Israeli firms carve out global market for Jerusalem stone

Christian groups and private contractors utilize stone in wide range of structures, from cathedrals to luxury hotels.

stone synagogue 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
stone synagogue 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem, the prized building material was the celebrated timber from the cedars of Lebanon, sent as a gift by the Phoenicians, and not the locally hewn Jerusalem stone.
If the sagacious king were alive today, he might be surprised to learn that the readily available, cheap building material he used to erect most of his mighty temple has become a wanted commodity for the construction of houses of worship, office buildings and luxury hotels thousands of kilometers away – much to the ire of local environmental organizations.
Over the past 20 years, the export of Jerusalem stone has become a multimillion dollar industry, employing hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians who quarry and process thousands of tons of the iconic stones on both sides of the 1967 border for use in construction around the world, from Australia to North America.
Jerusalem Gardens is one of a number of Israeli companies that specialize in the export of this building material. Ilan Ben-Ezri, its international market and sales director, estimated that his company had sold some 4,000 tons of Jerusalem stone last year, worth tens of millions of dollars, to clients abroad.
“Dolomitic limestone can be found all over the world, but Jerusalem stone is unique,” he explained. “Its hue can change even within a single quarry. The most popular kind is the hand-hewn melekh variety, which Jewish communities like because it was used to build the Western Wall. We’ve sold it to all the Jewish movements, including the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues.”
In addition to its unique character and history, Ben- Ezri said Jerusalem stone was also very robust.
“It’s defined as a class-3 stone, the most durable kind. It can be used in all sorts of applications and in all types of weather,” he said.
Over the past few years, Jerusalem Gardens has been involved with the construction of the Jewish Community Center in Staten Island, New York; Torat Emet Synagogue in Columbus, Ohio; and the impressive Levy Chapel at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, which have all incorporated Jerusalem stone in their design.
However, Jerusalem stone’s appeal is not limited to the Jewish community. Christian groups and private contractors have started using it in a wide range of structures, from cathedrals to luxury hotels. For instance, Jerusalem stone was used in the expensive renovation of New York’s Plaza Hotel, owned by Israeli tycoon Yitzhack Tshuva. In addition, many Christian groups like the idea of having a piece of Jerusalem in their houses of worship. Last week, a Brazilian church reportedly announced it would buy $8 million worth of Jerusalem stone imported from Israel to build a replica of the First Temple in Sao Paulo (see box).
However, large-scale quarrying in the Judean Hills also has adverse affects on the environment, says Itamar Ben-David, the chief planner of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Last month, a National Planning Committee which overlooks quarrying activities in Israel submitted a list of recommendations to the government, including a ban on the export of building materials such as Jerusalem stone from the country.
“Because Israel is a small country and we don’t have much land, one of our recommendations has been to ban the export of building materials from the country,” Ben- David told The Jerusalem Post. “If one has to negatively impact the environment – and we realize it is necessary, every country in the world needs quarries – then we should do so responsibly. We should only try to supply our own demands rather than becoming an exporter like Turkey or Italy.”
Ben-David, a member of the National Planning Committee, said the report also advised the Jerusalem Municipality to reconsider the Mandate-era law that requires all buildings in the city to be covered with Jerusalem stone because of the effects of quarries on the environment.
“There are plenty of substitutes for Jerusalem stone which resemble it,” he said.”If we’re considering limiting the use of Jerusalem stone in Jerusalem, than it goes without saying that we don’t think we should be exporting it.”
Ben-Ezri said he understood environmental organizations’ concerns, but argued that his company adhered to strict environmental regulations and created many jobs.
“When the quarry closes, we do everything to leave a minimal impact on the environment,” he said. “We take the environmental issue into consideration. But the export of Jerusalem stone is a relatively small operation in relation to its comprehensive use in local construction, and it brings us a lot of pride around the world.”
He added, “They’ve been quarrying stone here for 3,000 years. I don’t think we’ll run out soon.”