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Tuesday, July 18 2000 02:42 15 Tammuz 5760

Beit Shemesh, only 20 minutes from the center of Jerusalem.
By Juan De La Roca

(April 21) - The site of modern Beit Shemesh is one of the oldest inhabited areas in Israel. There are signs of civic life that date back as far as 3,000 years ago. Excavations undertaken in what is called Tel Beit Shemesh unearthed the remains of a walled city, which was most probably destroyed when the ancient Israelites conquered the Promised Land.

The importance of ancient Beit Shemesh was in its strategic position astride one of the trade routes linking Egypt to Mesopotamia.

But not only that. Beit Shemesh is located on a hill 314 meters high in an area that was famed for its fertility and abundance of water.

At the advent of the third millennium, Beit Shemesh is once again coming to its own.

Its strategic position - this time economic and peaceful - near airport Ben-Gurion Airport and Ashdod seaport and, most of all, close to the country's capital city Jerusalem has made it a very strong growth area.

Furthermore, Beit Shemesh boasts a high quality of life, relatively inexpensive housing, a well-developed civic infrastructure, and a large industrial park which has effectively cut the rate of unemployment to one of the lowest in the country.

It is no wonder, therefore, that Beit Shemesh has become a favorite for Western newcomers. Nearly 7,000 of the residents of Beit Shemesh are recent arrivals from English-speaking countries. And more are coming every day.

Says mayor Daniel Vaknin, "This town has a very good track record of integrating newcomers from Western countries. And it also has much to offer. We are the fastest growing city in Israel and with good reason. We offer quality housing at affordable prices, and our civic infrastructure has kept pace with the rapid growth of the city."

A suburb of Jerusalem

Beit Shemesh is really on the go. In 1993 there were 17,000 inhabitants; in 1995 there were 24,000; in 2000 there are 50,000, and by 2005 there will be over 125,000.

There are 20,000 new dwellings in various stages of construction.

And that's not all. The municipal boundaries cover over 51,000 dunams (12,500 acres), the same as the city boundaries of Tel-Aviv proper, which has 400,000 inhabitants.

Nevertheless, the city administration wants to maintain an uncluttered city with a lot of greenery and a forest within its boundaries, which means that 150,000 to 180,000 is the absolute maximum number of inhabitants that will be allowed.

The attraction of Beit Shemesh is largely due to its proximity to the capital. Jerusalem is one of the most expensive real estate areas in Israel. The high cost of housing is driving many Jerusalemites - mainly young couples who cannot afford the high prices - to the suburbs.

But there are suburbs and there are suburbs...

The price of real estate in such posh areas as Motza and Mevasseret are as high as or higher than in the capital. But in Beit Shemesh, prices can be as low as a third of what is charged in Jerusalem.

According to Vaknin, each neighborhood will have a self-contained center offering commercial, educational, cultural, and religious services.

The still affordable (by Israeli standards) housing is what makes Beit Shemesh tick.

Most of those who are moving to Beit Shemesh are former Jerusalemites. They still have strong family ties to that city and usually are employed in Jerusalem. These people also tend to do their shopping in Jerusalem. And why not? Malcha Mall, the largest mall in the Middle East, is just a 15-minute drive away.

These former Jerusalemites, together with the new immigrants from English-speaking countries, as well as the new immigrants from the former USSR, are the most important element in town.

Low real estate prices

Shelley Levine, manager of Tivuch Shelly and a veteran realtor for Beit Shemesh, says that prices are still relatively low. A 140-sq. m. townhouse costs $185,000; a six- or seven-room semi-detached 200 sq. m. house with small garden costs $275,000; and a 125 sq. m. apartment with adjacent garden costs from $126,000 to $146,000.

Four-room apartments vary from $90,000 to $110,000.

Excellent educational facilities

For young couples, one of the most important things is to have good educational facilities for their children. In Beit Shemesh, this is far from lacking.

The mayor, who is a former headmaster, has made it a point to bring the town's educational system into the 21st century. Last year over 65% of those completing their high school studies matriculated, which allows those who want to obtain a degree to go to university. For Israel, this is a very high average.

Despite the fact that many newcomers work in Jerusalem, the town offers both job and business opportunities. It has a large modern industrial park at the western edge of the city. The park is home to modern hi-tech industries.

There is also a large number of export companies that were lured there because of the short distance to Ben-Gurion Airport and the port of Ashdod.

A very Anglo environment

Debra Zwebner, one of the most active members of the Anglo community in Beit Shemesh, thinks the town is a nice place to live, especially for English-speakers.

"We are very well organized, have our own library, we have lectures in English, we help newcomers from Anglo-Saxon countries, we do charitable work, and have five synagogues in which English-speakers are the driving element. I believe that in Beit Shemesh, immigrants from Anglo-Saxon countries will feel at home from the very first moment."

David Callen, another resident, agrees. "I think that people from Anglo-Saxon countries tend to stick together whenever possible. They have developed a certain way of living and want to maintain a certain standard of life. They can do this best by creating a communal environment. I think Beit Shemesh has a sufficient mass of English-speakers to allow us to maintain our way of life. I would certainly recommend Beit Shemesh to immigrants from English-speaking countries."

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