Heeding the call

Dozens of students and young couples have answered the Lod Community Foundation’s invitation to settle in the city, including Itzik Shmuli, the head of the National Union of Israeli Students.

'Welcome to the Student Village' a sign reads 521 (photo credit: ARIEL ZILBER)
'Welcome to the Student Village' a sign reads 521
(photo credit: ARIEL ZILBER)
A little over four years ago, Aviv Wasserman had the world in the palm of his hand. He was young, single, educated, and he had just completed his studies at the prestigious London School of Economics. The Holon native had his pick of major international cities he could have called home while pulling in a handsome salary.
“I could’ve stayed in London, or gone to New York,” he says from the office of a spacious home that would seamlessly blend into the landscape of an American suburb, but is instead ensconced in a posh neighborhood of one of Israel’s most hardscrabble cities, Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab town of over 70,000 residents.
“There’s something very significant that is happening here,” says Wasserman, the founder of the Lod Community Foundation. “Lod is a city with a great deal of potential. It’s in the center of the country, it’s close to the airport...
On the other hand, Lod is known as the city of crime and evil, a place where you can’t walk around freely, where there are always shootings. It’s not known as a place where normative people can walk around. There’s a tremendous gap between the potential of the city and the reality on the ground, and that’s what really attracted me.”
While many Israelis saw Lod as a crime-ridden backwater, Wasserman saw opportunity for a town whose “strategically advantageous location” – a 15- minute drive from Tel Aviv, a half-hour ride to Jerusalem, and a stone’s throw from the country’s international airport – could be a draw for businesses and corporations.
Wasserman’s foundation took it upon itself to network with some of the country’s biggest names in business, including Yarom Ariav, the former director-general of the Finance Ministry who is currently a successful entrepreneur, and Yossi Vardi, the well-known venture capitalist who made his name in hi-tech.
“All of these people took upon themselves a certain mission and task in the city,” Wasserman says. “We brought corporations like Bank Leumi, Mizrahi Bank, Migdal insurance, all of these companies have offices and buildings in Lod.
They have committed long-term to Lod. We also have philanthropic organizations that have committed long-term to the city. But we understood that at the end of the day, all of these people don’t put their heads down on their pillows here. While it’s important that these people are here, they still come from outside of the city. They have taken upon themselves a long-term commitment to support the city.”
Eighteen months ago, Wasserman and Ariav, who serves on the board of the Lod Community Foundation, made it their mission to inject new blood into the city by luring young couples and college students there. Since then, dozens from out of town have heeded the call of, among others, Itzik Shmuli, the head of the National Union of Israeli Students, and taken up residence in the city.
Shmuli burst into the national consciousness last year as one of the young up-and-coming leaders exhorting the masses to take to the streets in protest at the socioeconomic predicament that has been weighing down the middle class as well as college and university students.
Now, Shmuli, who is considered one of the hottest commodities on the political scene, is summoning his powers of persuasion in exhorting students to move to Lod, the city which he himself has called home since January.
“Last year, we understood that without attracting young people to Lod as a city where they can live, there will always be something missing,” says Wasserman, who conceived the idea of building a student village in Lod that would attract youngsters who are pursuing academic degrees from the country’s top institutions.
“Having Itzik Shmuli urging students to come to Lod is a natural continuation of the social protest, and it’s wonderful.”
“Students are the ‘low-hanging fruit’ for anyone trying to lure a high-quality population,” he says. “Most of them are single, most don’t have children, and most of them are not homeowners, so it’s much easier for them to move around.”
Since making the highly publicized move to Lod five months ago, Shmuli has been surprised at the response from other students who have followed in his footsteps.
“This is a direct continuation of the social protest from last summer,” he says. “While we have many expectations and demands of the government to fix a lot of things, we, the young people, need to be part of the change that we want to see here in Israeli society. We need to ask ourselves where we as young people can contribute to society, where society needs us, and to get involved in its weaker points. Who better than us students to do that?” The student union chief said that while Lod does present far less of an economic burden for its residents, the cost of living is not the main selling point for prospective movers.
“We are doing this to fulfill a need for social activism,” he says. “This is Zionism in 2012. How can we contribute to Israeli society and to make it better and more just? Whoever leaves their comfortable lives in Tel Aviv and Givatayim to take up residence in Lod doesn’t do it strictly for economic reasons, but mainly due to social reasons, though the economic situation does play a role, of course.”
Shmuli says that a large influx of students could change people’s perception of the city, which is in need of more business investment and philanthropic ventures.
“We have a very simple goal,” he says. “Lod is in crisis, and I believe that having anywhere from 200 to 300 students [move into the city] can turn this place from a crisis zone to a success story. There needs to be an expression of this on many levels.”
Shmuli says that aside from living in the city, students will be willing to give back to the community by providing afternoon day care and educational guidance for at-risk youth. The biggest challenge, though, will be psychological.
Shmuli’s efforts are geared toward raising cash as well as convincing more youngsters to join him in Lod. By the start of this fall semester, he is hoping that 150 new students will call Lod home. Since he moved to town, 35 students have relocated to Lod, with five more due to move their next week.
“What we are doing is the right thing for Israeli society,” he says.
On Herzl Street in northern Lod, a student dormitory founded by Ayalim Association, an organization whose goal is to attract students to economically developing cities and towns, is ringed by an iron fence. The two-story structure is still in the construction stages, though the half that has already been built is now inhabited by over 20 students – religious, secular and Arab – from Tel Aviv University, the Open University, the Weizmann Institute of Science and local agricultural schools.
Students make a concerted effort to integrate into the community by entertaining and mentoring troubled youth, staging public “hug-a-thons” in malls and shopping centers, and offering discounted, second-hand clothing to the poor.
According to Wasserman, students are not the only targeted demographic that is being relied upon to make Lod a toprate metropolis.
“Young couples from Tel Aviv who aren’t students have also started to come here, which is great because these couples become families who put down roots here and build communities,” he says.
AVITAL BLONDER, a 28-year-old psychologist, grew up in Jerusalem and earned her degree at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. Like many graduates, she relocated to Tel Aviv. While reveling in all that Israel’s cultural center has to offer, Blonder felt that there was something missing from her life, a void that could be filled through community service.
“After the social protests, I took it upon myself to build a community of youngsters who were dedicated to social activism,” she says. “This is what led me to move to Lod.”
Blonder, who has been living in Lod for the past four months, is one of 11 transplants who relocated to the city as part of Kama, a Beersheba-based organization that encourages youngsters to take part in forming communities that promote social activism and grassroots initiatives. Since Kama’s arrival in Lod, it has worked in concert with a number of other movements.
“Every day, I meet with people to discuss how to get involved in the community and to give back,” she says. “Living here has given newfound significance to my life, and our mission is to bring a significant number of people who believe in the same thing.”
Blonder says that the social protests did not give her the impetus to move to Lod, though it did “provide a push.” She added that there was no discernible difference in her new life, save for the improved state of her bank account.
After paying NIS 7,500 a month for a four-room apartment in the trendy Neveh Tzedek quarter in Tel Aviv, she is now paying just NIS 2,500 for an apartment of the same size.
“My quality of life has improved compared to when I was living in Tel Aviv,” she says. “And if I want to go out in Tel Aviv, I just get in the car and drive there. It’s really not that much different now.”
Blonder says she has received considerable support from friends and relatives who frequently visit her and express appreciation for her initiative. Slowly but surely, the perception of Lod will begin to change among the general public.
“The biggest thing that is holding the city back is the way in which Lod is portrayed in the media,” she says. “Those of us who live here see the positive aspects of the city, like the rich history and the wonderful people here. Most of what is said and written about Lod in the press is not representative of what this city really is.”
The youth movement into Lod, which is largely secular in nature, does not carry the same political overtones that have been a common byproduct of efforts by the religious Zionist Garin Torani stream to increase their presence in mixed towns across Israel. While the religious-nationalist elements have been the subject of controversy, the students have been welcomed with open arms.
“It’s really great what they are doing,” says Sami el-Nakib, the owner of a convenience store on Herzl Street, just across the street from the Ayalim student village. “It’s much better having them here than the settlers.”
El-Nakib gestures toward the large construction cranes on the other side of the neighborhood that protrude into Lod’s modest skyline, where new apartment complexes are being built, presumably for religious Jews.
“The students give back to the community,” he says. “They invest in Lod. Whoever comes here to help the community is welcome, be they Jews or Arabs.”
Wasserman derives a sense of satisfaction as he looks back on his four years of activist networking since arriving from London.
“Lod is in a different strategic place now,” he says. “It’s at the point of no return, because we have brought a critical mass of quality people to the city. Things will only get better from here.”