A land without community, a community without land

A developer is looking to import an intact group of people to make aliya to a new neighborhood outside Jerusalem.

Housing units  (photo credit: Niv Elis)
Housing units
(photo credit: Niv Elis)
Theodor Herzl visited Jerusalem only once. The year was 1898, and the father of modern Zionism went for a stroll in the Judean Hills outside Jerusalem, where the panoramic view stretching from what is now Mevaseret Zion to Ein Kerem inspired him. He took a rest and planted a cypress tree.
One hundred and fifteen years have passed and a Canadian Zionist and businessman named Hershey Friedman is putting his own mark on the site where the tree grows.
“It hit my right heart right away,” Friedman says. “It was a most unusual site. I have looked at a lot of sites to build on, and this was unique.”
Having purchased the land, called Motza, and placing its development under the care of Azorim, one of the largest real estate developers in the Jewish state, Friedman, who bought the company when it hit some debt troubles a few years back, is trying to pioneer a new kind of Zionism there. Instead of building and selling off condos one by one, he seeks to import an entire community, intact, to settle the land.
“We know that people, especially in Europe, are looking for a new home due to the situation in their countries – the anti-Semitism in their countries is pretty bad and not getting better,” he says.
“Rather than having one person here or one person there come live, or go to Netanya and live in skyscrapers, it’s a chance to live together,” he continues.
“The concept for us was, let’s create a community and you can get 40 or 50 families to live together and be very, very happy.”
But going about finding such a community is no easy task. The community in question would have to be well-off to afford the $1 million-and-up price tag for each unit. Einat Zakariya, the company’s vice president of marketing and sales, reckons that it will consist of families who have always dreamed of living in Israel and whose children have already left home.
Azorim has scouts in Europe and the US looking for a group that fits the bill.
“You’ve heard of A Star Is Born?” asks the project’s sales manager, Itzik Levi, referencing the Israeli version of American Idol. “What we want will be ‘A Community is Born.’” But even when there’s interest from families that want to move together, getting the idea off the ground is more difficult. “It’s a difficult thing to actualize, we haven’t seen it happen yet,” says Avi Silverman, a community and education adviser for aliya organization Nefesh B’Nefesh.
Yet all evidence suggests that moving together as a group would be beneficial for all involved.
“When you’re leaving your homeland and closing up shop and you’re sharing that with other people, that’s a tremendous asset,” says Silverman. Nefesh B’Nefesh actively seeks to help new olim tie up loose ends before moving to Israel.
When immigrants arrive in Israel, having others in the same boat is also hugely helpful for settling in. “The more support you have, the greater your success, because you’re not living in a vacuum,” Silverman says, adding that a key element of whether new olim stay is how much help they have in weathering the inevitable bumps associated with moving to a new place.
In fact, Nefesh B’Nefesh is advising the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund on building a similar community (though without the hefty price tag) in the Negev. In Karmit, not far from Beersheba, the groups are seeking to attract olim who have already settled in Israel to live together as a community.
“It is modeled as a southern community whose focus is having olim inculcate themselves into Israeli culture,” says Silverman. By focusing on the specific issues olim face, such as finding places to go for national and religious holidays and children who need extra help with Hebrew, the groups hope to build a community that will help the olim better acclimate to Israeli culture.
“We try to get people out of the ‘Anglo bubble,’ but Karmit will have emphasis and sensitivity for olim,” Silverman explains. The community is expected to open its doors in 2015.
Back in Motza, however, Friedman isn’t concerned about the difficulties of bringing a community together. “It works beautifully in the United States. If you go to Florida, to Fort Lauderdale or Boca, gated communities are very popular. It starts out as a small group, and then their friends want to join and their friends, and it’s very popular,” says Friedman.
Azorim is working diligently to fit its luxury units to the specifications of the land.
To maintain the natural feel, no space is allotted for cars above ground, relegating them to basement garages accessible from the road.
Both the land’s protected status and the insistence of its neighbors in ritzy Upper Motza precluded building high-rises, pushing the developers toward a smaller, more intimate building plan.
And then, of course, is the question of what to do with “The White House,” the rundown building at the center of Motza that served as a convalescent home for Jerusalem’s wealthy in its glory days.
“It was an exclusive area where the people of Israel went for retirement,” says Friedman.
Preservation laws require that the neoclassical facade of the historic structure, built in 1927, be maintained. But Azorim wasn’t sure what exactly to do with the space that would stand at the center of its 218 new units. That, they decided, would be best left to the desires of the community who will live there.
“We want to fit the place to the community,” says Zakariya, before adding, “We want a community that needs the place, [a community] for which it fulfills a dream.”
But whatever the difficulties of finding the right community, Friedman has faith in the land. “It’s the most magnificent view that you can have,” he says. “It is just too unique to be a simple project.”