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If You Build It, They’ll Come: Man Hopes Luxury Homes Will Spark Aliyah

April 1, 2005
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Jake Leibowitz walks down a muddy road, looks out onto a valley of rain-soaked grasses and wildflowers and sees his dream: a luxury community of landscaped parks, lakes and multimillion-dollar homes where wealthy Jews from abroad will be able to recreate the quality of life they had outside of Israel. Leibowitz left a thriving business as a building contractor in Brooklyn to move here nine years ago to invest his life savings in a project he has dubbed Eden Hills. It’s a community where he envisions residents waving to each other from long verandas, walking scenic paths and riding horses at the community country club.

“We are offering people quality of life,” said Leibowitz, a tall man with a salt-and-pepper beard and the confidence of a true believer. “If what is stopping people is a nice house and a nice community, then here it is — an opportunity to live in your ancestral homeland but on your own terms.”

He thinks that if he can attract wealthy Western immigrants through the project, they can make major economic contributions to Israel.

“Everyone has a dream,” Leibowitz said. “This is mine.”

Leibowitz, who was born in Israel but moved to the United States as a child, likes to think big. He foresees not just a residential community in Eden Hills but a health center where doctors can merge the practice of Western and alternative medicine, an archaeological park where residents can dig for ancient treasures, a spa, a boutique hotel, an assisted living center and an office space where people with businesses abroad can hold video conferences and conduct their work from afar.

The 200-acre plot for the project lies about eight miles southwest of Jerusalem, between Beit Shemesh and Tsur Hadassah. It’s within sight of the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank.

Central to Leibowitz’s plans is a desire to make the community environmentally friendly: Drinking water is to be recycled and reused for irrigation, energy-saving water and waste systems will be installed underground, and a road on pillars is to be constructed at the community’s entrance to minimize harm to green space.

Leibowitz hired an ecologist to survey wind patterns and the way the sun falls in the area so he could take them into account when building.

But environmental activists are protesting Eden Hills. Avraham Shaked, regional coordinator for environmental matters in the Judean Hills for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, has been leading the charge.

Shaked maintains that new developments aren’t needed in Israel today when so many existing communities are struggling economically and need new investment and residents.

Furthermore, he claims Eden Hills is detrimental to the environment because the community will be built next to the West Bank security fence, which blocks the flow of animal and plant life.

“The fact is that the development itself is actually an ecological disaster, and there is no use to describe such a place as an ecological development. It’s anti-ecological,” Shaked said. “Even if they save energy and recycle water, their existence amounts to real ecological damage.”

Though the project already has been approved, Shaked said the nature society is making every effort to limit its effects, lobbying to have housing plots made smaller.

Shaked also objects to the project as an Israeli, saying that if wealthy Jews from abroad want to come to Israel they should not need a “Beverly Hills” to lure them. He said they should invest their money and live in existing places that need residents.

Leibowitz points out that wealthy Diaspora Jews aren’t making aliyah in large numbers — but if a community like Eden Hills existed, they might.

“If we want them to come they will come, if we build them something superior to where they live now,” he said.

Surveying the plot’s sloping green hills, Leibowitz says that the land is near the area of Arugah, where the Bible says David slew Goliath. It’s a story with which Leibowitz identifies, because he’s spent some 15 years struggling with Israeli bureaucrats to secure the land. The government decided to have a community built on the site in 1998.

On Tu B’Shevat this February, Leibowitz gathered several hundred people for a groundbreaking ceremony. It attracted Knesset members and dozens of potential residents who flew in from the United States for the occasion.

According to Leibowitz, hundreds of people have paid the $25,000 fee to be put on a list for one of the community’s first 600 homes.

Among them is New Jersey businessman Hesh Seif. Seif says Leibowitz is offering people what they want — the ability to move to Israel without having to change their lifestyle.

“Why should someone like me, who has a modicum of success in the States, why should I give up what I have here and move to Israel?” Seif asked in a phone interview from his New Jersey office. “At the end of the day I don’t really feel like giving up a lot of luxuries I have here, and Jake is making it so we don’t have to.”

Seif acknowledges that he could buy a luxurious house in exclusive Israeli cities such as Kfar Shmaryahu or Caesarea, but said Eden Hills’ proximity to Jerusalem was key.

Like many of those who have signed up for Eden Hills, Seif is Orthodox. Leibowitz, who also is Orthodox, said the community was not planned to be exclusively Orthodox but acknowledged that many of those attracted to it are religiously observant.

The Plessner architectural firm in Tel Aviv designed several model homes for Eden Hills based on American-style sizes and tastes. The most affordable homes will be townhouses, but there also will be sprawling six-bedroom villas.

The architects researched luxury communities throughout the United States to get ideas. Itai Linenberg, the project’s head architect, said his office was drawn to it because it was not just about making money, but about a vision.

“There was a connection between us and the developer,” Linenberg said. “In contrast to many other projects where the architect comes with grandiose ideas and fantasies, and the developer has his feet on the ground, in this case we feel like we have to bring Jake down to earth in an economically rational way.”

Leibowitz said he’s an advocate of what he calls “the new Zionism,” which combines democracy and capitalism.

On a hill above the land set to become Eden Hills, Leibowitz walked into a former chicken coop. He’s renovating it to make it the main office when building begins in the coming year.

He saw a pigeon roosting in the corner and laughed, remembering how his mother, a Holocaust survivor, would say pigeons brought good luck.

“It’s a good omen,” Leibowitz said, flashing a wide smile.

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