Behind the Headlines: Young, Secular Jews Leaving Jerusalem for Cheap Housing, Religious Tolerance

Like many young couples, Elana and Joe Alexander want to buy an apartment here in the capital. But, like many young Jerusalem couples, they cannot afford to do so.

“The housing prices here are really shocking,” said Elana, a travel agent in her late 20s. “First we looked in the center, where my father lives, but found that three-bedroom apartments cost over $200,000, way beyond our means.

“We’ve just started looking in the suburbs – Pisgat Ze’ev, Givat Ze’ev – places we don’t really want6 to live. Even Ramot (a once-affordable suburb of the city) has gotten expensive. It’s very frustrating to want to put down roots in Jerusalem and not be able to do so because of lack of money,” she said.

The Alexanders are among an increasing number of young Jerusalemites who do not want to leave the capital but who cannot afford to stay.

A report just released by the city’s department of strategic planning reveals what many already suspected: an unprecedented number of Jerusalemites are leaving the city, primarily because of skyrocketing housing prices and limited job opportunities.

The majority are young men and women with college degrees, many with families. A large percentage are non-religious.

Last year, 16,700 residents left the city, compared to 15,100 in 1992. In the past four years, some 59,000 Jerusalemites moved out of the capital, while only 39,000 moved in.

And yet, despite these statistics, the city’s population of 565,000 is the highest ever. This is due to the high birthrate among Jerusalem residents – 23.5 births per 1,000 residents, compared to the nationwide rate of 14.2 – and can be attributed in large part to the fervently Orthodox Jewish communities and the Arab sector.

The high birthrate notwithstanding, it is clear that Jerusalem is losing the very people it wants to attract, said Sara Hershkovitz, author of the city report.

“Most are young, educated, with young children. If this trend continues, in the long run we will have a disproportionate number of older people and a low percentage of people of working age. We’re losing the best and the brightest,” said Hershkovitz.

In a statement to reporters last week, Mayor Ehud Olmert said, “It is essential to keep a demographic balance here. I hope the government ministries will work with me in doing whatever is necessary to put an end to this deteriorating situation.”

According to municipal spokeswoman Ruth Jaffe, creating more housing and employment opportunities are at the top of the mayor’s list of priorities.

In his election platform, Olmert proposed constructing new neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts, especially on the “empty hills of eastern Jerusalem.” These new areas would be serviced by a peripheral road that would circle the city.

The city’s job market also needs to be overhauled, according Hershkovitz. “Jerusalem has very little industry,” she pointed out.

“Just 11 percent of the workforce is employed in industry, with another 10 percent in business and finance services. A full 45 percent work in public and community services” – the first jobs cut when the city is financially strapped, Hershkovitz said.

Like his predecessor Teddy Kollek, Olmert sees high-tech industry as one of the keys to Jerusalem’s economic future. Low on pollution and high on brainpower, high-tech firms would keep many of the city’s highly educated graduates in the city.

One issue not mentioned in the city’s report, but which crops up in many conversations with former Jerusalemites, is the “religion factor.”

Many city dwellers, as well as those who have left, believe that Jerusalem is becoming progressively more religious in tone and sensibility.

Citing a number of riots initiated by the “black hat” community in the past few years, they worry that the capital will no longer be a welcome place for secular Jews, who don’t want their streets closed on Shabbat, and who go to the few pubs and restaurants that operate on Friday night.

There is also growing concern among so-called “traditional” Jews that the new mayor will favor the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, community because its votes in the mayoral election ensured Olmert’s victory.

“Olmert got elected because of the haredim, so of course he will favor them when it comes to funds for education and housing,” said a Jerusalem woman who identified herself as Shira. “That’s not fair to the rest of us.”

One man, who did not wish to be identified, decided to leave Jerusalem about two years ago because he found the city “stifling religiously.”

“Jerusalem is a very religious city, and I found it stifling after a while,” he said in a telephone interview from his Tel Aviv apartment. “I love Jerusalem, but there’s nothing to do on Shabbat. I don’t have a car, and since there’s no public transportation on Shabbat or the holidays, I felt stuck.”

He said that “in Tel Aviv I’m earning 30 percent more than what I was earning in Jerusalem, performing the same the kind of work. Professionally, there are a lot more job opportunities in Tel Aviv, and the pay is much higher.”

But the clincher, he said, “was my growing desire to express who I really am. I’m gay, and there is a large gay community in Tel Aviv. There’s also a small gay community in Jerusalem, but people in the city are mush more judgmental. I feel freer in Tel Aviv, more able to be myself.”

Yet many, like the Alexanders, say they are staying put. “We’ll rent in the center of Jerusalem for a while longer, and hope that more apartments will be built, and competition will bring the prices down a bit” said Elana. “There’s no place like Jerusalem. This is what living in Israel is all about.”

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