Efrat: The story of one of Israel's most unique, successful settlements

Efrat Regional Council head Oded Revivi spoke to the Magazine about the Israeli settlement municipality he has managed for the last 15 years.

 NEW BEGINNINGS: First day of school, 1983. (photo credit: Libby Reichman/Sippur Mekomi Archives)
NEW BEGINNINGS: First day of school, 1983.
(photo credit: Libby Reichman/Sippur Mekomi Archives)

Efrat isn’t your typical settlement in Judea and Samaria.

Always considered a bit different from its neighbors in the Gush Etzion area, and definitely from other further settlements, for years it was seen as the liberal version of the settler movement.

As an example, residents of Efrat have always maintained a very close relationship with the Arab villages that border it. If you come to Efrat, it’s worth visiting a store owned by a Palestinian family right outside the northern gate. Many of the Jewish residents are regular customers and buy Palestinian-made Coca-Cola cans or home appliances. Before Sukkot, many of the residents even buy sukkot that are custom-made in Bethlehem.

Efrat, formerly known as Efrata, is a vibrant Israeli settlement nestled in the picturesque Judean Mountains. Its captivating story began in 1983, when it was established as a flourishing community.

Situated just 12 km. south of Jerusalem, Efrat finds itself gracefully positioned between the historic cities of Bethlehem and Hebron. This beautiful settlement is located approximately 6.5 km. east of the Green Line.

Perched at an impressive altitude of up to 960 m. above sea level, Efrat boasts breathtaking views of its enchanting surroundings. Spanning across a sprawling expanse of approximately 1,500 acres, this settlement boasts a huge percentage of English-speaking immigrants.

 EFRAT REGIONAL Council head Oded Revivi with then-housing and construction minister Ze’ev Elkin, who was paying a visit in 2022. (credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
EFRAT REGIONAL Council head Oded Revivi with then-housing and construction minister Ze’ev Elkin, who was paying a visit in 2022. (credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)

Recognized as the unofficial capital of Gush Etzion, Efrat exudes a unique identity within this region. It’s worth noting that while Efrat is geographically located within Gush Etzion, it operates independently from the Gush Etzion Regional Council.

Oded Revivi: Running the local council of Israel's Efrat settlement

LEADING THE Efrat local council since November 2008 is Mayor Oded Revivi, a distinguished attorney and a lieutenant-colonel (res.) in the IDF. Revivi met with the Magazine this week and shared the unique aspects of the municipality he has been managing for the past 15 years.

The 54-year-old Revivi was born and raised in Jerusalem, but decided to move with his wife 29 years ago, since “we couldn’t afford a house in Jerusalem and at the time we could afford a house in Efrat,” he said. Revivi explained that back in the late 1990s, it was a 15-minute drive between Jerusalem and Efrat; they therefore felt as if they were in a suburb of Israel’s capital.

He remembers with distinction the moment when he first met with the rabbi of Efrat, Shlomo Riskin, while falling in love with his unique and lovable personality. “We moved in the summer and the first times I met him were during the High Holy Days. On the eve of Yom Kippur, he came to our synagogue, as he did annually, visiting all synagogues in Efrat, and delivering a sermon.

“Rabbi Riskin was a lot younger then, and Efrat was also smaller; he would visit all synagogues across the settlement on the High Holy Days and on Simhat Torah, but he would also visit every bar mitzvah prayer service, as well as bat mitzvah and other positive events.”

Revivi explained that this wasn’t an easy task. “Efrat is unique in its geography,” he said with a smile. “We are spread out in a very narrow and long line. There isn’t one center for Efrat and therefore there is a lot of walking to do on Shabbat if you want to get from one side to the other.” Revivi laughed that Efrat essentially looks like a “narrow and long hot dog.”

His wife, Lisa, is originally from the UK and the two of them met when Revivi studied law in London. Asked if it was weird for him, as a Sabra, to live in a settlement full of English-speaking olim, where many times you may only hear English on the streets, he said, “It was very strange at the beginning.”

“People would make fun of me; at the first apartment building we lived in, I was the only one who only had an Israeli passport.” He explained that his wife and children all have British passports, but he wasn’t eligible as the husband of a UK resident. “It was kind of the inside joke of the building,” he laughed.

Because of Efrat’s unique composition of residents, since becoming mayor, Revivi insisted that all of the materials and announcements of the municipality will also be translated into English. “When I ran my campaign for the first time, we received complaints from residents who couldn’t understand the materials we published, since they were all in Hebrew. We implemented two languages in the campaign and from the first day in office, I asked that this become our standard. All of our announcements come out in Hebrew and in English.”

The fact that Efrat is narrow and long has additional challenges that the municipality has to deal with.

Revivi explained that “everything is much more challenging.” For example, the water and sewer lines are longer, and road maintenance is also very expensive.

As opposed to other settlements, Efrat has never been surrounded by a serious security fence. “The founding members of Efrat made it clear from the start that it is not possible for us to feel as if we are locked behind a fence, as Jews who returned to the Land of Israel.”

Therefore, the decision was to guard the settlement in other ways. “They also felt as if a fence would increase friction with our Palestinian neighbors. There is this no man’s land, a blurred area between Efrat and the Palestinian neighbors, and this... create[s] calmness.”

Therefore, in the middle of Efrat, in the valley between the Tamar and Zayit neighborhoods, there are agricultural lands owned by Palestinians and they enter Efrat to cultivate the plots, to this day. “We believe in bridges instead of building walls,” he said.

As Riskin mentioned in his interview, Efrat has a long history of positive and healthy relationships with its Palestinian neighbors. “When I was learning the role of mayor, on my to-do list was to meet with all of the heads of the Palestinian leaders in the area. Just like I needed to meet the person who was in charge of education, I needed to meet with them. This was the heritage that my predecessors left me and I was honored to continue.

“My challenge was to preserve and maintain these relationships,” Revivi emphasized, adding that “I can’t take credit as the one who initiated them.”

Yet despite murderous attacks in the Gush Etzion area, how does one maintain direct neighborly relations? “They’re not going anywhere and neither are we, therefore it’s better to get along,” Revivi said.

There are fascinating ways both sides have been assisting each other. Revivi revealed that since Efrat has a population of almost 300 doctors, nurses, and medical paramedics, the settlement operates an emergency medical care center that also accepts Palestinians. “There is not a week that goes by without the evacuation of a Palestinian to our emergency center,” he said proudly.

In addition, Efrat also has a water tower that supplies water to two Palestinian villages. “We create jobs for them with the understanding that if their plate is full, the relationship will be better and there will be less friction.”

A number of years ago, this relationship probably saved lives. The mukhtar (a village chief in Arabic) of one of the villages called one of the previous mayors and said that he has “identified the movement of suspicious people to the Efrat area,” Revivi revealed, adding that “in retrospect, we know that they were terrorists who wanted to sabotage our settlement, if not more than that.”

THE FOUNDING core of settlers in Efrat was secular and religious, who hoped to create a “mixed” municipality, but not enough secular Israelis moved there, resulting in a settlement that is mainly religious-Zionist. Revivi shared that when he was elected mayor, he was told that the small secular community was promised a school that would be more suitable to their values. In 2013, the municipality finally received building permits to increase by 60% and they therefore needed to build two more elementary schools.

But it turned out that there weren’t enough residents who identified as secular in order to open a secular school. “An in-depth process made us understand that we don’t need a secular school, but a school for families who want to send their children without a religious dress code.”

Revivi said that some of the principals would complain that there were young boys who came to school without a kippah and explained that their father doesn’t wear one either.

“A decision was made that we would build a school that would be part of the Zerem Ha’meshalev (the In- tegrating Stream, public schools for children from religious and secular families).” The Alumim school now exists in the Dagan neighborhood and accepts students from Efrat and other settlements in the area.

Another fascinating phenomenon is the fact that Efrat has double the national percentage of special education students in the municipality. “Our schools have been accepting special education children in regular schools for four decades, way before this was popular in Israel,” Revivi boasted. 

“We received the education award twice in the last decade, for our combination of special education with regular education. In addition, many people have been moving to Efrat from all across Israel because of our special education system, as well as families who made aliyah to Efrat, in order to make sure their child who needs special assistance will be taken care of.”

For many years, the teenagers of Efrat were considered to have been getting into trouble, drinking alcohol, and using illegal substances. Revivi is aware of this stigma but claims that it isn’t relevant today and is a story of the past.

“For years, we have hosted the highest percentage of officers of high school graduates; 25% of our youth become officers in the IDF. There were issues in the past, but luckily it doesn’t represent our amazing youth, who have also been celebrating our 40 years of existence.”