On Location: Between chalets and minarets

Located just outside Jerusalem, the picturesque town of Tzur Hadassah is growing - and experiencing growing pains.

tzur hadassah 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
tzur hadassah 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Nestled somewhere between the hills of Switzerland and the mosques of Baghdad is Tzur Hadassah. Named for the American Zionist women's group, it is home to a heterogeneous community. Some have come for the pastoral setting,others for the affordable prices combined with the proximity to Jerusalem and yet others as pioneers. Located about 10 kilometers southwest of the capital on Road No. 375, Tzur Hadassah is just a kilometer inside of the Green Line. Approaching the settlement via the Jerusalem-Gush Etzion (tunnel) road, with the sandy, stony setting sprinkled with minarets and Arabs hawking their wares on the side of the street, the feeling is purely Middle Eastern. But on the approach to the village via the winding road that leaves Jerusalem through Ein Kerem and snakes through the forested Judean Hills, the vibe is altogether European. And this is what attracted Caroline Hadash. Originally from Switzerland, she came to Israel on a Christianity-inspired trip. Her little dog had a fall from the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, she took him for medical attention and in the end, she fell in love with and married the veterinarian's brother-in-law. After the wedding, her husband, Ohad, took her on a trip. They visited the site of his parents' defunct factory in Tzur Hadassah, and Caroline fell in love again. In 1991, they renovated the factory and moved in. Following a business tip from the family veterinarian, the two animal lovers opened a boarding kennel. As time went on, Ohad took a course in horse riding instruction, and they added stables and riding lessons to the family business. A number of years back, developers asked to turn the area in the older section of Tzur Hadassah where the factory was located into villas. And so, four years ago, the Hadashes moved into their new, five-dunam premises in the adjacent wadi. Their stables are clean and bright, filled with their horses and those boarded there; the dog kennels are divided into cordoned-off yards, with heated row doghouses; there's a rabbit pen and a large cage filled with colorful songbirds; the Hadashes three dogs and a random bunch of peacocks roam freely. But perhaps the crowning glory and strongest attraction at the Harei Yehuda Ranch is its Swiss restaurant. A cozy wooden building with a black heating stove and a bar serves locals looking for a good meal close to home and weekend visitors interested in an offbeat culinary experience. Outside, wooden tables are surrounded by pretty gardens and trees poking through the wooden deck. The whole enterprise overlooks the riding ring and serene wadi. Caroline developed the menu and taught her chefs how to prepare the food at what she says is the country's only Swiss restaurant. She explains that people come to relax; Swiss eating is a slow and leisurely process - they eat fondue-like food, grill meats and sip wine. It's a lucky scenario for the Hadashes; because they're so tied to the ranch, they don't get to socialize much. This way, they still get to see friends and meet new people. And the people in Tzur Hadassah are one of its best features; they're "good people," if you trust Moshe Tubol. Tubol himself is described as a good guy, and the "soul of the place," according to Levi Cooper, the rabbi of Tzur Hadassah's Ashkenazi synagogue. While the role of a "soul" may be debatable, there is no doubt that Tzur Hadassah - if it existed at all - would not be what it is today were it not for Tubol. Tubol, now 82 and a father of seven, grandfather of 17 and great-grandfather to one, came by boat from his hometown of Oujda, Morocco, to Haifa in 1956. From there, he was sent to Sderot. After a month there, Tubol, his wife and three children relocated to Ness Harim in the Jerusalem corridor, where his parents, who had made aliya seven months prior to him, were living. At the time, the authorities were looking to build some new communities in the area. Tubol latched on and helped lay the foundations for Bar Giora, Mata and Tzur Hadassah. He worked with the Jewish National Fund from the end of 1956 until 1959 building the new settlements. Tzur Hadassah was intended as a service center for the area, and thus the local school was transferred there from Ness Harim. And Tubol went with it. At the beginning, he lived in Tzur Hadassah with two other families. But one left rather quickly, and the other followed not too long after. There was no electricity and the water was intermittent. There was no road - just a path. There were no phones to communicate with the outside world, and a school bus just made it to the entrance of the settlement to drop off and pick up the pupils. Once the children left for the day at 1 p.m., the Tubols were often alone in town. They were given an army phone, and every morning soldiers would call to check up on them; they'd also bring supplies - especially when it snowed. Including the school, there were 26 buildings in Tzur Hadassah - and Tubol held the keys to them all. Sometimes teachers would stay over, and in the summer, premilitary trainees would move in. In fact, those trainees left a very important gift for the Tubols; as there was still no electricity, the youngsters had brought a number of lanterns. When it came time for Tubol's son to celebrate his bar mitzva, they came in handy. For groceries, Tubol would go to neighboring Mevo Betar, where there was a mini-market. Once every month or two, he'd trek to Jerusalem and stock up on dry goods. But in 1967, says Tubol, things got better. The settlement was no longer on the Jordanian border, so people were less afraid to come. Tzur Hadassah was hooked up to the neighboring settlements' generators, and phone lines were installed. And a mini-market opened. "We suffered a bit, but things got better," he says, speaking slowly while sitting in his clean dining room, full head of hair neatly brushed, checkered shirt tucked into freshly pressed pants. He still lives on his original 700 sq.m. plot, and he's not leaving anytime soon. He even named one of his daughters Hadassah, after the settlement he helped build. A divorced daughter and grandson live with him, and he visits sick people in the hospital a few times a week. BY 1980, THERE were 40 families living in Tzur Hadassah. And people kept coming. About nine years ago, Michal Eytan and her family moved in from Jerusalem. They had been looking to buy an apartment, but the prices in the city were just too high. They began looking outside the city. They found a good compromise in Tzur Hadassah: It was close to the city, the prices were reasonable and they liked the pretty, hilly area. There are now three main neighborhoods in Tzur Hadassah - the old one (which includes the Shchunat Hame'a expansion), Har Kitron (which was built on land given as compensation to a survivor of the 1948 Gush Etzion massacre) and Shchunat Ha'emek (where the school and medical clinic are). The homes range from the single-family houses with gardens and a bit of an older feel in the old section to newer-looking apartment buildings and duplexes similar to those found in nearly every new neighborhood in the country. Since moving to the Ha'emek neighborhood, Eytan has few regrets. She compares the current atmosphere in Tzur Hadassah to an old-time Jerusalem neighborhood, like Beit Hakerem where she and her husband Eran both grew up. She says there's a good community atmosphere, and there are plentiful hiking trails for Shabbat excursions. It's quiet and calm, and the kids can walk to school on their own. She, her husband and her children have a plethora of friends and relatives in the town. Eytan extols the variety of people in the settlement, and their positivity. So she's happy and intends to stay - for now. But there are always concerns and drawbacks to everything; Eytan is worried about her children's future. At this point, there is only an elementary school, which is okay, since they're nine and six. But when they hit middle school age, they will have to travel at least as far as Ein Kerem daily. Their friends will be Jerusalemites and their lives will be centered in the city. Eytan is adamant that home should not be somewhere to just eat and sleep - it should be the center of your life. As it is, getting in and out of Tzur Hadassah can be dangerous on the Ein Kerem route's narrow curves, and if there's traffic, it can be a trip of 30 minutes to an hour. The tunnel road can also get rather crowded, and is at times dangerous. While some residents dislike both access routes, Eytan says she doesn't mind. Driving through the hills every morning is like a daily excursion, she explains, and she appreciates the pretty scenery as a good way to start the day. Most of the downsides to Tzur Hadassah seem to be children-centered, which is slightly ironic, as most residents are young and have children. Eytan laments the activities available in the settlement. She says they're not at a high-enough level, and all are held in bomb shelters or schools. Both she and Tubol mentioned the need for a community center. There are no auditoriums, and the choice of nursery schools is too small, says Eytan. In the summer, the camps are not big enough and, again, there is only a narrow selection. And because nearly everyone commutes to work, they tend to get home later in the day. But the educational system does not take that into account, and children are left with nothing to do until their parents get home. But Tubol is still not too worried: "If there's peace in the country, the kids will be fine." IT SEEMS THAT Tzur Hadassah has just not kept up with its expansion; more people come, but the services remain the same, say Eytan and Cooper. Eytan mentioned that a lot of people are bothered by the lack of services. There's only one market in town - it's large, but it's the only one. While she doesn't mind driving 20 minutes to Beit Shemesh or five minutes to Betar Illit to go shopping, there are some residents who would prefer not to have to venture into haredi areas to buy cucumbers. There's no bank, no pharmacy, no ATM. Even the landscaping is not up to par. Still, the local clinic is plenty big and serves members of all health funds. Meanwhile, Caroline Hadash is mostly pleased with the expansion she's seen in the years since she's moved to Tzur Hadassah. She praises the initiative of the locals - the way they got the school going and have been trying to prevent the construction of a security barrier that will destroy the next-door Arab village of Wadi Fukin. Her only real lamentation is that while at the beginning, gazelles used to run through Tzur Hadassah every morning and jackals could be heard calling out through the hills, now they're hardly detectable. Cooper, a native of Australia, also came to Tzur Hadassah from Jerusalem, about six years ago. He and his wife were looking to move, but to stay close to their jobs in Jerusalem, and they wanted to find a mixed community where they could contribute. They were on a trip in the area and were impressed by Tzur Hadassah's beauty; they started making inquiries. Now, he says he loves the pastoral atmosphere - how he can walk out his backdoor and begin a hike. But he also loves the neighborhood. "We're not living in a community where everyone is exactly the same. Not everyone has the same ideals. It's more real. It reflects the spectrum of Israeli society." When he came, he hoped to be able to contribute - but he didn't know in what way. He began by offering a Torah class in the local Sephardi synagogue every other week - which he still does. As time went on, a need for an Ashkenazi minyan - and community - became apparent. So about four years ago, the Ashkenazim began meeting in the Coopers' home for Friday night prayers, and then rotated to different congregants' homes. The Coopers offered a class for young married couples on Shabbat, and they made sure the kids were involved in the minyan. Cooper's wife, Sarah, started the local chapter of Bnei Akiva. Now, the Ashkenazim meet in a mobile home on Shabbatot, with a class offered between Minha and Ma'ariv. The congregants are a shining example of the ingathering of the exiles, says Cooper. There are members from France, Romania, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, South Africa, America, England and Israel. There's still no daily minyan - so Cooper davens with the Sephardim at 5:30 a.m., but he'd like something a bit later. Tubol, however, still prays at the Bar Giora synagogue where he has been praying ever since moving to the area some 50 years ago. In addition to his good relationship with the Sephardi community, Cooper notes his relationship with the Reform community. "Despite our different views on Jewish tradition, we have excellent relations." He explains that they try to coordinate events whenever possible. Last year, they held a joint clothing drive for single-parent families. One of the things Cooper loves about the wide variety of residents is that while most would not normally be categorized as "religious," they are still actively involved in the synagogue. For instance, aside from offering Torah classes here and there, it is involved in environmental causes. It provides a communal compost pile, and everyone is very careful about recycling. Cooper's hope is to someday build a permanent, "green friendly" Ashkenazi synagogue. ENVIRONMENTALISM IS a big issue for many Tzur Hadassah residents, which makes sense, given that its green surroundings are one of the biggest reasons people migrate there. On Shabbat, there's a different vibe in the settlement, even though most residents aren't "observant." It's a day when, weather permitting, people go out and hike and take in their surroundings. Because there's no religious education available in Tzur Hadassah, Cooper's children are already commuting to Jerusalem for school. Echoing Eytan, he admits the schooling in Tzur Hadassah could stand some improvement. But his five children are very happy. He and his wife feel like they're contributing to society. He notes the excitement of building a community, and says there's a "sense of a pioneering spirit." He appreciates the opportunity to shape what his immediate surroundings will look like, which the administration of Tzur Hadassah provides to all residents. Yoni Almog, the secretary of Tzur Hadassah, emphasizes the communal involvement factor in the settlement. "The public is involved in decisions about whether to expand further or not. Some want to, but in the meantime things are staying as they are." Almog, a soft-spoken man with graying hair, came to Tzur Hadassah 10 years ago from Jerusalem. He has served as secretary for the past five years. His office is in an old wooden building surrounded by trees, and people filter in and out all day, popping by to say hi or bring news updates. Almog can recite the history of Tzur Hadassah at the drop of a hat, and he wrote the community's Web site. He is pleased with the growth of the settlement - there are about 1,000 families in Tzur Hadassah, with another 100 expected to join soon - but notes that while demand is rising, no more building is planned - for now. So prices are going up: The "build your own home" cottages (200-250 sq.m.) run about $550,000, and duplexes (250-330 sq.m.) start at about $300,000. In the meantime, the community is working to improve the activities available for children, though Almog is proud of what is already available: classes for all ages in dance, aerobics, judo, art, soccer, puppeteering, chess, technology, tai chi, folk dancing, diet groups and more. In addition, a commercial center is in its planning stages. Also in the works is a new access route. It's unclear when it will happen, but there are plans to construct Road No. 39, which will run from Malha in Jerusalem to Beit Shemesh, via Tzur Hadassah. Another improvement being developed is better security. Although everyone says they feel completely safe in Tzur Hadassah - despite its proximity to the Green Line and a number of Arab villages - the army and police are being consulted for a revamping of security. Cooper explains though he "doesn't feel threatened at all. Could the security be improved? I think so." Tubol says that security has never been a big issue in Tzur Hadassah. He recalls the days before the Six Day War when infiltrators from Jordan would cut through Tzur Hadassah, but they never bothered anyone. And thus, life in Tzur Hadassah has evolved from a sparsely populated little border settlement into an in-demand community for middle-class professionals looking for a green nook near the center of the world.