A ‘Nefesh B’Nefesh’ for billionaires?

'The philosophy of design and luxury is a story of culture, a story that you can tell.'

Israeli star architect Irma Orenstein helped design the most expensive apartment ever sold in Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli star architect Irma Orenstein helped design the most expensive apartment ever sold in Israel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Moving to Israel may sound daunting to many Diaspora Jews. From the culture shock to the rough business culture, the country can be a challenging place to settle in. Yet one star architect is seeking to change that.
“Don’t forget that they [affluent Diaspora Jews] are used to a much higher lifestyle,” said Israeli architect Irma Orenstein. “They can go around the world and live like this. But if you build for them an apartment that is much nicer than what they dreamed of, it will cause more of them to stay in Israel.”
While Orenstein designs luxury, multi-million-dollar apartments all across Tel Aviv and Herzliya, she sees her work as more than just design. It’s about doing work similar to that of groups like Nefesh B’Nefesh, helping Jewish immigrants to Israel settle in.
“If we can make for you a good home, you’ll set up your life here. You’ll spend more time here, you’ll make aliya, you’ll become ambassadors for us, and your friends will come here... It’s to allow you to fulfill your dream,” Orenstein said, adding that of her clients, “They’re all Zionists.”
Most of Orenstein’s high-end clients come from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Russia, France or other places with significant Jewish populations. They tend to look for luxury apartments along what she calls the “Gold Coast” – running from the beach of Tel Aviv to Herzliya Pituah. They are a mix of religious and secular families.
Among the 60 or so clients is professional bicyclist Sylvan Adams, the honorary president of the Giro d’Italia, one of the most prestigious bicycling races worldwide. Partially because of Adams’ work, the race will start in Jerusalem before moving to Italy in May 2018.
Orenstein designed Adams’s Tel Aviv beachfront penthouse apartment, located at luxury development Arlozorov 17. It was the most expensive house ever sold in Israel, going for NIS 120 million ($35m.). That figure doesn’t include Orenstein’s consulting costs, which included building a 220-piece clear glass staircase, one that changes colors and looks different from every angle.
Especially challenging was Adams’s requirement that the 800 sq.m. penthouse include a hermetic training room, one that replicates high-altitude cycling.
“My art is used to tailor-make each and every home,” Orenstein said. “The projects’ incredible value post-design is a direct result of this uniqueness. No project is the same. It’s where art meets architecture.”
Other clients of Orenstein are huge supporters of Israeli organizations, including one of the biggest donors to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, the family of Canadian philanthropist Hershey Friedman, and the main donor to Israel’s philharmonic orchestra. Orenstein is also providing design services for major diplomats – some of whom may be relocating their official residences – but she cannot give names on the record.
Orenstein, 40, has been working out of her Tel Aviv studio since 2002, designing luxury apartments, penthouses and condominium buildings, along with a few commercial projects. Before that, she studied architecture at Tel Aviv University.
After achieving success in Israel, Orenstein has worked on projects in London, Vienna, New York and Florida.
Orenstein – who, along with her parents, made aliya as an infant from the former Soviet Union – perks up when discussing the potential of high-end, luxury apartments to attract Diaspora Jews. Yet she admits feeling a little pessimistic.
“What will happen in the next generation? They’re ‘Zionists,’” she said, with air-quotes, “but I’m afraid that the next generation won’t be like my generation, like the people I’m building houses for. They don’t have an obsession to support Israel. They’re not interested in contributing to the state and serving in the army. They’re much more interested in their lives. And if it’s hard, why should I come?”
Orenstein gestures animatedly when detailing her residential projects. Meeting in the Hilton hotel 16th floor lounge, Orenstein stepped out onto the balcony and begins to point at the various towers jutting the skyline, detailing her different projects at each site.
She says that she tries to take into account different clientele preferences, from religious strictures that require a kosher kitchen, to a high-end athletic-training facility. She has a keen eye for detail and custom-designs transparent glass stairways, lighting fixtures, furniture, tableware and accessories, working with Italian furniture makers to convey a message.
“The philosophy of design and luxury is a story of culture, a story that you can tell,” she dais. “It’s not just luxury but it’s about true culture. Two-thousand years ago in Rome, they spoke about luxury and how things can be unique. It’s the same thing today.”
For Israel’s 70th birthday, Orenstein has been commissioned to design the most expensive mezuza ever made. The mezuza is reported to cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
One possible downturn in the high-end real estate market could be the relatively strong shekel and weak dollar. Given that most of the buyers are international and earning a living in dollars, the currency fluctuations make real estate even more expensive.
“It became a much harder job to sell these types of apartments at the moment that the dollar weakened against the shekel,” she said.