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A City of Great Expectations

Binyamin Rose

Bnei Brak has always been known for its lofty achievements in the Torah world. While religiously guarding that reputation, municipal officials are now setting their sights on making sure the city also has an enduring economic future. And at half the price of neighboring Tel Aviv, yeshivah-studded Bnei Brak has become a new business frontier.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Zev Ben-Avraham has been wearing a wide grin ever since the 4 a.m. phone call that roused him with the glad tidings that his fourth grandchild, a healthy baby boy, had just been born.

“Look, I already have his picture here on my iPhone,” says Mr. Ben-Avraham, as he proudly shows off the new arrival to anyone who can see the picture through the gleam of the bright morning sunshine reflecting off the phone’s screen.

Mr. Ben-Avraham may be typical of the new breed of Israeli who finds Bnei Brak to be a hospitable business address. Eight years ago, he left a position as manager of a country club in Savyon, one of Tel Aviv’s ritziest suburbs, to become site manager at Bnei Brak’s Africa-Israel (AFI) Concorde office tower, owned and constructed by real estate developer and diamond tycoon Lev Leviev.

From the tower’s rooftop panorama, one can see the loftiest sections of the city — as well as the humblest. The expanse of the Ponovezh Yeshivah is visible at a distance in the east, while on the street level just below are blocks of shuttered car repair garages, and even some wedding halls slated for demolition to make room for new business towers.

Bnei Brak has always been known for its lofty achievements in the Torah world. While religiously guarding that reputation, city officials have recently set their sights on making sure the city also has an enduring economic future.

Just two miles away to the west lie Tel Aviv and the shimmering, greenish-blue Mediterranean Sea. To the north is the Ramat Gan soccer stadium, on a tract that Bnei Brak ceded to Ramat Gan to ensure that no Shabbos soccer games would be played on Bnei Brak’s turf.

Beneath us, eighteen stories below, office workers — a mix of religious and nonreligious — are hustling along the promenades between buildings, while some sit on benches and enjoy their coffee break. The building’s occupants include Israeli construction giant Ashtrom, whose Ashdar subsidiary was one of the first contractors to build apartments in Beitar Illit; Champion Motors, Israel’s importer of Volkswagen; and the cellular phone company Pelephone, who chose the AFI-Concorde tower as its national headquarters for customer service and employee training.

Unlike most business and commercial towers worldwide, which are populated by leaseholders, it is not unusual for Israeli companies to purchase the office space they utilize.

“Some 50 to 60 percent of this building is owner-occupied,” says Mr. Ben-Avraham. “The best investment for most people, after their own business, is investing in the real estate it sits on. We have seen this proven in Israel time and again.”

The impetus for these development efforts has been powered by Bnei Brak’s mayor, Rabbi Yaakov Asher.

“I learned this city from the ground up,” he says. Mayor Asher began his political career some twenty years ago as an assistant to Bnei Brak’s deputy mayor. He soon became director and chief of staff of the mayor’s office, where he supervised Bnei Brak’s building and housing departments. “I understand buildings and construction as well as college-educated secular politicians. They’re always surprised by how much I know.”



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