New town Harish harbors hopes of being more than another Pleasantville

Boosters of a planned city being built from scratch 45 minutes northeast of Tel Aviv insist it’s not just a bedroom community, but a grand social experiment in tolerance and sustainable living

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Aerial view of Harish, August 2015 (Facebook)
Aerial view of Harish, August 2015 (Facebook)

It’s not every day that a Haredi mayor, a professional young mother, a hip high-tech entrepreneur and a left-wing Knesset member all agree on something. But oddly enough, when it comes to the new Israeli city of Harish, these four Israelis share the same hope – that it will be a showcase for solving the country’s social ills.

“Harish will be a city of pluralism, sustainability and community,” says the city’s orthodox mayor Yitzhak Keshet, who was elected a year and a half ago by a two-thirds majority of the sleepy town’s current 1,000 residents, including Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, secular Israelis, former Soviet immigrants, Ethiopian immigrants and Arab residents.

A 45-minute drive north of Tel Aviv on Israel’s Route 6 and a 15-minute drive east of Caesarea, and abutting Israel’s security fence with the West Bank, an entire city is going up amid the rocky ocher soil. Cranes and bulldozers gleam in the summer heat, as they transform a slightly rundown backwater into a modern city expected to house 70,000 residents within five years and 100,000 within 10 years, on a par with mid-sized Israeli towns like Modiin and Rehovot.

The first few hundred residents are set to move in in November 2015.

Buildings nearing completion in Harish (Photo credit: Facebook)
Buildings nearing completion in Harish (Facebook)

Keshet says that starting in January, 500 families will arrive every three months, and the pace will grow as contractors complete their buildings.

Nobody knows for sure who these residents will be.

“Right now it’s 20 percent ultra-Orthodox, but it will end up about 10%,” says Keshet. ”About 35% will be national religious Jews and the rest of the residents will be secular.”

Keshet says he expects only a “handful” of non-Jewish or Arab residents to move in.

But Hemi Bar Or, an artist who has led many secular purchasing groups in the city, estimates that the town will only be 6-7% ultra-Orthodox.

Yitzhak Keshet (Facebook)
Yitzhak Keshet (Facebook)

Keshet, a software engineer who became ultra-Orthodox in his 20s, saw his political career begin when he started to get involved in building schools for the children of ba’alei tshuva, or “returnees to the faith.”

“I realized that even though we wanted to observe Torah and mitzvot, we ba’alei tshuva still had a secular mentality. That’s why our kids needed special schools,” he told The Times of Israel.

Keshet, whose name means rainbow in Hebrew, says it is precisely his ability to straddle both worlds — religious and secular — that will enable him to relate to all the city’s residents.

Itzik Tayar, education coordinator for Harish (Photo by Simona Weinglass)
Itzik Tayar, Harish’s education coordinator (Simona Weinglass)

Itzik Tayar, the town’s education coordinator, greets The Times of Israel in an old T-shirt and shorts. He has spent all day clearing rubble from school buildings before the start of the school year.

“We are building schools for the entire spectrum of the population. Either [the integration] will be successful or there will be Shabbat wars like in Jerusalem,” referring to the practice in some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the capital, where roads are closed on the Jewish Sabbath and some residents throw stones at cars that attempt to pass through. Tayar laughs and then backtracks: “No, there won’t be.”

“Some Haredim bought here and were surprised because they thought the town would be totally ultra-Orthodox. Some decided to stay, while others are weighing their options. Some bought the apartments as an investment. It’s anyone’s guess who will actually come to live here.”


Miri Rahamim, the town’s absorption coordinator and spokesperson, explains that the town has been planned in such a way that no single group of residents can “ghettoize” themselves or cut themselves off from other residents of the city.

“These four buildings are ultra-Orthodox, and right next to them, these four are secular,” says Rahamim, pointing at a plan of the city on the wall.

She knows this because about 40% of those building apartments are purchasing groups — groups of like-minded people who purchase apartments in bulk at a discount. The other 60% of apartments are being constructed by private contractors and sold on an individual basis. In Harish’s first neighborhood, which contains 7,000 apartments, 5,000 have already been sold.

Miri Rahamim, spokeswoman for Harish, in her office (Photo by Simona Weinglass)
Miri Rahamim, spokeswoman for Harish, in her office (Simona Weinglass)

Rahamim said she and her husband bought in Harish three years ago, after their first child was born, and paid NIS 660,000 ($170,300) for a 4-bedroom apartment, a price unprecedented anywhere in Israel, let alone a 45-minute drive from Tel Aviv. She was so excited at the pioneering aspect of starting a new life in a brand new place that she started a Facebook group to meet other residents. Harish became such an obsession that the city council hired her to be their spokeswoman. Since Rahamim bought her apartment, it has jumped in value to NIS 1,000,000 ($258,000), even though it won’t be ready for another three years.

Rahamim says that all streets in Harish will be open to traffic on Shabbat. Will the ultra-Orthodox population will feel comfortable with this? Keshet, the ultra-Orthodox mayor, replies: “This is a very open population, Sephardic, Chabad-Lubavitch, Breslav, mostly not the kind of people who live in Mea Shearim.”

In fact, he says, all the ultra-Orthodox schools in Harish will adopt a state-approved core curriculum with math, science and English studies. This is not the norm in many ultra-Orthodox communities across the country.

Asked if there will be nonkosher cafes or cafes that are open on Shabbat — an issue that has rocked other cities with side-by-side secular and religious populations — Keshet replied: “I won’t prevent it. Whatever the city council decides.”

The battle over Harish

Harish started life as a kibbutz in the 1980s. It never took off, and was abandoned by its residents in the early 1990s. The government then sold apartments there to career army officers, but most never actually came to settle in Harish.

In 2007, Shas housing minister Ariel Atias decided to build an ultra-Orthodox city of 100,000 people in Harish. But secular residents of the town, led by Hemi Bar Or, petitioned the High Court of Justice, saying that they would be unable to continue to live in their town if it became all-Haredi. The High Court decided that the town would be open to all residents of Israel. The tenders were opened to the entire population, says Rahamim, but 12 bids were disqualified due to price collusion.

Aerial view of Harish, August 2015 (Photo credit: Facebook)
Aerial view of Harish, August 2015 (Facebook)

Dov Khenin, the only Jewish Knesset member on the Joint (Arab) List, took up battle alongside the secular residents. “I met an amazing group of people when we were struggling over opening up the city to everyone, religious and secular, Jew and Arab. This is an opportunity to build a new and improved city in Israel,” he enthused.

Khenin says that while Jews and Arabs often live in separate communities, there is no law separating them, merely personal preference or discrimination on the part of sellers and renters.

“Arabs in Israel have their own housing crisis,” says Khenin, “I hope some will come to live in Harish.”

According to Miri Rahamim, as soon as the tenders were announced, Bar Or, an artist by profession, started looking for people to join his purchasing groups. He tapped into young Israelis whose consciousness had been raised by the social justice protests of 2011 and were looking for an affordable place to live. He also found buyers among the cycling enthusiasts who bike through the nearby forests on weekends. From there, according to Rahamim, word spread through Facebook and social networks.

“Harish is an opportunity that comes along once in a few decades,” says Rahamim, “to build a city from scratch. There’s this desire to build something great.”

A smart city

Erez Mizrahi is a high-tech entrepreneur and the mayor’s consultant on smart cities. He heads a start-up, Challengy, that exports “smart city” technology to cities around the world, including Nice, France, and several cities in the UK.

“We take a city and turn it into a lab. We then take 10 start-ups every six months and deploy their technologies throughout the city. “[Jerusalem Mayor] Nir Barkat called me. Herzliya is also interested, but I sat with Keshet and saw he is open to new things and there is opportunity here.”

Erez Mizrahi in Harish (Photo credit: Simona Weinglass)
Erez Mizrahi in Harish (Simona Weinglass)

Mizrahi, the son of British parents who grew up in Burma and later immigrated to Israel, says he is trying to persuade his wife to buy an apartment in Harish.

One of Mizrahi’s ideas that the mayor has agreed to implement is for Harish to own its own fiber optic cable.

“What’s happening in [most places in] Israel is that fiber optic cable is the property of big companies; we want it to belong to the residents,” Mizrahi says.

The city can then create services on top of the fiber optic cable, like its own telephone and Internet service. Mizrahi would also like to see Harish produce its own electricity, as opposed to buying it from the monopolistic Israel Electric Corporation.

“We could use natural gas, wind turbines or solar power. The residents won’t have to deal with the Electric Corporation and will pay 30 percent less for electricity. We could even sell electricity to the Electric Corporation. They’re always looking for new production sources.”

Mizrahi says the city will have full WiFi coverage, as well as LED street lamps with sensors and even smart trash cans that collect information about what is going on in the city and how to make it more efficient. Trash cans will communicate with trucks over the Internet when they need to be emptied while camera-equipped lampposts will deter crime.

(Photo credit: Facebook)
(New apartments under construction in Harish (Facebook)

“But Harish has no money, so I’d like to build Harish as a start-up. We’d get outside investors to invest in the business model of services that until now were the property of big corporations,” Mizrahi explains.

Why not make it a cooperative?

Mizrahi jumps out of his seat. “That’s a great idea. Making people responsible for the economy of their own city — it could be a showcase for the world.”

Mizrahi says he invited the CEO of Gvahim, a nonprofit that helps professional new immigrants find jobs, to Harish.

“There are immigrants from France who come here for an internship. They can’t find themselves in Israel and go back. Here, they can have both community and an internship. We’ll help them put down roots in Israel for the long term.”

Mizrahi says he is also pressuring the Office of the Chief Scientist to build its last start-up incubator in Harish.

“We need jobs here. Harish shouldn’t just be about affordable housing but an affordable life, a more worthwhile life.”

When asked whether he is on board with all of Mizrahi’s plans, the mayor says the idea of producing its own electricity is something the city will consider down the line. “For right now it’s too complicated.”

Keshet says he likes Mizrahi’s idea for a local currency.

“We’re looking into it. Maybe if you buy something here you’ll get a coupon to buy something else inside the city. So the money circulates locally.”

Keshet says that he wants to see lots of small businesses thrive in Harish. While he has already signed on the Rami Levy supermarket chain as well as Super-Pharm, he says he plans to give tax incentives to mom-and-pop businesses.

A sense of place?

Harish has been compared to Modiin, an Israeli town that was planned from scratch in the early 1990s.

“I looked at the plans for Harish,” says Dror Gershon, who heads Merhav, the Movement for Israeli Urbanism. Merhav describes its agenda as “people-oriented planning that prevents deterioration and atrophy of cities and promoting sustainable local development that enhances opportunities.”

Gershon told The Times of Israel he is not impressed with Harish.

“There’s nothing new here. It’s totally suburban.”

He singles out for opprobrium the plan for Harish’s main boulevard, which will be 60 meters wide with an island in the middle lined with bike paths, benches and small cafes.

“Sixty meters is not a boulevard, it’s a highway.”

According to Gershon, the urban fabric requires narrow streets. If the streets are too wide, anything else you do, however well intentioned, is window dressing.

A model of Harish.  (Image courtesy of Mansfeld-Kehat Architects)
A model of Harish. (Image courtesy of Mansfeld-Kehat Architects)

Haim Kehat of the Mansfeld-Kehat architecture firm planned the city at the behest of the Housing Ministry. He concedes to The Times of Israel that the city’s main boulevard is very wide, but says he had to design it that way to accommodate public transport as well as a possible future light rail line.

“If you look further inside the city, the streets are different.”

An illustration of Harish's main boulevard as it may look in the future. (Image courtesy of Hanan Mor)
An illustration of Harish’s main boulevard as it may look in the future. (Image courtesy of Hanan Mor)

Kehat was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1944 and grew up on a kibbutz.

“My mother used to say to me, ‘You’ve never seen a real city.’ She described how in Budapest she would walk out of her house to the opera.’”

“Our goal in Harish was to build a mixed-use city, a place that encourages walking as opposed to using a car.”

Gershon concurs that car dependence is the bane of street life and cites Modiin as an example of planning gone terribly wrong.

“Modiin is a suburb, it’s nothing but sleeping units. There’s almost no commerce. It lacks almost everything that happens in a city. “

But don’t a lot of people like Modi’in?

“Some people enjoy living in a suburb, and for them, it’s great. But you have to have two cars, enslave yourself to a mortgage and spend hours on the road to get to work. You have to be your kids’ chauffeur and drive them from place to place. And the kids get fat.”

Modi'in --bad planning? (Photo from the Facebook page of Modiin municipality)
A view of Modiin (Facebook page of Modiin municipality)

Kehat says he, too, dislikes suburbia and that there is a new consensus in professional planning circles on the need to go back to a more urban style of planning, “with public squares and streets that are real streets.”

“I take the train throughout Israel and look out the window. The planning is a mess — high-rises in the middle of the countryside and low-rise buildings where you’d expect a city. There is no center.”

Kehat cites the older parts of Tel Aviv, Hadar Hacarmel in Haifa and the older parts of Netanya as places with particular charm. Harish will be like those places, he says.

“The plan was to create more than just a suburb.”

The fact that Harish was originally designed as an ultra-Orthodox city, says Kehat, made urbanism a natural choice.

“You can’t build high-rises because Haredim won’t ride in an elevator on Shabbat.”

Haredim tend to have large families, which also meant he had to plan a city with lots of walking and public transportation.

“An ultra-Orthodox mother can’t pile 6-7 kids into a car and drop each one off at their school.”

For the same reason, many shops in Harish will be located on the street underneath apartments, as opposed to in malls.

“A mother with a small shop can’t be that far away from her kids.”

In Harish, every house is no more than a five-minute walk from a school, park, playground and grocery store, says Kehat. There are speed bumps at most intersections, as well as 17 kilometers (10 miles) of bike paths snaking through the city and lots of green space.

The goal, says Kehat, is nothing less than for Harish’s streets to be alive.

“That is the dream. The potential is there. But cities take time to ripen, trees take time to grow. In 20 years, you can go there and see what happened.”

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