On Location: The Miracle of Zion

After 123 years, Ness Ziona has maintained its small, diverse community.

ness ziona 88 298 (photo credit: MEREDITH PRICE)
ness ziona 88 298
(photo credit: MEREDITH PRICE)
Thirty minutes south of Tel Aviv, a small municipality with manicured roundabouts and quiet streets welcomes visitors with gurgling stone fountains and bougainvillea-lined avenues. Amidst the sparkling new high-rises and single-family suburban homes, a spattering of dilapidated houses and old monuments attest to the city's rich historical past. Tucked unassumingly in the gap between Rishon Lezion and Rehovot, Ness Ziona was one of the first Jewish settlements in Palestine. Today, on a hot morning in July, as the street cleaners hum around and twisting yellow construction cranes hover in the distance, Larry Shapiro offers an anecdote to sum up the locale. "A guy on his way to Ness Ziona gets to Rishon and asks for directions. 'Keep going,' they tell him. Then he gets to Rehovot and asks again. 'You've missed it,' he's told." Shapiro, an 85-year-old widower who recently made aliya from the United States to Ness Ziona, worked in radio for years and has a deep, soothing voice. He chose Ness Ziona because his relatives were among the first pioneering families to settle here, and many relatives still remain. "My cousin-in-law, Tova, married my cousin Levy Kovarsky in 1946. He was the son of my aunt, Jenny, who was brought from the United States to Ness Ziona to be raised by her uncles after much of the family fled the pogroms in Russia," explains Shapiro as he adjusts a pair of dark glasses to shade his eyes from the blaring mid-day sun. He notes that on his first visit to Ness Ziona in 1969, the streets were still just sand and what is now developed land was entirely devoted to orange groves. Tova, who lives in a new apartment building on Rothschild Street, has an even further-reaching memory, back to the time when only a few thousand Jews lived in Ness Ziona among hostile Arabs. "Until 1948 we lived side by side, but we [the Jews] were the minority, and it was always a struggle," says Kovarsky as we walk down the street to Beit Rishonim, the first community center in Ness Ziona. Built in 1907, 24 years after Reuben Lehrer bartered his land in Odessa for a plot in Palestine near Jerusalem, Beit Rishonim originally served as the schoolhouse, the synagogue, the city council building and the community gathering spot. Today, it houses pictures of the first settlers, artifacts and historical documents. In a dark room to one side, a short narrative tells the story of Ness Ziona's difficult battle for existence as lights shine on a miniature model of the original town and its first settlers. WHEN LEHRER, an Orthodox Jew who wanted to work the land and study the Torah, arrived in 1883 with his eldest son, Moshe, he was surprised to find an abandoned house with no water supply far away from Jerusalem. Nevertheless, determined to populate Zion, he returned to Russia to bring his wife and remaining children back to the terrain where Ness Ziona still stands. In 1887, after the Lehrer family had begun to cultivate grapes, almonds and bees, they posted signs at the arrival gate in the Jaffa port beseeching fellow Jews to help them settle their land and found a community that would first be called Nahalat Reuben. Golda Miloslawsky, famous for the beauty of her roses and thriving vineyards, was the first woman to heed Lehrer's call. Soon, the two families were joined by Aaron Eisenberg, a master stone-cutter who later founded Rehovot, Abraham Yalowsky, a Talmud scholar and blacksmith who was murdered by Arabs in the defense of his home a few years after his arrival, Zalman Fisher, who was also murdered by Arabs in his orange groves and survived by his wife Bella Fisher, and Michael Halperin, the organizer of a group of Mahaneh Yehuda horsemen. At the circumcision of Eisenberg's first-born son, Halperin presented the now-famous white flag with two horizontal blue stripes and the Star of David. In gold embroidery along the bottom were the words 'Ness Ziona.' Since Halperin planted it in the ground as a symbol of independence from the neighboring Rothschilds, the settlement has been known by this name, meaning 'Miracle of Zion.' Halperin later offered this same flag, minus the words Ness Ziona, to the first Jewish Congress in Basel, which was presided over by Theodor Herzl in 1897. It was later adopted by the State of Israel as the national flag. By the 1920s, despite difficult struggles against neighboring Arabs, malaria and challenging agricultural conditions, Ness Ziona was thriving and prosperous. Lining the walls of Beit Rishonim are old black-and-white photos of camels carrying boxes of oranges to the market in Jaffa and the first Jewish pioneers toiling in the fields. Tikva Rosenmann, who runs the Beit Rishonim museum, is the great-granddaughter of Reuben Lehrer. "This is my grandparents' ketuba," she says, pointing to a framed document behind one of the glass casings. Alongside antique agricultural tools are shelves lined with musical instruments, sports equipment and household items. "When I was a little girl, my grandmother would give us quinine pills every morning," says Rosenmann pointing to a brass mortar and pestle. "To ease the bitterness, she crushed them up and fed them to us with honey we gathered ourselves. In those days, we used to throw water on the sand streets to keep the dust down," she says, a faraway look in her eyes. "The founders brought a strong Russian ideology with them, but by my generation, some Sephardi families and a small number of Yemenite families were here too, and we were one big family." Today, the sand streets have given way to asphalt and most of the town's original buildings have either been restored as historical sites or torn down to make way for new high-rises. After 123 years, the city's population is still relatively small - around 30,000 - with an annual growth rate of two percent. "Demographically, the population of Ness Ziona mirrors the averages of the State of Israel - without the Arabs," says Yossi Shavo, the well-liked mayor of Ness Ziona who has been in office for the past 13 years. "We have a diverse population with people from everywhere." "As a child, I remember families from Iran, Morocco, Yemen and Iraq moving to Ness Ziona in the 1950s and '60s and living in shacks at the edge of town until they could afford to buy something of their own," says Liora Kovarsky-Kraus, a retired high-school literature teacher who taught for over thirty years in Ness Ziona. "The mentality at that time was different. There were no government agencies helping new immigrants. People knew they would have to work hard to afford a house, so they did, and they eventually moved into places of their own." Yet, while residents may have originally come from all over the world, apart from Ethiopians and Russians, few new immigrants make their way to Ness Ziona today. Only one ulpan exists in the city, and it caters to the Ethiopians because they are the only immigrant population large enough to justify ulpan classes. According to Kovarsky-Kraus, the Ethiopian immigrants are granted government subsidies that attract them to the area and make housing affordable. For other new immigrants wanting to learn Hebrew, the closest option is in Rehovot. "I take a cab to my ulpan in Rehovot twice a week because there isn't one in Ness Ziona that I can attend," says Shapiro, who is still struggling to master Hebrew. In fact, the "diversity" Mayor Shavo mentions has been a challenge in recent years as the small numbers of new immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia have become more and more segregated. The large Ethiopian community tends to live together and not actively participate in the community, and the newly-arrived Russian immigrants also seem to prefer flocking together. Kovarsky-Kraus says that in recent times, segregation and poverty have become more of a problem than in the past. "The Russian students who arrived in the 1970s integrated immediately and spoke Hebrew with their peers," says Kovarsky-Kraus, "but the second wave of Russian immigrants, who arrived in the early 1990s, stick together and speak only Russian." Like most places, Ness Ziona also suffers from some drug use and crime, but Mayor Shavo says that one of the biggest challenges his administration faces today is making sure that the city doesn't stagnate despite its relatively small number of elderly residents. This is a concern because although growth is steady, it is also small, and maintaining balance in the demographics is an important factor to keep at the helm in order to avoid having one sector of the population dominate the rest. For the retired, Ness Ziona offers a wealth of activities and trips along with a new day care center for the elderly, but Mayor Shavo's budget concentrates largely on the youth in order to make sure young families are drawn to the area. "We spend 80 million shekels a year on education in Ness Ziona and we subsidize 50 percent of the extra-curricular activities," says Mayor Shavo. "Education is one of our major focuses and one of the major attractions for young parents." On the downside of Ness Ziona is the cost of living there. Ness Ziona is not cheap. Purchasing an apartment or land in Ness Ziona is significantly higher than in the neighboring cities of Rehovot and Rishon Lezion, which, along with the difficulty of finding employment nearby, drives some young natives away. "A lot of people want to live here because it's small, quiet and beautiful. We have strong educational programs for the youth, lots of activities for the elderly and a new retirement center that attract people so the prices are high," says Kovarsky. "And these days most of the real estate is in new buildings or new homes that are of higher quality than elsewhere in the country, which might be another reason why real estate costs are elevated." Shiri Remez, 26, who grew up in Ness Ziona, says she bought a house in Rehovot because she could get a lot more for her money. "Growing up here was amazing because of the school programs and activities, but as a teenager without a car, there wasn't much to do," says Remez, who left Ness Ziona after the army to work in Bnei Atarot as the head of the English Department. Remez says she would like to buy her second home in Ness Ziona because of the advantages of raising children here and the close proximity to her family. Beyond its reputation for excellent education, stringent cleanliness, historical richness and prize-winning beauty is Ness Ziona's growing high-tech industry. Home to the Israel Institute for Biological Research, the municipality also includes the Kiryat Weizmann Science Park, where numerous Israeli start-ups, such as Indigo and Interferon, were founded. Just a small complex ten years ago, today it accommodates hundreds of companies and produces billions of dollars of exports every year. "One of the things that makes Ness Ziona special is that it has the comfort of a city with all the services, but lacks the noise," says Mayor Shavo. "We call it the city with the heart of a moshav." Largely secular, especially compared to the neighboring city of Rehovot, Ness Ziona still has over thirty synagogues, but many of them are privately owned. "We don't have any extreme religious sectors in the city, thank goodness," says Kovarsky-Kraus. "It's a very open, accepting place." According to Mayor Shavo, a bright future is in store for Ness Ziona as projects to develop national parks and gardens are completed, more diversified and affordable housing is constructed, and even more services are offered to attract young families. "We want to continue to grow," says Mayor Shavo, "but we want to do it slowly so that we don't lose our 'little town' feeling." As far as Shapiro is concerned, Ness Ziona is the best-kept secret in Israel, and he, for one, hopes it stays that way.