History, Unprotected From Developers

The Tel Aviv Planning and Building Committee meets today on the Neve Tzedek seam plan, a new master plan (no. 3501) designed to encourage renewal in the neighborhood's southwest corner, including the historic Neve Shalom area, established in 1890 as a Jewish community outside the walls of Jaffa, long before the Ahuzat Bayit (homestead) society bought land in what is now Tel Aviv and parceled it out in the well-known 1909 seashell lottery.

Surprisingly, the aggressive real estate deals the area has seen for more than a decade has hardly touched Neve Shalom's unique character, expressed in rows of modest, one-storey homes with red-shingle roofs. As for Neve Shalom's place of honor in the city's history, particularly for its early Jewish settlement, the new plan marks buildings for preservation, but omits two important sites.

The first is Sha'arei Torah (Torah gates), the beit midrash of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, founded in 1895, which included a synagogue, religious elementary and high schools and craft workshops. Aside from religious studies, pupils learned such skills as carpentry and metalworking. This was Kook's vision - to combine spiritual life with physical labor, a focal point of religious Zionism.

The students' handiwork may be seen today in the hammered metal gates at the entrance, which bear the institution's emblem. Only two structures have survived, the synagogue and the workshop, both abandoned. Some of the land is being used as a parking lot.

The site should perhaps enjoy legal protection as an inviolable religious space, but in a controversial deal still in the courts, Sha'arei Torah was sold two years ago to Edmund Shamsi, an American real estate developer, for $6.3 million.

Shamsi at first wanted to level the existing structures and erect a residential tower, but the municipality, under public pressure, declared it a protected site. However, there is no guarantee Sha'arei Torah will be preserved. Nor is public access guaranteed, as preservation may involve additional building and transforming buildings into structures for private use.

"We are demanding the site not serve residential or commercial uses," says Tamar Tuchler, central district director of the Council for the Preservation of Historic Sites. "Sha'arei Torah must remain open to the public and be given a cultural mission, just as it had in the past, to serve neighborhood residents," says Tuchler. Her stand represents current world-wide thinking: not only to preserve and renovate structures, but to apply broader concepts of historical uniqueness and cultural heritage.

Apartments on the site may be sold for millions, and its legacy remain on view only to the rich.

Following the preservation council's application, two hearings were held on Sha'arei Torah's future in the Knesset Education Committee, the first in May and the second on Monday. While committee chairman MK Zevulun Orlev, like his Habayit Hayehudi colleague MK Uri Orbach, belongs to the religious-Zionist faction, the committee made do with a mere statement of support about the "educational, national, Jewish and historic significance of the site." The encouraging words have no power to change anything, but the Knesset may see a private or government bill to protect the site, as was done for the Froumine Building in downtown Jerusalem, the early home of the Knesset, which is expected to become a parliamentary museum.

The case of the girls' school on Ein Yaakov Street, known as the Russian autonomy school, is even more frustrating. It was included in the city's original preservation list, and its historical importance is unimpeachable, but the Neve Tzedek seam plan dropped the building from the list of structures to be preserved. It was one of the most important centers of Hebrew culture in prestate Israel, founded in 1905 by Raphael Rabinowitz-Teomim, Rabbi Kook's brother-in-law, and rented to the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) movement, whose goal was to establish an innovative educational framework for the study of Hebrew in the new Jewish neighborhoods and prepare women to be teachers.

Writers, humanists, and leaders of workers' movements were drawn to the Neve Shalom girls' school. There the first textbooks in Hebrew were published and the first Hebrew theater in Eretz Yisrael was established. The nickname "Russian autonomy" stuck because of the Russian origin of many of the teachers. The artist Nahum Gutman immortalized the school in his books and drawings.

The original structure remains nearly unchanged, as does the impressive inner courtyard with it original water pump; today it serves as a residential building. Without preservation protection, it could easily be demolished by developers, or additions could destroy its special character. Here, too, there's no guarantee of public access, and lock and key may hide the activities of former education inspector Zina Dizengoff (wife of the first mayor) and of Gutman's father, dedicated teacher and writer S. Ben Tsion.

Yermi Hoffman of the city's preservation department admits the girls' school fell by the wayside. "It was in the original municipal plan but when we shortened the list before submitting it, the building was taken out. The thought was that it would be protected in a new local plan, but the new plan does not include it." Hoffman says his department wants the building preserved. But it is in real danger if new construction plans are submitted. "Suddenly rumors have started to spread that someone wants to tear it down," Hoffman says. "I think they're just rumors at this point."

As for Sha'arei Torah, Hoffman says it is safe under the city's "protective envelope" for the project the municipality is considering today. But he refuses to make any promises about the site's future character. "The preservation council's stand is legitimate, but you have to remember that the decision is highly problematic to obligate owners to admit the public to their territory." This means, says Hoffman, the builders would have to be compensated with additional building rights, and "I, who am responsible for preservation, will have to weigh whether the additions are suitable and proper, and if, in the end, we aren't doing more damage by granting them."

The neighborhood's streets are bustling with construction activity. "We are very disturbed about what's happening today in Neve Shalom," Tuchler says. "The city has a great vision, but in practice, one building after another is destroyed, a lot of unauthorized work has gone on in the past two years and even buildings that are to be preserved have been affected. Why isn't anyone enforcing the law?"

The future of the two sites will be decided in the Planning and Building Committee. One hopes it will add these two sites of utmost importance to the Neve Tzedek seam plan, and not leave them in the hands of developers and the wealthy.

The top priority of preservation is defense of cultural values; repairing falling plaster comes second.