A Pluralistic Getaway for Disaffected Jerusalemites and Settlers

Residents of the expanding Jerusalem Hills community Tzur Hadassah hope to keep their ultra-Orthodox neighbors away

AP

The massive expansion the Housing Ministry is driving in Tzur Hadassah is worrying some of its residents. They’re not just concerned that their town, a secular community nestled in the Jerusalem Hills, will lose its tranquil character. They could get used to that.

A glance at the hills to the east shows Beitar Ilit, a sprawling ultra-Orthodox settlement just over the Green Line so close it could almost be a Tzur Hadassah neighborhood. A quarter-hour’s drive west reaches the Haredi neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh.

The residents of pluralistic Tzur Hadassah, which has a large English-speaking population, are worried that if the Housing Ministry releases a flood of land for development, it will attract groups with heavy purchasing power – like the Haredim, who are always seeking reasonably priced housing around Jerusalem.

“We’re worried about our freedom,” says Shlomo Magnezi, chairman of the Tzur Hadassah town council. Tzur Hadassah has a lot of people who originally lived in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, but moved because of unpleasant experiences involving religious coercion. They don’t want the same to happen in their new home.

Tzur Hadassah is quite large for a community settlement. According to its committee, it has 8,000 people, of whom 3,000 are under 18. And it’s growing: 2,500 apartments are being built two neighborhoods, almost half in the neighborhood of Har Sansan in the southeast and 1,400 in Mevo Beitar, in the town’s north (on unplanned land). The town expects to grow to as many as 20,000 people within a decade.

In Har Sansan 300 apartments are under active construction, most of them by two construction companies, B. Yair and M. Aviv. Ronny Avitan, co-owner of the realty company Top which markets for M. Aviv, says a three-room apartment of 75 square meters starts at 1.1 million shekels ($300,000). A four-room apartment 100-105 square meters in area will cost between 1.3 million and 1.4 million shekels, and a 5-room 120 square-meter apartment will cost 1.5 to 1.6 million.

Most of the buyers in Har Sansan are upgrading and one of every four is investing (meaning they won’t live in the apartment but will rent it out), says Avitan. Young people are waiting for Yair Lapid’s “zero-VAT” plan to come into force, he surmises.

Another body active in Tzur Hadassah is Nofim, a construction association with about 100 members. Its manager, Nadav Lisovsky, says its people are like the present population of Tzur Hadassah – about 30% “knitted skullcaps” and the rest non-observant.

Aside from the new construction in Har Sansan, the town also has family homes for the wealthier set. New houses have almost reached completion in Har Kitron in the west and not all have been sold yet. “A six-room house with 190 square meters in area on a 250-square meter plot will cost 2 million shekels,” says Avitan.

The fear that the Haredim will come and try to change the character of the town focuses on nearby Mevo Beitar, where as said 1,400 apartments are planned. The land was sold long ago in an unplanned state to a private contracting company, which is supposed to handle the infrastructure planning itself, but the plan the company submitted has been stuck for 15 years in various stages by the government planning authorities. One reason has been objections by the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. However, the government is now expected to start fast-tracking the Mevo Beitar land in order to increase Israel’s supply of housing and halt the climb in housing prices.

“Rapid expansion can make a community, or destroy it,” says Magnezi. “Growing from a town with 1,400 families to almost 4,000 is a significant change. We don’t have a vetting committee and there is no way to legally filter builders or buyers. All we can do is suggest to the builders that the committee handle marketing for them, which would be a classic win-win situation. They would be spared the cost of marketing and we would direct our efforts to the kind of people suitable to the spirit of the town.”

Avitan is less concerned about changing the nature of Tzur Hadassah. He doesn’t feel the town is attractive to the Haredim because of its pluralistic nature and high prices.

Near Jerusalem and non-observant

Tzur Hadassah was founded in the 1960s as a community settlement that would provide services to nearby villages – Bar Giora, Nes Harim, Mata and Mevo Beitar. The town is 750 meters above sea level and its weather is like Jerusalem’s. A clear majority of residents are non-observant and the religious element belongs almost entirely to the knitted-skullcap community. The town also has one of Israel’s biggest Reform communities.

The community nature of Tzur Hadassah is attested by the bus stops. Next to the benches are shelves bearing books for children and teenagers, an initiative by the town committee to encourage reading: Each bus stop essentially serves as a lending library. Half a year after the venture’s launch, the number of books at the bus stops remains much the same – they aren’t being stolen or vandalized.

The town takes pride in its investment in children. They learn from grade 1 to 12 in regional schools that serve all the towns in the area. Tzur Hadassah also has a religious-Zionist school and one offering “alternative” education that has both observant and non-observant students. Kindergarten options are even wider – state-run, religious Zionist, reform, Chabad, you name it. Three youth movements operate in the town: the Scouts (Tzofim), Bnei Akiva and Telem, which is run by the Reform movement. And there’s the Judean Hills-Tzur Hadassah Horse Farm, which is quite the regional attraction. A complex now under construction will have a new home for the town council, a new complex of schools, an amphitheater, a sports hall and a swimming pool.

Jerusalem is just 25 to 30 minutes away by car, not including traffic jams. The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway is 20 minutes away by car and reaching the outskirts of Tel Aviv is about an hour’s drive. Again, none of that includes congestion.

The Achilles heel of the town is public transport. There is practically none. Buses to and from Jerusalem are seldom and slow. One solution is to take a shuttle service (which runs every half hour, provided by the Tzur Hadassah council) to Beitar Ilit, from which there are frequent buses to Jerusalem (mainly so impatient teenagers won’t be tempted to hitch-hike). Also, in the summer, late-night buses operate to Jerusalem and back.

Tzur Hadassah’s location, near Jerusalem and the Green Line, affects the nature of potential buyers.

“We see families from Judea and Samaria who are not driven by ideology and want a safer living environment, without fear of being evacuated one day. We also get people from Beit Shemesh who can’t stand the increasingly observant character of the city,” says Magnezi. “The third contingent is young people from Jerusalem who would like to stay in the city but it costs too much. For 1.3 million shekels, they can’t find good options there. You can’t find apartments for that even in the distant neighborhoods in the city’s east, like Har Homa, Gilo or Pisgat Ze’ev.”

He doesn’t conceal that these are the people he wants to attract, and talks about collaborating with movements of young Jerusalemites to bring people to view Tzur Hadassah. When they do come they see a lively community with children running around, and youth movements in the town. “Our purpose is to show them that this is the town for them,” Magnezi concludes.