Not too long ago, Modi'in was known as a place that delivered a high standard of living for bargain prices. Not anymore. In the past month, let alone the past year, real estate agents say, property values in the burgeoning suburb have skyrocketed.
One of Israel's first planned cities, today it houses some 70,000 people and is expected to expand to accommodate 120,000; yet even an expansion of that magnitude may not be enough to meet the current demand.
Soaring prices are due in part to an increase in Modi'in's popularity. "There's not a rental to be had [in Modi'in] for love or money," says real estate agent Ayala Freeman.
This year, which marks the city's 10th anniversary, also signifies a shift in its economic identity: What was once an affordable refuge for former residents of Ramle, Lod and the Katamonim neighborhood in Jerusalem is now a hot commodity among the most well-heeled of buyers and renters.
The city's main attraction used to be that its modern conveniences and spacious apartments came at a relatively low cost. But over the years and as prices have shot up, the reasons for Modi'in's appeal have grown more complex.
One possible reason is the new train, which will open its doors on August 31. The train will act as a connecting artery between Modi'in and the beating heart of Tel Aviv, signifying a dramatic change in the way Modi'in residents can access the metropolitan highlights of Israel's cosmopolitan city and commute to work.
Alex Weinreb, deputy mayor of Modi'in, which in 2003 merged with Maccabim-Reut, describes the reduction in commute time with an example: "Before you've finished your coffee you're in Tel Aviv. Instead of an hour, [the commute] takes 20 minutes."
Modi'in residents are also anticipating the completion of an Azrieli mall, which is slated to open in March 2008. In spite of Modi'in's acquiring a movie theater and the buzzing Yishpro shopping center in recent years, locals admit that the city holds scant attractions for young adults, and certainly no nightlife.
Michael Neuvirth, a native of Detroit who has lived in Modi'in almost since its beginning, is optimistic about the options that the new Azrieli mall will offer teens. "I think the mall will make a big difference for kids," he says. "Right now they all go to Azrieli in Tel Aviv - instead they'll go to the one in Modi'in."
Regarding the quality of life in Modi'in, for Neuvirth, the slow accumulation of desirable elements in a new city is a natural part of its development process. "The Ministry of Housing had a master plan and now it's finally come to fruition... originally there was nothing, no makolet, no supermarket, now look what we have."
With its many large, well-tended parks and greenery adorning apartment fronts, Modi'in has more of a suburban than an urban feel to it. There are relatively few single people here - the overwhelming majority is comprised of married couples with young children.
There are also few jobs in Modi'in proper, requiring most residents to commute outside Modi'in for work. While the train is intended to reduce the commute time to Tel Aviv, the success of the train in doing so is not yet assured; it is meant to replace 3,400 cars per day, but there are only 320 parking spaces by the train station.
Furthermore, the road to the train station only runs one way, and leads to the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, so that car and rail commuters will be sharing the same road. The bus is another option, but residents have expressed dissatisfaction with the bus service, as it runs sporadically later in the day.
Simon Plosky, a managing editor for Honest Reporting and a native Londoner, admits that although he enjoys living in Modi'in, he welcomes the addition of more urban elements. "If you're working [in Modi'in] during the day, it's like Yom Kippur every day - there's very little movement, it's quiet," says Plosky, who often works from home.
On the other hand, Neuvirth, who has been living in Modi'in since 1997, feels that there's plenty to do. Bowling, pool and swimming, for example, are readily available in the area, he says, adding that when his friends visit him from Detroit, they go out at night to play pool.
For Neuvirth, the train will not make a big difference. "If everyone else takes the train, there will be more room for me on the bus."
The quiet noted by Plosky is part of the reason Modi'in is regarded as an ideal place to raise children. Its expansive parks and playgrounds are another, with many parents gathered to watch their kids play.
The parents tend to represent a cross-section of Modi'in's diverse population: secular and religious, Israeli and Anglo.
On a late afternoon at the Yishpro shopping center, children wearing colorful sandals or Crocs race up and down the shaded walkways with ice cream cones as their parents shop in the air-conditioned stores. Most of the kids do not appear to be above the age of 10. Modi'in, Weinreb notes, is home to 1,600 births per year - only slightly behind Bnei Brak.
If Modi'in is expanding slowly in terms of urban development, it is expanding rapidly in other ways. Weinreb estimates that at least 9,500 people move to Modi'in each year, and the schools are filled beyond capacity. The Yishpro shopping center has added numerous stores - many of them popular Israeli franchises - over the last few months.
The city is constantly in flux as a result of construction. In the recently added Buchman neighborhood, potholes are commonplace because roads are constantly being dug up. Some residents complain of heavy dust in the air from all the construction.
While people may disagree as to why real estate prices in Modi'in have risen so drastically - be it the train, the quality of life, or its proximity to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem - that the city can no longer be defined by its affordability is not in dispute.
"It's a seller's market," says Ze'ev Shumacher, a realtor in Modi'in who has lived there for eight years. He gave the example of original prices in Modi'in, in contrast to the current prices: Three-room apartments that were originally sold for $130,000 are now going for as much as $180,000, he says. And four-room apartments that were originally priced at $165,000 are now being sold for $200,000. People who bought early on, when Modi'in first began to take shape only a handful of years ago, can realize a substantial profit if they sell, he explains.
"Friends of ours bought in Buchman three-and-a-half years ago," says Freeman. "For $200,000 they bought a duplex garden apartment which is going now for $300,000."
The large and continuous influx of English-speaking olim has contributed to the area's rising real estate prices. Modi'in's popularity has grown in Israel as well as abroad, with real estate agents promoting it overseas as the next big thing, and an increasing number of immigrants are willing to buy on paper.
Many have bought in Buchman, a new neighborhood that is also regarded as the wealthiest in Modi'in. Gracing its streets are stately houses of a size and quality that are comfortably familiar to people fresh off the plane from the US and other Anglo countries.
Buchman is also known as Modi'in's most homogeneous neighborhood. Unlike other neighborhoods in Modi'in which offer a mix of types, Buchman populace is solidly Anglo and religious. Some residents refer to it as "the ghetto."
Real estate agent Shelly Levine disagrees. English-speaking olim who choose to live in Buchman do so because of a desire to integrate into Israeli society, she says.
Levine draws a contrast between Beit Shemesh, which is mostly American, and Buchman, which has an Israeli population. "Buchman is regular Israeli life with Americans in it," she says. "We're not doing another American ghetto."
Levine admits, however, that Buchman's higher prices winnow out many Israeli buyers and attract American and British olim, who are more readily able to afford higher-priced properties. "Buchman is about 60 percent English-speaking, but we don't want to get into a situation like Beit Shemesh, which is all English-speaking."
Levine adds that Israelis from more affluent areas in Petah Tikva and Kfar Saba have also been moving to Buchman.
The price of a house in Buchman, says Shumacher, is comparable to that of a house in Jerusalem's Ramot neighborhood. "A nice house in Buchman can go up to as much as $700,000."
Real estate agents have been zealously marketing Modi'in to various English-speaking aliya movements such as Nefesh B'Nefesh and Tehila. Shumacher himself was about to leave for Toronto at the time of this interview, having had previous success with olim from Canada. "I met with a couple from Toronto a few days ago. They came for just a week, and now they're making us an offer."
Levine has been promoting Buchman in the US "everywhere except in Borough Park." Her focus has been on such upper- and upper middle-class communities such as Teaneck and Englewood in New Jersey and the Five Towns on Long Island.
Buchman is even more popular among young couples from England than it is in the US, says Levine, because "British people are less provincial than Americans." British olim tend to be modern Bnei Akiva in their religious outlook, and prefer to live in a mixed society that is centrally located, she explains, rather than in a homogeneous community like Beit Shemesh.
Dimri Towers, one of Modi'in's most noticeable real estate developments, were largely bought out by South African olim when its apartments were still relatively cheap. The Towers, massive interconnected structures meant to resemble Roman aqueducts that were designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie, have been criticized recently by the city council as an eyesore, marring Modi'in's landscape.
If they had been built after the city center was more developed, Weinreb says, they would have blended better into the landscape because of the other buildings surrounding them.
An increase in new olim to Modi'in means an increase in the number of religious people in a city that was initially planned as a secular one. When Modi'in was just getting started, anti-religious sentiments were already in place in the form of a political party called Ir Hofshit (Free City).
There was a vocal segment of the population that passionately decried allowing religious elements into Modi'in, with anti-religious hostilities peaking in 1998. But Ir Hofshit lost the subsequent city council election, and most residentsof Modi'in deny that such hostility ever existed.
"When we first came here there was a very anti-religious atmosphere. People were arguing that religious people would convert secular kids," recalls Leiah Elbaum, who has resided in Modi'in for eight years. Elbaum and her husband had moved from Modi'in to Jerusalem. "When we first moved here... a journalist came up to us and said 'You're religious, don't you know this is a secular town? Why do you want to live here?' We told her that we have always lived in a mixed neighborhood, but she couldn't believe it."
But according to Elbaum, the animosity has faded over the years, though she says that the Modi'in press has occasionally tried to fan the flames of anti-religious sentiment. "We saw the hostility in the papers, but not in daily life," she says.
It may help that "Religious" in Modi'in terms tends to translate into modern Orthodox rather than haredi. Therefore the religious population blends more easily into a secular environment and makes no demands that interfere with secular life.
Nechama Parker, who lives in Givat Zvi - a neighborhood that is becoming popular among religious people - maintains that Modi'in is a tolerant community. She and her husband Martin represent a "mixed marriage" - she is Israeli and secular, he is Canadian and religious. The couple sends their children to Yachad, a school where religious and secular children learn together.
"No one was born here, so everyone is open to accepting new people, very open to new things," explains Parker. She dismisses the fear of religious people taking over because "anyone who comes [to Modi'in] knows it's not haredi... It's important that it be diverse."
Modi'in's development has been planned in two phases. Phase one is an expansion that will accommodate 120,000 people, nearly doubling the number of people who already live in Modi'in. Phase two, which is a more long-term goal, is a plan to expand the city to hold 250,000 people.
There has recently been some controversy in the city council as to whether or not the time is right to initiate phase two. Most residents feel that the flaws that have emerged in the planning of Modi'in should be corrected before the city is expanded further.
School overcrowding, for example, is a serious issue that needs to be resolved, as the city's population has been increasing at a much faster rate than its schools are equipped to handle. According to Weinreb, the government hasn't been providing Modi'in with enough funds for the building of schools and kindergartens.
"Every year, it's the same story - more people are moving in, so there's not enough classes for next year," says Elbaum.
A lack of municipal funds has also meant an insufficient number of synagogues. "After a year of walking to synagogue for 20 minutes each way, I decided I'd had enough," says Doron Bodner, who initiated the first minyan in the mainly secular neighborhood of Tzipor.
But the problem has not yet been corrected. The Housing Ministry, which is obligated by law to provide a synagogue for every neighborhood, has yet to follow through. As a result, residents have developed their own solutions. "We started a synagogue in one of the schools, but every year we have to move to a different room, or sometimes there isn't one," says Bodner. "It makes it a little hard for a religious community to develop."
Residents are also concerned with the preservation of the city's archaeological treasures, many of which have already been destroyed in the course of construction. Weinreb, who is writing a master's thesis on Modi'in's archaeology, waxes enthusiastic when asked about the issue, and is eager to turn Modi'in into a tourist attraction through the preservation and development of its historic sites. According to Weinreb, numerous archaeological sites have been uncovered in Modi'in, including a 30-dunam village from the Maccabean period.
There are also disputes as to how to expand. Environmentalists want to build up the existing city without expanding into the surrounding green areas. Others, who feel that one of Modi'in's main attractions is its greenery and parks, disagree.
Still, when it comes down to it, in spite of the problems, most Modi'in residents have mainly positive things to say about living in the city. Neuvirth sums it up when he says, "I'm a satisfied customer - and you can write that down."