As Mazkeret Batya primes itself for a population explosion, long-time residents pine for the good ol' days.
By JERUSALEM POST STAFF
Mazkeret Batya's 15 minutes of fame came in 1994: Talila, the yuppie heroine of the film Shirat Hasirena, gets completely befuddled on her way from Tel Aviv as she attempts to find the small moshava.
"Where, for God's sake, is Mazkeret Batya?" she asks, cursing and turning the map upside down while running increasingly late for her date with her new beau.
In reality, although badly signposted, Mazkeret Batya is easy to find. Mazkeret, as the locals fondly refer to it, is 5 km. southeast of Rehovot, 25 km. from Tel Aviv and 30 km. from Jerusalem.
And nowadays - thanks in no small part to the local council's considerable marketing strategies - it's unlikely that Mazkeret would be quite so exotic a location.
But back in 1994, Mazkeret Batya had only 2,500 residents. Now it has 9,000, and that figure is projected to jump to 17,000 within the next decade.
According to local council head Meir Dahan, the majority of the development is happening in the east of the town. "There are 1,100 new housing units up to three stories high, 400 of which are duplexes and 700 are standalone houses. There are no high rises, nothing that will stand out or clash with the small, green feel of the town," Dahan asserts. "And that will be the city's maximum capacity. There is no other land available to build on."
With or without high rises, it's a far cry from the town's roots.
Route 6 passes only five minutes away and the train stops in nearby Rehovot. If Dahan's dreams are realized, Route 6 will have an intersection at the entrance to the town and Mazkeret Batya will have its own railway station, both allowing for an easy and speedy commute to the metropolis. What was until very recently a sleepy, idyllic moshava is fast turning into a bustling little suburban hub.
ESTABLISHED IN 1883 by Baron Edmond de Rothschild as the first of the seven original moshavot, Mazkeret Batya started life as an agricultural community. Eleven families from Pavlova in White Russia made a living on land given to them by the Baron.
In establishing Mazkeret Batya (the name means Batya's Memorial, or "in memory of Batya" and was given by Rothschild in honor of his mother in 1887), the Baron used what Dahan refers to as "his Jewish kopf." The ruling Turks deemed the land of Ekron (as it was then known) agricultural, thereby forbidding the construction of private homes or public buildings.
The Baron circumvented the law by building four "Kazermot," Russian for soldiers' houses. These two-story brick buildings housed animals on the first floor and families on the second. Soon after, regular houses began to be built. Kazermot are unique to Mazkeret Batya, as are the stone barns that were built in the same era. Both these original features - as well as the synagogue that dates back to 1927 - remain, giving the town its nostalgic charm.
For the most part, the original settlers of Mazkeret Batya stayed, as did the majority of their children and grandchildren. They were joined in the Fifties by families from Morocco and Libya who were housed in 22 Amidar public housing projects that Dahan describes (quite rightly) as "the stain of Mazkeret Batya." When this population eventually moved on - many moving to private homes as their economic situation improved - their place was taken by 70 Ethiopian families whom the government settled in the town in the '90s.
The Ethiopian children of Mazkeret Batya are integrated into the local school system. Most choose to attend the religious elementary school. Due to financial constraints, these pupils, for the most part, continue on at the local - secular - high school, unlike their peers.
"We invest a lot of money in the Ethiopian population," says Dahan, explaining that they receive funding from Calgary, Canada, for this purpose. As part of the town's investment, it offers an after-school club that's open until 6 p.m., offering children a safe, structured environment. "It's a home-from-home, they're given a hot meal, there are computers there that they can work and play on, and the counselors - many of whom are there as part of their army service - provide help with homework." Ethiopian families also receive a discount at the pool and at the community center.
It is a source of pride for Dahan that two years ago the valedictorian of the town's high school was an Ethiopian student.
But while integrating the children of 70 Ethiopian families is a continuing challenge, Dahan's biggest mission lies ahead of him.
HOW DOES such a small town integrate 6,500 new residents from the past 12 years, and another projected 8,000 in the coming decade?
Dahan admits that it's hard, but perhaps not as hard as one might imagine: "Mazkeret Batya has always known how to welcome new populations. We live here in perfect harmony."
Dahan calls the newcomers the "good-life seekers."
"These are people who started coming in the '80s in search of quality of life - good schools, green areas, gardens - and found it in Mazkeret," he states.
"Almost without exception, these are people in their 30s and 40s, young couples with children who are in a strong financial position; the [economic] elite."
By his own admission, Dahan's family represents this trend. "I came 12 years ago [from Ness Ziona] and fell in love with Mazkeret Batya. I saw it once and immediately wanted to move here," he says.
But despite Dahan's belief concerning the harmonious nature of life in the town, he admits that the growth is already putting a strain on the town's infrastructure.
Mazkeret Batya already has one high school, two primary schools and a new Keshet (mixed secular and religious) primary school which is inaugurating a first grade this academic year. In order to meet the town's needs, the local council is planning another elementary school, due for completion in September 2007. A new sports and leisure facility on a 40-dunam plot is undergoing consideration by the regional planning committee. And the Clalit health care system is about to open a new, bigger branch to accommodate Mazkeret's growing population.
But even if all of these plans come into fruition, the population boom still challenges the town's sense of intimate community, something that even the local council head doesn't deny.
"Look," Dahan says earnestly, "I was against growth on this scale. In 1998 I ran for council head on a ticket that said we should slow down development in order to keep the agricultural nature of the areaâ€¦ but people didn't believe me. They didn't believe that growth would happen so fast, and they didn't believe I would stop it."
Dahan lost the election. He was eventually elected in 2003 when the development was already a fact on the ground. "It's complicated for residents here, anyway," he adds.
"While they may be opposed to the swelling population, for many of them this is a cash cow. It's their land we're building on, and it's money in their pocket." (Big money: five-room units with a garden in Mazkeret Batya's new development start from $230,000 and single-family houses reach up to $500,000, according to local real-estate agency Habaron.)
MIRIAM LALAZAR, who moved to Mazkeret 16 years ago, is not one of those residents who stands to profit directly from the development. Nevertheless, she maintains that expansion is vital.
"If Israel is growing, then places have to grow," Lalazar says. "I'm not delighted with the idea of a whole big, new community, butâ€¦ economically it's worthwhile for it to expand and it's a strong population."
A Zimbabwean-born mother of four and an English teacher in Rehovot, Lalazar and her family came to the moshava 16 years ago from Rehovot. Their home in Mazkeret Batya is one of the old-fashioned single-story houses surrounded by grass on a quiet street. Inside, it feels like an old-time moshav-style house. Spacious, homely and unpretentious, the furnishings and decorations have stood the test of time. Children roller-blade in and out; the family mutt barks intermittently.
When the family moved to Mazkeret Batya there was "no pizza house and no movie house" and her children had to take a bus to get to their high school outside the town.
"They hated itâ€¦ but they learned to love it," says Lalazar, smiling.
"Now we have everything, and as we are would be perfect, but there's no way of stopping it getting bigger."
On a brief tour of Mazkeret Batya, Sivan, Lalazar's 12-year-old daughter, points out the shopping areas, synagogues and the educational complex. She talks about her friends who live in the new development area - much of which is already well-populated.
Lalazar also points out the three original stone barns, set behind new houses, which are being beautifully and carefully renovated as part of the local council's NIS 22 million project.
Within this four-stage renovation plan, the main drag, Rehov Rothschild, will take on what Dahan calls a "touristy feel" with all the old kazermot and buildings restored and turned into galleries, restaurants and cafes.
"We're going to be Zichron 2," says Sivan glumly from the back of the car, referring to Zichron Ya'acov. "Tourism, tourism, tourism. Suddenly there'll be a population explosion. It'll be packed at the pool, packed at the community center. There'll be more people, but the place will remain the same size. It'll lose its character."
"We used to know everyone who lived here," says Hadar Tzur, a third-generation Mazkeret resident who works at the local Kazerma caf . "I still like it here, but it's just not like that anymore."
She takes a deep drag of her cigarette. "In the war in the North, a soldier from Mazkeret (St.-Sgt. Rafanael Muskal, 21) was killed in the fighting. 'Did you know him?'" she asks the employee behind the bar. The other girl shakes her head.
Ehud Abir-Lev of Habaron Real Estate in Mazkeret Batya expresses his dismay: "It's a big disappointmentâ€¦ Mazkeret Batya has changed enormouslyâ€¦ the bigger the expectation, the bigger the disappointment."
To his mind, the former council head acted like a "bulldozer" and the current head also has his priorities in the wrong place. "He wants to put cobbled pathways down the main street and turn it into Zichron, but this isn't Zichron. People live on that street. The minute a car goes down it, there'll be terrible noise.
"Anyway," says Abir-Lev, who intends to run against Dahan in the next local election, "Why are they even putting so much money into the restoration? We have a terrible shortage of classroom space in the elementary schools - in the secular school there are 40 children in a class. There isn't room for the children of neighboring moshavot [who traditionally studied here]. Why are we concentrating on tourism?"
Lalazar, more upbeat, believes this reality is inevitable. "The only thing I'm asking from Dahan is that the planning will be in character of the place," says Lalazar. "If he puts up tall buildings, I'm leaving.
"A little history is all we have to offer here," concludes Lalazar. "We don't have an industry, we don't have a beach. We have nothing else to market."
var cont = `Stay Informed
As the war against Hamas unfolds, our unwavering newsroom remains committed to covering Israel's most profound crisis.
Sign up for our newsletter to get real-time news and in-depth analysis from our top reporters.