Building a Bit of America in Beit Shemesh

By Nathan Jeffay

Published January 15, 2009, issue of January 23, 2009.
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Beit Shemesh, Israel — Spirituality sells.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Those behind the Nofei Hashemesh housing development in Beit Shemesh are selling it to Modern Orthodox immigrants as an American-style religious community.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Those behind the Nofei Hashemesh housing development in Beit Shemesh are selling it to Modern Orthodox immigrants as an American-style religious community.
AMERICAN IMPORT: Rabbi Shalom Rosner is the big draw for an Israeli real-estate development.
AMERICAN IMPORT: Rabbi Shalom Rosner is the big draw for an Israeli real-estate development.

As developers feel the pinch of the global economic slowdown, building projects across Israel lie half-finished. But at the 400-unit Nofei Hashemesh development in Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem, work is steaming ahead.

The prices are not cheap, and the houses are nothing special. So what is its secret to success in a tough property market? The answer — a rabbi.

Most Israeli synagogues do not have a rabbi, and if they do, the rabbi tends to be appointed and salaried by the state. Israeli rabbis will often be responsible for a whole neighborhood or even an entire town and have little interest in pastoral and religious leadership of a single synagogue.

Nofei Hashemesh’s unique selling point is that it is importing to Israel the American model of Modern Orthodox Jewish life, centered upon a synagogue led by a rabbi who acts as pastoral head and religious guide. It is selling property but marketing a lifestyle — a close-knit Orthodox community led by a charismatic rabbi, who is himself an import from America.

“American rabbis are like shepherds to their communities, something that is missing in Israel. I believe that by bringing in this model to Israel, we can have a far more lively kind of community,” the project’s developer, Shelly Levine, told the Forward.

Until a year ago, Nofei Hashemesh was meant to be just another property development by two of Israel’s biggest real-estate firms, Yesodot Zur and Kurdan. Then they realized that branding the community as a religious-Zionist development would help them to sell.

They partnered with Levine, the property developer responsible for making Beit Shemesh a hub for Modern Orthodox immigrants from English-speaking countries through her developments in the early 1990s. Around the same time she brought the same demographic to the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.

She came up with a specifically American twist on a growing phenomenon in Israel, namely segregated religious neighborhoods. “In the last decade there has been a consistent trend of religious Zionist people moving to separate communities,” said Izhak Schnell, a geography professor at Tel Aviv University and an expert on housing trends in Israel. “This is new. In the past it was very important for religious Zionists to be integrated into the wider community, with a sense that exposure early enough to secular life would help their children achieve a balance.”

In Levine’s model, community trumps this increasingly rare ideal of a secular-religious balance. She is convinced that Israelis — mainly Anglo immigrants but also sabras — crave the sense of community she grew up with in America. “When my father was seriously ill in America, I was receiving phone calls from his rabbi there, but an Israeli rabbi would not see it as his role to keep in this kind of contact,” she said.

She also believes that religious Zionists want rabbis who are more similar to themselves than the average state-appointed rabbi in Israel. “Israeli rabbis often have very little in terms of global education; American rabbis are more rounded — they tend to have college educations and be worldlier,” she said.

In early 2008 Levine hit upon the idea that bringing a big-name rabbi from the United States could be a short-cut to making sales. In May she recruited Rabbi Shalom Rosner, a well-known figure among graduates of Yeshiva University, where he taught for seven years, and rabbi of Congregation Bais Ephraim Yitzhok in Woodmere, N.Y. Rosner, 36, who is teaching at yeshivas as well as leading the Nofei Hashemesh community, was given incentives in housing to settle there.

This is the first time that this model has been used by a property developer, though the idea of an American rabbi making aliyah and encouraging others to join him is not new; in 1983 Shlomo Riskin, founder of New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, moved to the West Bank settlement of Efrat, taking several of his congregants with him.

With Rosner together with his wife Tamar and six children in place — they immigrated to Nofei Hashemesh in the summer — the project is aggressively marketing itself as the ideal Orthodox community. It is “a dynamic, nurturing community driven by religious values, education, professionalism and top-quality lifestyle,” its brochure says.

But Rosner’s encouragement for people to move is more persuasive to the target demographic than any brochure. He describes the opportunity to make aliyah to Nofei Hashemesh as a chance “to beat the mashiach rush,” referring to the belief that the messiah will come and all Jews will move to Israel.

For him, moving to Nofei Hashemesh actually offers a new model of chalutziut, the Zionist term for pioneering, which, when used among religious Zionists today, often refers to settling in the West Bank. “We’re not going up to a mountain top and setting up caravans, but there is a sense that building a new type of community for Israel, based around the synagogue and the rabbi, is pioneering,” he said.

And while it is early, with Nofei Hashemesh still very much under construction — only 10 families actually have moved in, as most purchasers have bought off-plan and are waiting for their properties to be completed — having Rosner in place does seem to be bringing in buyers. “Rabbi Rosner attracted us,” said Chana Berkovits, a 25-year-old mother of two from Staten Island, N.Y., who immigrated to Israel in September and arrived in Nofei Hashemesh in October. “He has made a name for himself and we figured that it can’t be a bad community if he’s coming.”

She added: “We are used to having a strong connection with a synagogue and a rabbi” and without that “we would have felt lost. We lived in Jerusalem for a month when we arrived and didn’t feel a sense of community, which we didn’t like.”

According to Bar-Ilan University sociologist Ephraim Tabory, an expert on religion in Israel, comments such as these are common among American immigrants to Israel. “There is a feeling that people who immigrate from the U.S. want to increase their Jewish involvement, not decrease it, but when they get here lack that strong connection with their rabbi and synagogue which they had in America and actually feel that their Jewish involvement is declining,” he said.

Tabory also noted that “having a group of like-minded people is very effective for absorption.” But Tabory, a critic of religious segregation, also expressed concern that the development will segregate its residents twice-over — once along religious lines, and again by attracting mainly English-speaking immigrants.

“It can aid absorption, though I am not sure what it is absorption into,” he said.

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