JewishPress.com met with Avraham Ben-Tzvi, an American-born resident of Efrat running for the Efrat Municipal Council in the upcoming municipal elections this month.
The Jewish Press: Hello Avraham, tell us a little about yourself
Avraham Ben-Tzvi: Well, I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY where my parents still live. By the way, they are avid Jewish Press readers, as were my grandparents of blessed memory, who always had the weekly copy in their home. I went to school k-12 at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn. Following High School I studied at Yeshiva University and spent a year in Israel at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. In 1994 I made Aliya and worked in banking and then business development for Israeli hi-tech companies, and I have been living with my family in Efrat in Gush Etzion since 2003. A number of years back, I studied law in Israel and have since been working as a corporate and commercial lawyer.
JP: What attracted you to Efrat?
Ben-Tzvi: Naomi, my wife, and I were looking for an affordable place to live located in the Jerusalem area, where we would be able to give our children a good education as well as be part of a religious community – yet still have access to many types of services that would be found in larger cities. Efrat, which is the central town in the Gush Etzion region, fit the bill perfectly. We found a wonderful, new and growing community in the Zayit hill neighborhood in Efrat, where construction began around the year 1999. Today the neighborhood is home to many hundreds of families with children who attend the Efrat schools.
JP: How does voting work in a town like Efrat?
Ben-Tzvi: In Israel, local municipalities like Efrat have elections every five years. The voters elect a mayor on one ticket, and a slate of candidates for the municipal council. Those can be, and often are two separate and distinct choices.
One of the candidates for mayor of Efrat, Dovi Schefler, a current Efrat council member, asked me to join his list for the town council election. Everything he said made sense to me and I realized that he is the person who can take Efrat forward and turn it into the capital city of Gush Etzion, which it was intended to be. So I responded affirmatively. I haven’t stopped since.
JP: What’s your role on Shefler’s list?
Ben-Tzvi: The plan after the election is that I will be tasked with handling matters related to new immigrants, as well as dealing with environmental issues, such as development of open spaces and green areas. I hope to institute town sponsored community gardens, to be run by a community committee, as well as garden allotments developed by the town and made available to rent to people who live in apartments without a garden. There is much available open land which will likely never be built on, and can be used for these purposes. I also see these and other types of open spaces as part and parcel of proper town planning. It’s not just about pouring concrete…
JP: Speaking of environmental issues, I understand you’re known to have been involved in fighting to force the local construction companies to comply with noise and safety regulations, and that’s been an issue that’s been ignored.
Ben-Tzvi: There’s that, and I plan to continue to make progress on enforcing safety and noise regulations on building sites in Efrat for the good of the residents.
JP: Why would you run for elected office in a volunteer capacity?
Ben-Tzvi: The reality is that while the Knesset elections and national politics get the most attention in the Israeli and international press, what affects and interests the average resident the most on a daily basis is tied into local politics – their children’s education, clean sidewalks, shade in the parks (or even having parks altogether), social welfare services, housing development, recreational activities—including swimming pools and athletic fields—are just some of the basic, day to day things that impact us at the local level.
While I had previously volunteered on various town committees and community activities, after Dovi Shefler asked me to join his campaign, I thought about it and realized that the most effective way to really bring about positive change would be to sit at the main table – on the council. That’s where the real action is.
One of the valuable things I learned from my teachers and co-workers since studying law in Israel, is that knowledge of the law brings a skill set that can be used to help people in all sorts of situations. The Israeli lawyers I work with, despite our heavy workloads, are all very active with various pro-bono and community volunteer activities, and in this context it is only natural for me to want to give back to the great community that has given me and my family so much.
JP: Tell us about new housing in Efrat.
Ben-Tzvi: In Yehuda and Shomron, the local municipality plays a very important role in promoting new development. As housing in Yesha is a politically charged issue, very often if a mayor is proactive and pushes forward new housing solutions – and works together with various bodies involved in settlement activities such as the Yesha Council and Amana, the development arm of the council – his town will grow. On the other hand, if this is not a top priority for the mayor, the town will stagnate. In recent years, many children of Efrat residents who got married had to leave to other locations, since there was no suitable housing for them here. The town actually didn’t even have sufficient housing for tens of new immigrant families from the US, the UK, France and other western countries, who wanted to settle in Efrat. There simply wasn’t and isn’t available housing.
Just to give an example – Efrat was founded in 1983, and currently has slightly fewer than 8,000 residents. The number of households and residents has actually declined since the last mayoral election in 2008! Another Jerusalem satellite town, Maaleh Adumim, which lies to the northeast of Jerusalem (Efrat is to the south) and which was founded in the late 1970’s, currently has around 40,000 residents. Smaller towns around Efrat have grown by between 30 and 120 percent over the last five years. And they were all subject to the same “building freeze” that Efrat was. So there is, obviously, something missing here.
JP: Where is the new development supposed to take place?
Ben-Tzvi: The Eitam hill, which lies next to the Zayit hill and is Efrat’s largest and only remaining land reserve, and is expected to more than double the population of Efrat, was recently granted permission by government officials to begin use by agricultural projects. Unfortunately, the town has not pushed forward with this initiative, and we are at risk of losing the hill forever. You can imagine how different the future of the town will be if we lose Eitam hill.
One of the first things we will do after the election is make sure that these permits are fully utilized by the town and to create a permanent presence on the hill. We will also make sure that more than a hundred new caravans—housing for newlywed couples who are still serving in the army or studying—will be set up, to provide sufficient housing for the children of our townspeople and to seed the next generation who will, b’ezrat Hashem, go up to settle the Eitam hill.
JP: New caravans and new residents, but what about shuls for all these new residents? Isn’t it getting a bit crowded on your hilltop?
Ben-Tzvi: I’ve helped form new shuls in the Zayit, one of which has been davening in a caravan for a number of years, but its been difficult getting past some of the bureaucratic obstacles involved in getting construction started. I plan on working to ensure that the taxes that the residents of Efrat have paid, earmarked for shuls, are released to them to build their local shuls.
JP: What is the significance of a new immigrant taking part in the council?
Ben-Tzvi:Efrat has a reputation as being “full of Americans.” The reality is that while there’s a significant number of people in Efrat who made aliyah from America (and the UK, which is where Naomi, my wife is from), I can only think of one or two olim who have served on the town council the past few years. There is a complicated administrative and legal bureaucracy to deal with in running a town, and olim generally have their own “package” of integration difficulties to overcome. Though I moved to Israel as an adult, I have been here for a while, and speak the language.
It is truly a privilege to be given this opportunity to run for the town council. It goes without saying that the opportunity to serve on a Jewish city council in the Jewish state is something which my great-grandparents could only have dreamed about.
JP: Best of luck.
Ben-Tzvi: Thank you.
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