The Garden of Israel - Mateh Yehuda
We live our day-to-day lives in Beit Shemesh and Ramat Beit Shemesh, enjoying the benefits of living in well-established and flourishing communities. While we may be familiar with the history of Beit Shemesh, few of us are aware that the area around the city in which we live falls under the jurisdiction of a regional council called Mateh Yehuda. For many of us, the only inkling we have of its existence is the small sign next to the police station that points to its headquarters in Nacham.
Mateh Yehuda Regional Council was founded in 1964 to provide support and organization for the 57 settlements that are situated in this region. The largest regional council – by area - in the entire country, Mateh Yehuda covers some 520,000 dunam, extending from Kibbutz Ramat Rachel in the east to Tal Shachar, by Tzomet Nachshon in the west; from Mesilat Tzion in the north to Nechusha, at the end of Route 38, to the south. It includes some of the most ancient settlements in Israel. Nearly all of the yishuvim boast histories going back to ancient Israel and contain artifacts and ruins from all periods of history.
Ten kibbutzim and thirty-eight moshavim are included in this diverse collection of settlements. Most of them were founded in the early 1950’s, mainly by groups of immigrants from Oriental/Sephardi origin. The original purpose of these settlements was to bolster Israel’s security in the region, to act as a barrier and a trade corridor due to the large number of Arab villages in the area. In 1948, most of the Arabs living in the area fled, leaving a few houses and years of neglected agriculture behind them. For the early settlers of the region, these years were very hard and many of the original yishuvim took a few decades to really establish themselves. For example, Zanoach was comprised of Yemenite families who could not make it in the early years and by 1958, the yishuv was taken over by Moroccan families who still make up most of Zanoach’s population.
Most of the settlements are historically agricultural with the substantial portion going to growing grapes and olives. In the last decade there has been a huge expansion in produce and technology in order to develop the true potential of the region. Some well-known brands such as Tami 4, the water filter manufacturer, Amgazit, camping gear, Tnuva Fish, Etzmaleh, and Tuttenaur, make their home here. An extremely successful initiative, called The Wine Route, spearheaded by the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000, whose offices are across the street from the Mateh Yehuda headquarters, has brought world class viniculture to the area. Several brands, including Tzora, Ella Valley and Castel now boast award-winning wineries, and with that have boosted the economic level of the region.
One of the methods of increasing the socio-economic wealth of the area is encouraging new settlement in the region. From 30,000 residents of Mateh Yehuda just five years ago, the numbers have expanded to 50,000. The regional council has provided a backbone of religious, educational and community support to all the yishuvim, until they can boast that only fifteen of them still need financial assistance on a regular basis. Many of the original residents were extremely poor, having arrived as refugees from war-torn areas and the far-reaching council was the only body that really reached out to help these people after the 1967 war.
As part of the Mateh-Yehuda expansion program, many Anglo groups are being invited to join the growing settlements, where the quality of life, for many, is seen as better than within the City of Beit Shemesh. Families receive more land and a feeling of space and benefit from the closeness of good neighbors and a small community. Moshav Aderet, Zanoach and Roglit currently have developments that reach out to Anglo families.
Many of us Anglos may not even know about the wonderful attractions available to us. Here are a few of the local gems:
• 1000 hotel rooms and tzimmers are located in the region so
that families and tourists can enjoy the rich countryside
and archaeological sites.
• Caves, caves, caves - Stalactite, Luzit, “Twins” et al.
• There are local agricultural markets with fresh produce.
• Tasty ethnic restaurants.
• Excellent horse riding facilities.
• Bike riding and hiking trails abound (see the annual Tiyul issue of Connections).
• Wonderful family petting zoos, including Kibbutz Tzora, KifTzuba, Yishi.
• National parks (Ein Hemed, Castel and Harei Yehuda), nature preserves and large parks (Park Britannia, American Park).
• Historical sites such as Harel/Burma Road, Netiv HaLamed Hei, Har Yaale, Nes Harim etc
• Biblical sites such as Emek Haela, Tel Yarmut, Kever Dan.
So, grab your water bottles and hats and set off to explore the rich and wonderful area in which you live. Here is a survey of the closest yishuvim to Beit Shemesh.
Aviezer was founded in 1958 by a British grant and named after the giver. It was primarily founded to populate the area and prevent Arab incursion into the region. This was, in fact, the main goal of many of these settlements which lie a few miles inside of the ‘green line’. The Mizrachi movement worked in 1958 to populate the moshav with families from Iran, but this venture eventually failed and now the main body of families on the settlement are from Cochin, India. It is one of the largest groups of Indian Jews in the country and the culture and cuisine of the yishuv reflects this wonderful group. It has also become popular with families of Anglo origin seeking a more natural and healthy lifestyle. It is the base of several poets, artists and natural healing practitioners who offer their techniques to the residents of our area. You can take a hike to explore the fecundity of herb life in the hills around the moshav or have your home feng-shui-ed by a master. In 2002, a terror attack took place at Aviezer when two grenades were thrown into the yishuv by terrorists who had infiltrated Israel. Two security personnel were injured.
ROGLIT (Neve Michael)
Set in the beautiful countryside at the footsteps of the Gush Etzion hills, Neve Michael/Roglit is developing two very different housing projects. Slated for the much publicized Eden Hills project, it is also home to the smaller – and less controversial - Eco-village, in which residents choose a “green” lifestyle and homes built with ecological considerations. It was originally settled by Jews from Iran and Kurdistan in 1958, but by 1988, the moshav was run down and in financial distress. It was determined that only a massive building project could save it. Eden Hills is a huge project, with plans for 500 high-end housing units marketed specifically to Americans who wish to “settle in Israel without losing quality of life”. The Eden Hills project has become controversial because of opposition from environmental groups who believe that the development will endanger many of the unique wildlife species that grow and live in the area.
Several smaller projects, already under construction, are luring Beit Shemesh residents with the promise of large plots and a better standard of living.
From the year 1959, attempts were made to settle the area now known as Moshav Aderet. Only five miles from Beit Shemesh and blessed with fertile land with its own springs of fresh water, it still took until 1963 to populate the yishuv with families who originally came from the Atlas mountain area of North Africa. Due to high rates of terrorist activity in the area, two other attempts failed and early settlers describe the high level of fear until after the 1967 war. The moshav remained fairly small until 1990, when the ancient vineyards were reestablished and new homes built to attract young families from Yerushalayim to come and settle in the area. Aderet now boasts a thriving and award-winning winery which produces 100,000 bottles of kosher wine a year. Recently, the religious moshav has been actively seeking new members from the national religious Anglo population. It is a tolerant, friendly and well-equipped settlement and the new drive has been very successful, attracting young Dati Anglo and Israeli families. Unlike some other moshavim, these new members have been welcomed by the original settlers. A member of the new community sits on the council and the moshav boasts many community events which are run by volunteers.
Built along the route of the ancient Roman road through the region, Givat Yishayahu lies five miles south of Beit Shemesh. It was established in 1958 by a group of Zionist Hungarian Jews who wanted to settle in the area. In 2000, it expanded to include housing for another 80 families, although many of the original settlers still live there. Set among fertile green hills, this Moshav has recently joined its local brothers in becoming a center for wine production. The Hans Sternbach Wine Estate was first planted in 1996 and now a little more than ten years later is also producing award-winning wines. The moshav also houses a small but thriving artist colony, including painters and original jewelry designers.
About a mile down the road from Giv’at Yishayahu lies the small working moshav of Zafririm. It is a beautiful spot and has protected status as a nature reserve.
It is most famous as the home to Kakadu designs, set up by a husband and wife team of carpenter and artist. It’s highly colorful and unique items in wood are on sale in many local stores and the couple offer workshops to local children.
This yishuv once housed the educational center of Mateh Yehuda which has since moved on to Tzora. Established in 1960, it has grown to nearly 240 families building beautiful homes during the 1990’s.
It was originally called just ‘Srigim’, which, like the nearby Geffen and Tirosh is related to grapes. Later, the name Li-on was added after a patron named Li-on contributed substantial funds to aid the ailing settlement in the early years.
There is large pool, a wonderful children’s activity center called Yeladudes and vacation cottages for couples seeking a peaceful escape. A small, but significant artist colony reside on the yishuv. Their semi-annual regional art and crafts fair, held in the homes of the individual artists is growing more and more popular every year, drawing crowds from around the country.
For many of us, Moshav Zekariyah is known only as the closest gas station to Ramat Beit Shemesh, but is really a large and thriving moshav with an interesting history. Originally established in 1950, it was a base for workers from Yerushalayim who labored along the Yerushalayim “corridor” and eventually settled to work the rich farmland of the moshav. They were soon joined by dozens of families from Kurdistan who brought their unique culture to the area. Zekariyah is filled with ancient remains and is seen as a religious site for Christians. Most controversially, it is rumored to be one of the sites of Israel’s missile installations, something not so welcomed by surrounding inhabitants, since it is seen as a potential wartime target.
This yishuv was also expanded in the 90’s, to attract those in search of high quality pastoral living. You can see the magnificent houses from Route 38 as you pass by.
NETIV HALAMED HEY
Less than five minutes drive from RBS, this Kibbutz is a wonderful source of home-cooked Shabbat take out food for many in the Anglo community, but its founding is based on a much more serious past, named in memory of the 35 young men who set out from there and died while on a mission to protect the Gush Etzion area in 1948. It was established in 1949 with a blend of young Israeli activists, youth from abroad and a group from Bulgaria. Nestled in Emek HaEla, it is likely to be the biblical battleground of David and Goliath. The kibbutz is home to TAMI 4, manufacturer of the country’s best known water filtering system. Award-winning Ella Valley Winery, set in a small park and aviary, produces many kinds of wines that can be sampled within its beautiful grounds. The kibbutz also produces its own delicious olive oil. A group of artists producing jewelry has also established itself there and holds workshops for the public.
Mosahv Zanoach is probably the closest yishuv to Beit Shemesh. It was settled in 1950, by families from Yemen, as part of the efforts of the Agudat Yisrael movement, but their efforts failed and the housing was soon filled by families from Morocco, many of whom still live there today. Like other yishuvim in the area, its original purpose was to reinforce the invaluable Jerusalem corridor, but it has grown slowly until a few years ago, when Yishuv members decided to offer land for development to save the moshav from financial ruin. Housing for Anglos is being built right now, although not all moshav members are happy about this, since it remains a fairly modest and undeveloped area. Its real value lies in the natural features that lie upon its land: Ma’arat HaNetifim (Stalactite Cave) and Ma’arat HaTeumim (Twins Cave) lie upon Zanoach land, both worth exploring. It also houses a tefillin factory that is popular with many schools.
For many of us, our only connection with Moshav Yishi is to visit Davida’s petting zoo with our children. Yishi is rich in historical remains, something proudly displayed by moshav members when you take Davida’s tractor ride. When the original Yemenite families settled there, things were not thought out well by the predominantly Ashkenazi government of the day. Yemenites were not farmers, but craftsmen and the suggestion that the so-called ‘black Jews’ would replace Arab workers in Israel did not exactly meet with enthusiasm. Each family was given a plot of land to grow some vegetables and cow sheds were put up, but few of the ventures were successful. The raising of turkeys and chickens caused huge losses, money that is being repaid still today. In the early days, it was very difficult to transport chickens to the cities. Also, all the local moshavim were given the same produce and livestock to raise which flooded the market and resulted in financial loss. Bad planning and lack of agricultural training compounded these losses.
Despite this, the moshav is an unequalled place to raise children. Surrounded by family and friends in the fresh air with beautiful scenery, the children grow up with a love of nature and family. The social life is wonderful too, with the whole moshav coming out to share the smachot of a family, escorting a chatan home from shul before his wedding, or joining in with the Henna of a kallah.
Recent proposals to expand Yishi were recently shelved when the residents committee could not agree on the plans. So for the foreseeable future, Yishi will remain the quiet, rural, family spot right outside Beit Shemesh.
Situated close to the Beit Shemesh industrial zone, this small moshav was set up by the Mizrachi movement in 1950. Originally intended as the home of Yemenite Jews, like its close neighbor, Zanoach, it eventually became home to Jews from Morocco and India. It claims close Biblical ties to Shimshon HaGibor and boasts impressive archaeological remains. Its main produce is chickens, but most of its residents find work in nearby Beit Shemesh. Mahseya houses a popular plant nursery and several workshops for carpentry and metalwork. To raise money, it developed the residential area bordering Migdal HaMayim which you can see on the right hand side of Route 10 when exiting the Northern Industrial Zone. This housing development will be largely Haredi.
Historically, this moshav was a resting post for Christian pilgrims on the way to Yerushalayim, but after the War of Independence, it became home to many families from Yemen. As it expanded, many Jews from Cochin also made their homes there, adding to a rich cultural blend on this settlement. It also expanded in the 1990’s and its proximity to the Yerushalayim-Tel Aviv Highway makes it very attractive to commuters seeking more pastoral environs. It is also a recreation center in the area, with forested picnic areas, excellent swimming pool and soccer pitch. It recently became home to the Jerusalem Center for Culinary Arts which attracts gourmet food seekers from across the region.
Eshtaol lies on Route 38 and is best known for being the resting place for Dan, one of the 12 Sh’vatim. His kever is still a popular place for people to daven at and visit. It was established soon after the War of Independence in 1949 by Keren Kayemet, which settled many of the Yemenite families who poured into Israel to escape persecution. It lies over what used to be two Arab farms, whose families still claim the land as their own. Many families living there work in the surrounding cities, although recent attempts to set up vineyards have been successful. There have been ups and downs in the moshav’s struggle for financial independence. Several years ago, a drive to produce chickens on the moshav failed miserably when prices crashed, but new expansion of families on the moshav has helped save it from disaster. Many families are choosing the high quality of life, clean air and cheap housing that moshav life can offer over high prices and cramped apartments in the cities. Eshtaol is a religiously diverse community which has attracted a group of Conservative families from America who have integrated into moshav life. It is one of the first Masorti communities in the region.
Home to Mateh Yehuda’s Regional Council, Partnership 2000, Yeshiva Tichonit Nachshon, and bordering the Eretz HaChayim cemetery, the small yishuv of Nacham was established by Yemenite families in 1950. It is also cashing in on the real estate potential, developing a community called “Agadat HaYaar”. This project, largely attracting a non-religious crowd has divided the community between those who want to maintain the religious basis of the community and those to whom that matters less.
Kibbutz Tzora is one of the success stories of the region. It was established in 1948 by a mixed group of ex-Palmach fighters, members of the kibbutz movement and new immigrants from the Habonim movements of England and South Africa. It soon became the industrial center of the region, where a large metalwork factory provided jobs for the new town of Beit Shemesh and bicycles and airplane parts for much of Israel. The Tzora Furniture Company is one of Israel’s leading manufacturers of office furniture. Other industry allowed for rapid expansion, but the kibbutz still retains its rural roots with large cowsheds and agriculture varying from cotton to sunflowers.
Kibbutz Tzora now hosts the regional educational center, where all the youth from Mateh Yehuda attend school. The kibbutz also supplies the city and outlying region with useful businesses and services such as a large guesthouse; a simcha hall; a petting zoo; a store for clothing and household items; a dialysis center; dental facilities; child development center and, for entertainment, a performance hall (home to the ever-popular Folk Club) and a pub which draws world-class performance artists. It, too, has taken advantage of the warm dry climate to grow grapes and produce award-winning wine.
Kibbutz Tzora enjoys rental revenues from the land it owns under BIG shopping mall. It also owns the parking lot across from the entrance to the mall which is slated for commercial development, too. With land also abutting the Har Tuv Industrial Park, the kibbutz plans to develop its own industrial park.
The Habonim volunteers remember a very different scene in 1956 when they visited the area. It took over two hours to reach the kibbutz from Yerushalayim, along a dangerous and potholed road. Accommodations consisted of corrugated metal huts which were agonizingly hot in the sun. Shower blocks were across a dusty field.
Many ancient archaeological sites lie scattered on the Tzora land which, in the early years, played havoc with ploughing , since subterranean remains would break the plough or disrupt farm work while they were researched. Shards of ancient pottery and other artifacts were constantly uncovered and one volunteer still has an ancient oil lamp dating back to Shimshon’s time. Much resources were spent planting the eucalyptus trees that now line Route 38 and beyond. Not only did they provide shade, but they also absorbed water from the many swamps in the region, thus draining them and helping prevent malaria which still existed in the early years.
The kibbutz is in the process of privatization which will impact all the members. But to the early volunteers and residents of Tzora, the organized, comfortable facilities are a far cry from the dusty huts that once scattered the hillside overlooking Beit Shemesh.
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