A little over four years ago, Aviv Wasserman had the world in the palm of his
hand. He was young, single, educated, and he had just completed his studies at
the prestigious London School of Economics. The Holon native had his pick of
major international cities he could have called home while pulling in a handsome
“I could’ve stayed in London, or gone to New York,” he says from
the office of a spacious home that would seamlessly blend into the landscape of
an American suburb, but is instead ensconced in a posh neighborhood of one of
Israel’s most hardscrabble cities, Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab town of over 70,000
“There’s something very significant that is happening here,”
says Wasserman, the founder of the Lod Community Foundation. “Lod is a city with
a great deal of potential. It’s in the center of the country, it’s close to the
On the other hand, Lod is known as the city of crime and evil,
a place where you can’t walk around freely, where there are always shootings.
It’s not known as a place where normative people can walk around. There’s a
tremendous gap between the potential of the city and the reality on the ground,
and that’s what really attracted me.”
While many Israelis saw Lod as a
crime-ridden backwater, Wasserman saw opportunity for a town whose
“strategically advantageous location” – a 15- minute drive from Tel Aviv, a
half-hour ride to Jerusalem, and a stone’s throw from the country’s
international airport – could be a draw for businesses and
Wasserman’s foundation took it upon itself to network with
some of the country’s biggest names in business, including Yarom Ariav, the
former director-general of the Finance Ministry who is currently a successful
entrepreneur, and Yossi Vardi, the well-known venture capitalist who made his
name in hi-tech.
“All of these people took upon themselves a certain
mission and task in the city,” Wasserman says. “We brought corporations like
Bank Leumi, Mizrahi Bank, Migdal insurance, all of these companies have offices
and buildings in Lod.
They have committed long-term to Lod. We
also have philanthropic organizations that have committed long-term to the city.
But we understood that at the end of the day, all of these people don’t put their heads down on their pillows
here. While it’s important that these people are here, they still come from
outside of the city. They have taken upon themselves a long-term commitment to
support the city.”
Eighteen months ago, Wasserman and Ariav, who serves
on the board of the Lod Community Foundation, made it their mission to inject
new blood into the city by luring young couples and college students there.
Since then, dozens from out of town have heeded the call of, among others, Itzik
Shmuli, the head of the National Union of Israeli Students, and taken up
residence in the city.
Shmuli burst into the national consciousness last
year as one of the young up-and-coming leaders exhorting the masses to take to
the streets in protest at the socioeconomic predicament that has been weighing
down the middle class as well as college and university students.
Shmuli, who is considered one of the hottest commodities on the political scene,
is summoning his powers of persuasion in exhorting students to move to Lod, the
city which he himself has called home since January.
“Last year, we
understood that without attracting young people to Lod as a city where they can
live, there will always be something missing,” says Wasserman, who conceived the
idea of building a student village in Lod that would attract youngsters who are
pursuing academic degrees from the country’s top institutions.
Itzik Shmuli urging students to come to Lod is a natural continuation of the
social protest, and it’s wonderful.”
“Students are the ‘low-hanging
fruit’ for anyone trying to lure a high-quality population,” he says. “Most of
them are single, most don’t have children, and most of them are not homeowners,
so it’s much easier for them to move around.”
Since making the highly
publicized move to Lod five months ago, Shmuli has been surprised at the
response from other students who have followed in his footsteps.
a direct continuation of the social protest from last summer,” he says. “While
we have many expectations and demands of the government to fix a lot of things,
we, the young people, need to be part of the change that we want to see here in
Israeli society. We need to ask ourselves where we as young people can
contribute to society, where society needs us, and to get involved in its weaker
points. Who better than us students to do that?” The student union chief said
that while Lod does present far less of an economic burden for its residents,
the cost of living is not the main selling point for prospective
“We are doing this to fulfill a need for social activism,” he
says. “This is Zionism in 2012. How can we contribute to Israeli society and to
make it better and more just? Whoever leaves their comfortable lives in Tel Aviv
and Givatayim to take up residence in Lod doesn’t do it strictly for economic
reasons, but mainly due to social reasons, though the economic situation does
play a role, of course.”
Shmuli says that a large influx of students
could change people’s perception of the city, which is in need of more business
investment and philanthropic ventures.
“We have a very simple goal,” he
says. “Lod is in crisis, and I believe that having anywhere from 200 to
300 students [move into the city] can turn this place from a crisis zone to a
success story. There needs to be an expression of this on many
Shmuli says that aside from living in the city, students will be
willing to give back to the community by providing afternoon day care and
educational guidance for at-risk youth. The biggest challenge, though, will be
Shmuli’s efforts are geared toward raising cash as well as
convincing more youngsters to join him in Lod. By the start of this fall
semester, he is hoping that 150 new students will call Lod home. Since he moved
to town, 35 students have relocated to Lod, with five more due to move their
“What we are doing is the right thing for Israeli society,” he
On Herzl Street in northern Lod, a student dormitory founded by
Ayalim Association, an organization whose goal is to attract students to
economically developing cities and towns, is ringed by an iron fence. The
two-story structure is still in the construction stages, though the half that
has already been built is now inhabited by over 20 students – religious, secular
and Arab – from Tel Aviv University, the Open University, the Weizmann Institute
of Science and local agricultural schools.
Students make a concerted
effort to integrate into the community by entertaining and mentoring troubled
youth, staging public “hug-a-thons” in malls and shopping centers, and offering
discounted, second-hand clothing to the poor.
According to Wasserman,
students are not the only targeted demographic that is being relied upon to make
Lod a toprate metropolis.
“Young couples from Tel Aviv who aren’t
students have also started to come here, which is great because these couples
become families who put down roots here and build communities,” he
AVITAL BLONDER, a 28-year-old psychologist, grew up in Jerusalem
and earned her degree at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. Like many
graduates, she relocated to Tel Aviv. While reveling in all that Israel’s
cultural center has to offer, Blonder felt that there was something missing from
her life, a void that could be filled through community service.
the social protests, I took it upon myself to build a community of youngsters
who were dedicated to social activism,” she says. “This is what led me to move
Blonder, who has been living in Lod for the past four months, is
one of 11 transplants who relocated to the city as part of Kama, a
Beersheba-based organization that encourages youngsters to take part in forming
communities that promote social activism and grassroots initiatives. Since
Kama’s arrival in Lod, it has worked in concert with a number of other
“Every day, I meet with people to discuss how to get involved
in the community and to give back,” she says. “Living here has given newfound
significance to my life, and our mission is to bring a significant number of
people who believe in the same thing.”
Blonder says that the social
protests did not give her the impetus to move to Lod, though it did “provide a
push.” She added that there was no discernible difference in her new life, save
for the improved state of her bank account.
After paying NIS 7,500 a
month for a four-room apartment in the trendy Neveh Tzedek quarter in Tel Aviv,
she is now paying just NIS 2,500 for an apartment of the same size.
quality of life has improved compared to when I was living in Tel Aviv,” she
says. “And if I want to go out in Tel Aviv, I just get in the car and drive
there. It’s really not that much different now.”
Blonder says she
has received considerable support from friends and relatives who frequently
visit her and express appreciation for her initiative. Slowly but surely, the
perception of Lod will begin to change among the general public.
biggest thing that is holding the city back is the way in which Lod is portrayed
in the media,” she says. “Those of us who live here see the positive aspects of
the city, like the rich history and the wonderful people here. Most of what is
said and written about Lod in the press is not representative of what this city
The youth movement into Lod, which is largely secular in
nature, does not carry the same political overtones that have been a common
byproduct of efforts by the religious Zionist Garin Torani stream to increase
their presence in mixed towns across Israel. While the religious-nationalist
elements have been the subject of controversy, the students have been welcomed
with open arms.
“It’s really great what they are doing,” says Sami
el-Nakib, the owner of a convenience store on Herzl Street, just across the
street from the Ayalim student village. “It’s much better having them
here than the settlers.”
El-Nakib gestures toward the large construction
cranes on the other side of the neighborhood that protrude into Lod’s modest
skyline, where new apartment complexes are being built, presumably for religious
“The students give back to the community,” he says. “They invest in
Lod. Whoever comes here to help the community is welcome, be they Jews or
Wasserman derives a sense of satisfaction as he looks back on his
four years of activist networking since arriving from London.
“Lod is in
a different strategic place now,” he says. “It’s at the point of no return,
because we have brought a critical mass of quality people to the
city. Things will only get better from here.”