Suburbia Sells Settlers on the West Bank

Neve Daniel, West Bank - The Kwalbrun family mansion stands four floors high and boasts five bedrooms, five bathrooms, a Jacuzzi, a fireplace and a manicured lawn. It’s just like the home the Kwalbruns left behind in Teaneck, N.J., except that this residence is in a Jewish settlement surrounded by Arab villages in the West Bank.

Enticed by the prospect of an affordable suburban lifestyle, the Kwalbruns and a growing number of religious American immigrants are settling down in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Concentrated in areas such as the region south of Jerusalem known as Gush Etzion, they have helped small settlements like Neve Daniel nearly double in size in only the past few years.

Forty years after the Six Day War gave birth to the Israeli settlement movement, a wave of American religious Jewish immigrants are deciding to call the West Bank home. While many of those who moved across the Green Line before them dreamed of a Greater Israel, these new residents of the West Bank are driven by a decidedly different sort of dream.

“Before we found Neve Daniel, my husband told me, ‘I love you and I want to live in Israel, but I’m very materialistic and if I don’t have a nice house, we’re not moving,’” said Lara Kwalbrun, a peppy mother of six, as she gave a tour of her luxurious new home while toting a baby in her arms.

Settlements near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have become a suburban paradise for North American religious Jews. They offer large homes with yards, lawns and swimming pools, and prices are low compared with those of the cramped apartments not only of Israel’s main population centers but also of such smaller cities as Beit Shemesh and Modi’in.

“Jerusalem has evolved to be like Manhattan in terms of prices and having to live in an apartment,” said Michael Chernofsky, an orthopedic surgeon from Pennsylvania who recently moved with his family to Efrat, a Gush Etzion settlement. “If you want to live in a house, you need to move out to the suburbs.”

Initially, Efrat, the largest Jewish settlement in Gush Etzion, was the mecca for North American religious Jewish immigrants willing to move over the Green Line. But as demand for homes there rose, so did prices, making outlying and smaller settlements more attractive to new immigrants.

“People who made aliya [from America] 20 years ago didn’t have the option of maintaining their lifestyle,” said Chernofsky, who lives in a spacious three-level duplex with a lawn and an expansive view from the living room of rolling hills. Some of his neighbors have indoor swimming pools and even private mikvehs. “Today there’s less of an excuse, because there are more and more places you can go where you can live in exactly the same fashion as you did in America but for less money.”

Less established settlements such as Neve Daniel, which was founded in 1982 but experienced slow growth for much of its first 20 years, are booming. Despite the second intifada, Neve Daniel’s population grew by 50% between 2004 and 2007 to more than 1,600. Today the Jewish and Arab populations in the eastern part of Gush Etzion are almost equivalent, at around 19,000 each.

Nefesh B’Nefesh says that out of the more than 10,000 North Americans it helped make aliya since 2002, only some 3% chose to reside beyond Israel’s 1967 borders. Yet much of the settlement growth draws on a religious North American population base, and in Neve Daniel the facilitator was Nefesh B’Nefesh, according to Miriam Hartog, director of Neve Daniel’s absorption department.

Beyond seeking the suburban trappings to which they were accustomed in the United States, American immigrants, known as olim, are also drawn to the social comforts afforded by many Gush Etzion settlements. “It’s pretty well known that the transition for olim can be difficult,” Chernofsky said. “Living in Anglo communities makes that transition easier.”

According to the Web site of Tehilla, an organization that assists religious North Americans in finding the community of their choice, the proportion of native English speakers in Gush Etzion settlements ranges between 10% and 45%, with Efrat among those at the top. Neve Daniel is one-quarter Anglo, which made the settlement an attractive option for Miriam and Marc Gottlieb.

“I wanted my kids to be able to play with Israeli kids in Hebrew, but I wanted to be able to have my Anglo support system,” said Miriam Gottlieb, who moved to Neve Daniel nine months ago from Cedarhurst, Long Island.

Safety is another attraction of the settlements. While the West Bank is viewed around the world as a dangerous place for Jews to live, many of the settlements’ residents cite the unusual security the communities provide their residents.

“In the States, we didn’t let our kids ride their bikes down the block,” Marc Gottlieb said. “Here, they go everywhere.”

Unlike communities inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, the Israeli military protects West Bank settlements not only from neighboring Palestinians, but also from everyday criminals. Around the settlements, children’s bicycles lie unlocked on the sidewalks and baby strollers in front yards, free for the taking. And to prevent unwanted types from moving in, the communities subject potential newcomers to entrance exams.

For the new olim, the decision of where to settle is often is based on dollars and sense: Many of them say they found nothing comparable inside the Green Line to what they could buy in the West Bank.

“The only gated religious Anglo community [inside the Green Line] that I can think of is Yad Benyamin, and it was way out of our budget,” Marc said. He and his wife bought a five-bedroom in Neve Daniel — with three and a half bathrooms, a double kitchen and a separate dining room — for less than the $300,000 they got for their small three-bedroom home in Cedarhurst.

Modi’in, Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem are the most popular destinations inside the Green Line, but they are not gated-communities and the homes are expensive. The lack of affordable gated religious communities inside the Green line, according to some, is due to residential projects being far more difficult to develop inside Israel than in the West Bank.

“In the West Bank, the laws rely on military rule, but laws in Israel for regular communities are subject to the entire spectrum of bureaucracy,” said Jake Leibowitz, the initiator of the long-awaited luxury Eden Hills housing project, which lies inside the Green Line, 20 minutes from Jerusalem.

It took Leibowitz 17 years to get the approvals to build the upscale residential community. Building will begin in a few months for the new community, which will cater mainly to a religious population, offering luxury homes and apartments ranging from $250,000 to more than $10 million.

With prices like that for property inside the Green Line, the decision to move to the West Bank has come naturally for some olim, like Hartog, who moved to the settlement three years ago from Ramat Beit Shemesh, a suburb inside Israel that is Haredi and predominantly Anglo.

“We were looking for a four-room apartment with a small garden,” she said. “In Ramat Beit Shemesh, it costs $200,000 and up. Here, we bought a six-room house with a large garden for $170,000. That’s a big difference.”

Chernofsky, a hand specialist at the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center at Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, took a large cut in salary when he made aliya, and so he had to plan out his finances carefully before buying a house. According to the doctor, the West Bank provided housing within his price range despite his sizable loss of income.

“The take-home message,” Chernofsky said, “is that whatever living standard you could imagine or dream is possible here.”

Wed. Jun 06, 2007