The Human Spirit: Taking on Lod

The city that once housed the Sanhedrin is today infamous for fraud, gangs and Jewish-Arab tensions

0102-sofer (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Imagine an advertisement that reads: In Ramat Elyashiv. Well-appointed units, in the country's No. 1 city named as a national project. New forward-thinking municipality. Exceptional intercity transportation. One-time offer: $100,000 for a four-bedroom flat. Sound attractive? But what if the city is already "No. 1" - not in excellence, but in crime, and may be the drug trafficking capital of the country? This city has indeed been designated a "national project" - by Public Security Minister Avi Dichter. A new mayor was appointed as a caretaker by the government. Large contingents of police and border police conduct regular sweeps through town. Intercity trains roll relentlessly through this crossroads today infamous for poverty and delinquency. Have I mentioned that the schools have low achievement scores? ARE YOU still ready to put down a deposit? The city is Lod - home to our primary link to the outside world, Ben-Gurion Airport. From a geographic point of view, it's the opposite of our country's periphery. In times past, Lod served as an important cultural and spiritual hub. Rabbi Akiva taught 24,000 students there. Later, the town was occupied by the crusaders, wrecked by Saladin, rebuilt by Richard the Lionheart. Jews fled Lod in the riots of 1921; Arabs left in the War of Independence. The partition plan rejected by the Arabs gave Lod to the Arab side, but when the post-War of Independence borders were fixed, Lod became an Israeli town. However, the locomotive of gentrification that transformed much of central Israel to prosperous suburbs didn't stop here. Instead, the city that once housed the Sanhedrin is today infamous for government fraud, gangs (even children's gangs!) and friction between the Jewish and Arab populations. BUT WHAT do you make of this: Despite everything I've said about Lod, the Ramat Elyashiv project mentioned above is sold out. All the buyers are Orthodox and veterans of the IDF or National Service. They're nearly all college graduates. Why are these young people hurrying to put down roots in Lod? That's what I asked Esti Greenfield, who with her husband Hagai Greenfield were among the first couples to invest their nest egg in a Lod apartment. The Greenfields just moved in last month; the bolts to one of the cribs haven't turned up. But the living room is all set: Bookshelves cover an entire wall and their brown-and-yellow Carmel carpet is unfurled on the floor. Esti is sitting on the rug, matching up animals in picture dominoes with their three preschoolers. Esti grew up in Petah Tikva, Hagai in Jerusalem. They're in their early 30s. When they were introduced by friends five years ago, Hagai was already living in Lod, a bachelor studying in a yeshiva, part of a nucleus of national-religious young people committed to social activism, in Hebrew called a garin torani. The yeshiva was headed by Rabbi Motti Diamont, and the Lod garin torani by Aaron Atias, 37, a local son/social activist. The members, religious young people from all over the country, were involved in a cluster of educational projects like after-school clubs and tutoring. They'd partnered with the Ministry of Education in trying to improve a local elementary school. But they didn't want to come into town like most teams of do-gooders for a year or so and then move on. On their first date, Hagai's dream of living permanently and bringing up children in Lod resonated with Esti's aspiration to contribute to society. "I wanted to live in a city with a lot of problems," Esti said, grinning. A petite woman, her hair covered with a dark scarf, she earned her master's degree and works as a school guidance counselor. She's not daunted by the city's reputation. She insists that the old-fashioned simplicity of life here suits her better than the competitiveness of the more affluent suburbs. After their wedding, she and Hagai rented an apartment in a 12-story building with only a handful of Orthodox residents. One of the neighbors in their previous building used a chance meeting in the elevator to corner Hagai and offer well-intentioned advice: "Be selfish. Move out while you can. Don't stay in Lod." "It had exactly the opposite effect on me from what he'd intended," said Hagai, a tall, lanky young man whose easy smile matches his wife's. He's back from afternoon prayers at a local synagogue where he's become a regular. He works as a school rabbi running educational programs to endear children to Judaism. FORMER PRIME minister Ariel Sharon set aside a building lot for the garin torani members in a rundown section of town. The idea behind the housing project is to signal to "stronger" Lod families that they don't have to leave and to encourage strong families to move in. Like Nahshon, who took the first step into the as-yet-undivided Red Sea, Esti and Hagai signed the contract for the not-yet-built project and transferred their money. "Oh how they rolled in laughter when we showed visitors the weed-filled lot among the shacks where our beautiful new apartment would one day stand," said Hagai. Esti and Hagai's only concern was whether or not they were acting correctly in planning to move into a building where everyone is religiously observant like them. "From a pragmatic view, there was no choice. We realized that to impact the schools in a positive way we need a large number of involved parents," said Esti. Garin torani offspring make up a third of their four-year-old daughter's nursery-school class. Many of their friends within the national religious sector moved to settlements in Judea and Samaria. "After Oslo, I stopped going to demonstrations. I felt like someone from Mea She'arim hurling rocks and shouting 'Shabbes' at passersby who don't understand why they're angry. The root of all problems in Israel is the chasms between groups in the population." Moving away to a settlement might exacerbate rather than bridge the gulfs. "I respect those who focus on settling the Land of Israel," said Esti. "But we wanted to put more emphasis on the people of Israel." Seventy five families have already moved into Ramat Elyashiv; another 100 are scattered around the city. The project is expected to house 400 families. Four more buildings have been approved. Three months before they go on sale, there are dozens of potential buyers signing up. Even before the actual advertisement is published.