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(photo credit: Courtesy)
A single snapshot could capture the entire settlement of Haruv's long row of temporary houses built on a solitary street. But that picture would hardly encapsulate the essence of this community, 20 kilometers east of Kiryat Gat. Located next to the agricultural community of Shekef, Haruv's one street, adorned with playgrounds at each end and dogs cavorting with unabashed freedom, is only a temporary stopover for the community of 35 families awaiting construction of a permanent location atop the green hills two kilometers away.
Settlements have long been ideologically connected to land and Haruv is no exception. What is exceptional, however, is its one-of-a-kind commitment to what ecologists call a "sustainable community." In plain terms, that means a hypothetical walk through the yet unbuilt permanent neighborhoods will showcase an environmentally friendly infrastructure and an agreement with nature to preserve as many of its elements as possible.
According to Elad Topel, an ecologist with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and one of the founders of Haruv, such an environmentally friendly community will ideally entail number of strategies including electricity generated by solar power, gray water (shower and kitchen water) recycling, the use of thick walls and double window paneling to prevent drastic changes in inside temperature and a water-friendly pavement that filters in rainwater and sifts out harmful liquids like motor oil.
The original idea for a sustainable community was the brainchild of the Or Movement, a grass-roots organization dedicated to settling the country's emptiest areas. The proposal appealed to Topel and, along with two other families, he began to recruit candidates.
What happened next, however, was the evolution of a philosophy that in many ways has taken precedence over Haruv's original goal of building a nature-friendly community. During the original planning discussions, the community members made a decision to create a settlement composed of half religious and half secular residents.
IN A COUNTRY where ideological beliefs are often at the root of lifestyle choices, the 35 families living in the two-year-old community are an unusual mixture of secular and religious Jews making a conscious effort to learn about, befriend, respect and live with one another. Practically speaking, this means educating their children in the same schools and sharing in daily rituals together.
"Every holiday we try to do something that is connected to both streams and every Saturday there is a lot of activity around the se'uda shlishit (the third meal on the Sabbath)," Topel said.
He considers himself secular, but said that both groups take great pains to accommodate one another. He has started keeping glass plates in his house so that his neighbors who observe kashrut can eat there and says he wouldn't dream of bringing non-kosher food to a community barbecue.
Topel readily acknowledges that it might seem that the non-religious members do most of the compromising for their religious neighbors. He emphasized, however, the mutual respect that the two groups show to each other through joint observance of holidays and understanding of each other's lifestyle.
So how do the observant members of the community express their compromise for those less observant? "I won't purposely ride my motorcycle on Shabbat now," Topel said, "but if I chose or needed to ride it, my [religious] neighbors would never tell me not to."
Both the religious and secular members are adamant about the appeal of the educational possibilities for their children as the primary conduit for their philosophy. The community plans to create one school for both religious and secular children.
Yael and Amir Ellenberg came on board during the initial planning stages after finishing their studies at Ben-Gurion University precisely because they valued the beliefs of respect and mutual reciprocity touted by community members.
"It was important for us to be in a place where there were many different kinds of people along the religious scale," said Yael, whose first son was born last year in Haruv.
For Raphael Zerbib, Haruv's way of thinking was attractive because he grew up observant in Efrat and remembers young people who became unreligious and were turned into social pariahs by the community.
"If my kids decide not to be religious, it is okay with me and they will have the support and education for what they want," he said.
According to Topel, in the secular world, "people are afraid that their children will get new ideas from the religious ones. It's really hard to convince people from the outside to bring their kids."
THE COMMUNITY MAY not have to, however. More than 20 babies have been born in Haruv's temporary location in the last two years. Haruv's demographics are almost exclusively well-educated young couples - Topel is the community's only bachelor.
In addition, the professions of its members - lawyers, engineers and hi-tech specialists - put most of them into an economic bracket in which they could easily afford to live elsewhere if not for their ideological commitment to the community.
"You need some courage to do this, and we are choosing to live here," Yael emphasized.
Some families have already left, however, frustrated not by the beliefs of the community, but by bureaucratic hassles. Haruv still doesn't have phone lines, and the residents rely instead upon cellphones and cables for Internet. Outdoor electricity was established only last year and the water has been known to stop running from time to time.
Although the temporary settlement was funded by the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund, Haruv's leaders must often deal with the government bureaucracy over the construction of the permanent site.
"Sometimes the government fails to see the connection between us and our new location," Topel said, describing requests from officials to take in 600 people or suggesting that the temporary community stay put and the new location be given to other types of settlements.
Both propositions would undermine what Haruv is trying to achieve, community members agree. Large groups of people would upset the fundamental balance between the secular and religious populations. (Parallel to Haruv's lone street is another single street with evacuees from Gush Katif also awaiting permanent homes. Although the two groups rarely interact, they do share the playgrounds and have not experienced any animosity, according to Haruv's members.)
More importantly, though, Topel hopes through careful planning of its permanent home the community will be able to return to its original ecological roots. "If we had gone there originally, instead of coming here, we would have had to just flatten the hill because of time constraints, and the people would have built houses as they received their permits," he said. With advance planning, the group is working on creating neighborhoods that can eventually accommodate 250 families while adhering to the guidelines of ecological sustainability.
"The synagogue can be removed from the traffic, and the houses will be part of the scenery," Topel said.