, a solitary old man sits on a bench outside the abandoned Safed shopping mall. He smiles at us and mutters: “The coronavirus has hammered the last nail into Safed’s coffin.”