“If I want to just be a good mayor, I could fix the roads and pick up the garbage,” says Yakov Asher, the new mayor of Bnei Brak, Israel, in an exclusive interview at the editorial offices of The Jewish Press. “But there’s so much more we can do.”
If Asher sounds like he’s not your typical – or stereotypical – haredi mayor, his several-month record as mayor, as well as his record as deputy mayor, confirms that impression. When Asher came into office last December after 20 years of working in Bnei Brak’s municipal government, he inherited a 270 million shekel deficit. He immediately struck a deal with the Israeli government. They agreed to give Bnei Brak 165 million shekel (part loan and part grant), and he committed to erasing the deficit by the end of 2009. Seven months into his term, he’s well on his way to fulfilling that promise.
Modern Bnei Brak was founded as an agricultural settlement in 1924 by Rabbi Yitzchok Gerstenkorn and a group of Polish chassidim. Due to a lack of land, many of its founders turned to other occupations, and the village began to develop an urban character. It lies in the Gush Dan district of which Tel Aviv is the largest city, between Ramat Gan and Petach Tikvah.
At the time of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Bnei Brak’s population stood at some 8,000. By 1950, it received city status, and its population grew in leaps and bounds, buildings sprouting up from all sides where the orange orchards had once been located. Immigrants from Europe and the Middle East poured in and new neighborhoods were established. Just 10 years after the establishment of the state, the population had swelled to some 40,000 Jews.
Currently, Bnei Brak’s population of about 160,000 gives it the largest population density of any city in Israel. Bnei Brak is renowned as the largest haredi Jewish center in the world and is famed for its many yeshivas and chassidic communities. The famous Chazon Ish settled in Bnei Brak, and many credit its rapid increase into an important religious city, in large measure, to him.
Recently, Asher visited the U.S. to publicize a new vision for Bnei Brak’s future – development that he hopes will help make the city financially independent as well as a more inviting place for local residents to spend their leisure time. The plans call for several office towers in the northern part of the city, bordering and overlapping the neighboring city of Ramat Gan. Two of these towers are already standing (one of them is in Bnei Brak and the other is in Ramat Gan) and the mayor hopes to start the building on several more soon.
The office towers would greatly aid Bnei Brak by bringing in millions of dollars each year in tax revenue. Last year alone, the Bnei Brak tower, dubbed Besser One after the development company that built it, brought in $8 million. Asher estimates that the tower has about 200 companies in its 32 stories.
Mayor Yakov Asher showing a picture of the development plans for Bnei Brak
The second part of the mayor’s plan is to add more green space to Bnei Brak, specifically with a large park that will include a man-made lake, also in the northern section of the city. As Asher put it, many residents would feel more comfortable spending their family leisure time among Israelis who are modestly dressed and share the same cultural sensitivities. Of course, on its own, parks and green spaces are important for a city whose population is so heavily skewed towards the young. Out of a total population of 160,000, there are 100,000 children and young adults, between the ages of 0-22.
However, the economic climate has made it very difficult for Asher to get Besser or any other development company to commit to building more towers. So the mayor has set up a development fund. Asher is looking for philanthropists who would like to join this cause. He also wants “to interest Americans who may be interested in locating their Israel-based operations to consider the new office towers in Bnei Brak.”
From his point of view and that of the city’s other leaders of the past 15 years, this is the fulfillment of an urban dream – the development of a modern industrial zone for the city which, he says, will free it of its dependence on grants of millions of shekels from the Interior Ministry. But financial independence is not Asher’s only goal; he hopes this development will turn Bnei Brak into a city that will enjoy a considerable addition to its municipal budget, and as a corollary, a rise in the standard of living in the city.
“If this plan is put into operation, we will become super-independent,” he says. “There are two stages here: an industrial zone in the north [a plan that has already been approved] will lead us to economic independence in the near future. The new plan will lead us to independence plus. We wish to run our lives and not be managed by someone else, and for that we have to have jobs. It’s not possible that what is good for Ramat Gan, the stock exchange compound, will not be good for Bnei Brak, too. Our time has come.”
The area in question is located next to the Ayalon mall and constitutes the last large reserve of land in the city. It is bordered by the Yarkon River in the north (on the other side are the Tel Aviv neighborhoods of Kiryat Atidim and Ramat Hahayal), Sheshet Hayamim Street (which becomes Em Hamoshavot Road east of that) to the south, Mivtza Kadesh Street to the west, and Route No. 4 on the eastern side.
The compound encompasses an area of some 350 acres, part of which currently houses factories, offices and businesses. This large tract allows for massive construction – up to 16 million square feet, most of it in high-rise towers of 15 to 30 stories, which will be used for commerce, offices, services and high-tech industry. Some 1.6 million square feet will be earmarked for public buildings. The high-rise construction will be graded nearby the park, where buildings will not exceed five stories.
One of the jewels in the plan is the park that will stretch across the compound’s entire northern area, close to the Yarkon River. “It was clear that the development of the Yarkon park and its bank would be one of the plan’s focal points,” says architect Eli Furst, from the urban planning firm that drew up the plan. The residents of Bnei Brak are desperately in need of open spaces, Furst says, and the park will be accessible “through a system of pedestrian paths that will join the city of Bnei Brak with the other side of the Yarkon above Sheshet Hayamim Road and will end at the piazzas, from where pedestrians will once again pass through green routes to the Yarkon. These are indirect and safe traffic routes.”
According to Ezra Friedlander, CEO of The Friedlander Group, an American public relations firm, the mayor’s visit was important in establishing the goals of his Development Fund for Bnei Brak.
For more information on the fund, please contact Ezra Friedlander at 718-436-5555 x101 or via e-mail at BneiBrak@FriedlandergroupPR.com