With its wide tree-lined avenues, ornate traffic circles and splendid villas set in immaculate gardens, Kochav Yair looks like the perfect town. No high-rise buildings sully the horizon. No slums or garbage dumps are discernible.
Known for its high quality of life, its large proportion of immigrants from English-speaking countries and its religious/secular harmony, the town is indeed a veritable paradise - but not for everybody. Longtime residents who have moved out say it was fine for raising a family, but there's nothing there for older children, post-army or students. Also, since the construction of Route 6 and the new access road from Kfar Saba, getting in and out of the town has become hazardous and time-consuming to the point that all that elegant living once you get there is less and less of a compensation.
The town, founded as a concept in 1981, joined forces with nearby Tzur Yigal in 2003, making a joint population of approximately 11,000. The name, Kochav Yair, Yair's star, was named for the pre-state underground fighter Yair Stern, the leader of Lehi. As Jonathan Rimon, the American-born mayor of the town from 1998 to 2003, points out, Stern is German for star, so the name is actually a translation of Yair Stern. All this might be a clue to who conceived and gave birth to the town back when it was still on the drawing board.
For Rosalind and Shai Harari, living in Kochav Yair was fine in 1986 but much of the charm had faded by 2005, when they moved into a penthouse in Ra'anana.
"We moved there to have a community life for the children," recalls Rosalind, who for many years worked as a writer for Metro, The Jerusalem Post's Tel Aviv supplement. "At the beginning, one could choose from several models of houses and there was nothing too ostentatious, which we liked. The facilities, like the pool and tennis courts, were there from the start, possibly even before the houses."
The Hararis decided to move out after all their children had grown up and left and they felt increasingly isolated.
"No one pops in for coffee, it's still off the beaten track," says Rosalind. The final straw was the building of a new access road to accommodate cars aiming for Route 6. "It's not a road, it's an obstacle race, a total nightmare," she says with feeling.
The road, a winding, two-lane track with a solid white line running most of its seven-kilometer length, is a recipe for disaster, given the propensity of Israeli drivers to pass rather than keep to a speed limit.
"There have been so many accidents, and if a truck overturns or something like that you can be delayed for hours," she says. "I don't see how any engineer could have planned such a road."
Solly Sachs, director-general of the World Mizrachi Movement and a Kochav Yair resident, concurs, especially as his son was badly injured in an accident on that road. But for him the proximity of Route 6 is a blessing.
"It's saved my life," he says. "I travel every day to my office in Jerusalem and if I wanted to be on time, I had to leave at six in the morning. Now, thanks to the motorway, I can leave at eight." For Sachs, who came from South Africa in 1991, one of the best attributes of Kochav Yair is the harmony between religious and secular, which is a model for any community.
"About a quarter of the residents are religious and there is more than tolerance between the communities, there's a feeling that if someone from the secular world wants to make a bar mitzva in the Orthodox synagogue, of which there are three, he will be encouraged to learn and participate in services. We run special programs for bar mitzva preparation and the rabbi is very involved in catering to the non-religious segment."
THIS LIVE-and-let-live approach was one of the many things that appealed to Yitzhak Mayer when he moved to Kochav Yair with his wife Rivka in 1994. As a former ambassador to Belgium and Switzerland, he decided to leave Jerusalem, where he had spent much of his life, for the greener pastures of a small town, where he could have a private home and also own a small plot.
"For me it's a tragedy that this country is split on so many levels, and particularly in regard to the religious/secular divide," he says. "People just don't know about each other's lives. Here, although there is a religious school and a non-religious school, they share a playground and so they get to meet and learn to respect each other. Also the two youth movements, the Scouts and Bnei Akiva, are physically close to each other and this means they're not strangers."
He points out that this inter-community tolerance percolates into other areas of life. "Very few people mow their lawns on Shabbat, for instance. And people drive in and out, but it doesn't bother anyone."
If this aspect seems the way things should be, he cites the examples of Elkana and Efrat as communities in which the plan was to mix secular and religious but it didn't work. "In both places all the non-religious left because they found life intolerable. Here it's a model of coexistence."
Sachs voiced similar feelings, pointing out that the sports center operates on Shabbat, while the swimming pool offers separate hours for men and women in the summer, an example of intercommunal tolerance.
But not everything is so lovely. While Sachs has only positive things to say about Kochav Yair (as opposed to the road to it), Mayer, a relative newcomer, discerns several problems.
"Because the standard of living is high - most families have two cars for instance - it means both parents are working and children are left to their own devices or are raised by minders. Then after a certain age, they want more than the local community center can offer, and it's not unusual to see 12-year-olds hitchhiking to the big city [Kfar Saba] for a taste of night-life."
One person who would totally agree with this is Zvika Markovitch, 25, who has lived in Kochav Yair since he was six.
"It was fine growing up here, but now most of my friends have moved out and I intend to as soon as I get a job. Even Kfar Saba hasn't got anything to offer to people of our age; we want Tel Aviv, to be able to enjoy the pubs and nightlife."
The second problem that Mayer singles out is from the perspective of someone who is slightly older than the average resident.
"There's a whole group of people who are growing older, becoming grandparents, and eventually the town has to create solutions for them, such as sheltered living apartments. In a large city you don't feel that the whole town is getting older and people find their own solutions, but here there's something artificial about it."
In contrast to the legendary religious tolerance, there is little if any interaction between residents of different ethnic backgrounds. The South Africans stay together, the sabras stay together, and people like Ettie Markovitch, Zvika's mother, who immigrated from Russia in the early 1970s and moved to Kochav Yair 20 years ago, found that after the first flush of mutual hospitality from fellow synagogue-goers, there is little socializing with other groups.
"When we first came and joined the synagogue everyone invited everyone and Shabbatot were one big social round - kiddushes, and lunches and seuda shlishit - every woman wanted to show what a good balabusta she was," she says. "Slowly it cooled down and everybody found their own friends."
Since there are very few other Russian religious families, the Markovitches find they gravitate most naturally to Israeli-born couples, while their best friends come from the same small town in Russia as they do.
English-speakers have a strong presence in Kochav Yair, and one of them even became mayor. However Jonathan Rimon, now 53, has lived in Israel since he was 17 and has a strong army background.
Ettie, who works as a mortgage adviser in a Kfar Saba bank, is reasonably happy with her town, but has several reservations. "I think the link with Tzur Yigal was not beneficial to us. They seem to get more in terms of infrastructure and financial investment than we do."
THE REASON for the amalgamation was to reduce the expense of two municipalities with two separate administrations. It was imposed by the Interior Ministry and according to Rimon, the arrangement is working well. "It's true that they seem to get more of the budget allocations, but they started out with less," he says.
The mayor, Ya'acov Maman, hotly denies that there is any budgetary discrimination against Kochav Yair. He was mayor of Tzur Yigal for three years before the amalgamation and claims that he inherited a whopping NIS 20 million deficit.
"Kochav Yair was almost bankrupt, the water bill hadn't been paid in months and the public areas were looking down and out. The amalgamation meant the government had to help, since it pushed for it," he says, "and in the last two years we've spent NIS 3 million to change the sewers and pavements and improve the gardens. We've also got money from the Education Ministry because the number of pupils doubled. But the neighbor's grass is always greener."
Regarding complaints about the access road, he says that although the blame can't be put at his door, he has approached the Transportation Ministry and had it declared a "red road," which means it is recognized as dangerous and will eventually be replanned. The residents aren't holding their breath.
The future is rosy as far as Maman is concerned. The two communities are becoming more and more integrated, with joint cultural activities and shared amenities, which he feels enriches both of them. He has a vision for the not-too-distant future in which small units will be built to accommodate the aging founding generation, for whom the family houses are now too large but who don't want to leave the town.
"I have encountered huge opposition to this idea - narrow-minded people who maintain it will create slums, which is nonsense," he says, "and I will definitely do it. It's been passed by committee and in less than a year we will start to market it. The plan is to sell to about 40 percent local people and 60 percent from outside. Yes, there will be plenty of opposition - but it won't stop me."
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