The city of Rehovot marked its 120th anniversary last Friday with a visit from President of Israel Shimon Peres, a special ceremony in historic Ya’acov Street, and a Purim party. Friday’s event launched a yearlong program of celebrations that will include an international festival of sculpture, as well as sporting, cultural, educational and art events under the theme “Feeling the Beat.”

Mayor Rahamim Malul, Rav Simha Kook and members of the Rehovot Council welcomed President Shimon Peres to the city at a special event commemorating Herzl’s visit to Rehovot in 1898.  Rehovot-born actor Aki Avni led the ceremony that depicted a fictive return by the Zionist leader to modern-day Rehovot 92 years after his first visit. A horse-drawn cart led by a cavalcade of horsemen then conveyed President Peres to Dondikov House, the historic home of one of Rehovot’s founding fathers.

“Rehovot is the biography of the State of Israel,” Peres said in a later speech to thousands of Rehovot residents gathered in Yaakov Street. Peres praised the city’s culture and spirit, describing it as “a corner of Israel, that begins in the citrus groves and extends to science and to its outstanding international contributions.”

In the 120 years since it was founded in 1890, Rehovot has grown from a tiny, rural moshava into a modern city with 120,000 inhabitants, an outstanding science and high-tech park and two major research centers. These include the internationally acclaimed Weizmann Institute, one of whose researchers, Prof. Ada Yonath, was recently awarded a Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Rehovot’s story begins in late-19th-century Warsaw, where a group of Polish Jews founded the Menuha Venahala society to raise funds for a Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel. They were determined that their new settlement would be democratic and independent of any financial aid and influence from “the Baron,” Edmond de Rothschild. The new settlement was officially founded on March 6, 1890, at the site of a Mishnaic Jewish community, the Doron. In 1906, a group of immigrants from Yemen also settled in Rehovot.

Israel Belkind, one of the founding fathers of the new Jewish settlement, suggested it be named Rehovot, meaning “wide expanses.” The name is taken from a passage in Genesis describing an ancient Negev city: “And he called the name of it Rehovot; and he said: ‘For now the Lord hath made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.’”

Thanks to the hard work of its residents, Rehovot was indeed fruitful – abundantly so. In the first years, the land was prepared for agriculture and the residents planted vineyards, almond orchards and citrus groves. The success of these citrus groves earned Rehovot its nickname “the Citrus City.”

By the 1920s, Rehovot had developed a thriving national and international trade in citrus fruits, aided by the construction of the town’s railway station. Rehovot’s citrus fruits were transported by train all over Eretz Israel and by ship to Europe.

In the 1930s, Rehovot’s reputation as a center for science and research started to increase. An agricultural research station, now part of the Hebrew University, was established in the town in 1932; two years later, Chaim Weizmann founded the Daniel Sieff Research Institute, later renamed the Weizmann Institute in his honor.

The young Shimon Peres was among those on whom Rehovot’s citrus groves and spirit of scientific endeavor made an impression. “I spent my youth at my uncle’s house in Rehovot,” Peres said, “between the scents of the citrus groves that moved my soul and the Weizmann Institute that sparked my imagination.”

By 1950, its population had grown to 18,000 inhabitants, and Rehovot was granted official city status. Yitzhak Katz served as Rehovot’s second mayor from 1955 through 1967, and is still a resident of the city. “Rehovot is a bit older than me – by 21 years,” says the 98-year-old Katz, who made aliya from Lithuania with his family in 1928. The Katz family settled in Tel Aviv but in 1947, Yitzchak moved to Rehovot to work. The independent and democratic atmosphere of the city is part of its heritage, according to Katz.

“When Rehovot was founded, it didn’t get any help from ‘the Baron,’” says Katz, referring to the fact that the original settlement did not take financial aid from Edmond de Rothschild. “That had an influence on the town.”

Today’s mayor, Rahamim Malul, has lived in the city for over 40 years, and emphasizes that Rehovot has a rich legacy that his administration is determined to preserve. “Today – Rehovot’s 120th anniversary – is an important and historic day,” he says. “A lot has changed, a lot has developed in 120 years: Rehovot has grown from a moshava into a central city with 120,000 residents.” Malul says that education, culture and industry are part of Rehovot’s legacy.

“We will continue to fly the flag of academia and culture here,” he says. “We built two new schools last year and we have plans for new residential neighborhoods as well as a new industrial area.”

Today’s ceremony links the past with the present and the future, says Matan Dil, the Rehovot Council member responsible for the Rehovot 120 celebrations. “We want to celebrate the past 120 years,” adds Dil, “but also have an eye on the next 120 years, to future developments.”

Herzl wrote that an enduring memory from his 1898 journey to Eretz Israel was his visit to Rehovot, where he had wept at the sight of Jewish horsemen singing Hebrew songs. Since then, Rehovot has grown from a tiny Jewish settlement into a thriving modern city with successes in science, industry and culture.

As it embarks on its 121st year, Israel’s “city of citrus, culture and science” looks forward to a rich and prosperous future.

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