When Israelis think of the city Lod – foreigners barely ever think of Lod, other than vague associations with nearby Ben Gurion International Airport – they generally think of Arab-Jewish tensions, slums, poverty, gang wars and drugs. The Hebrew press speaks of a growing radicalization among the Moslem population: mosques that have stood empty since the War of Independence have reopened and are bursting at the seams; women are increasingly seen dressed in the traditional long black dress and veil; intimidation of moderate Arabs and almost daily incitement against Jewish neighbors.
Possibly the most acute aspect of the inter-religious tensions in Lod, population 68,000, is the real estate “war” that is increasingly heating up. Young Arab families are buying up apartments and houses from Jewish families, thereby causing other Jewish neighbors to sell, lowering property value and leaving Jewish communal institutions abandoned.
And it’s not only that: The Interior Ministry-appointed municipal township is barely functioning, at least according to a recent State Comptroller’s report. A Knesset Member of the Kadima party has been asked to intervene in order that an Internal Ministry report on the municipality’s functioning be released.
Education in the city is also suffering: Over the past seven years, high school matriculation eligibility among 12th grade students dropped by 13%.
Ray of Light: Religious-Zionist Core Group
But there are also several rays of light, and possibly the brightest one is the 14-year-old Gar’in Torani (Torah core group). Comprised of young, idealistic religious Zionist families, the group has chosen to make Lod its home, aiming to change the trend, assure a strong Jewish presence in a centrally-located Israeli town, and assist the weaker elements of Lod who had begun to feel abandoned.
The list of accomplishments of the Gar’in is impressive: A Yeshiva high school, an Ulpana (high school for girls), a pre-military yeshiva academy, two community centers, classes for adolescent girls, Torah classes in synagogues, distribution of clothes and food to the needy, a Midrasha (study program) for National Service volunteers, and enrichment programs for young parents of kindergarten children.
A new housing complex of 150 apartments built by the group has 100% occupancy, and another 352 units are being built. This proves that “they’re here to stay,” says Aharon Atias, the director of the Gar’in.
The Maoz pre-military academy was established four years ago in an abandoned school building in a run-down neighborhood. Attias explains:
“One of the most neglected and problematic neighborhoods in Lod is Ramat Eshkol. The neighborhood constituency is 60% Arab, and the rest are Ethiopian immigrants and destitute Jews who don’t have the money or motivation to move out. The crime rate is very high, women are afraid to walk outside even in daylight, and it looks very run-down... We heard that an elementary school was closing down in Ramat Eshkol, and asked the city to let our pre-army Yeshiva use the building. We hoped to change the downward spiraling of the neighborhood by our very presence, and despite some dissent from Arab residents, we were given this building last September.”
The school building was dilapidated, but the Gar’in didn’t have the money for renovations. The boys slept in abandoned classrooms, studied in an assembly hall with no air conditioning, and for a while even showered with a garden hose on the sports field. At the same time, however, they immediately set about making themselves useful in the neighborhood. They invited children into the building to receive help with their homework and Bar Mitzva lessons, distributed food packages to needy families, did renovations such as painting run-down houses of single-parent families, and played basketball with adolescents who had dropped out of school.
The physical situation in the academy improved when Izo Ostrovitzky and his family took an active interest. With their help, and that of other donors, a roomy Beit Medrash (study hall) has been built for the benefit of the students and residents, comfortable dormitories and a dining hall have been built, a fitness room has been added, and a large sports field has been upgraded, shared with both the Jewish and Arab children of the neighborhood.
At the dedication, following speeches by IDF Chief Rabbi Brig.-Gen. Avichai Ronsky and Minister of Science Prof. Rabbi Daniel Hershkovitz, one of the students explained what he and his friends are doing in Lod: “We learn Talmud, we prepare for the army, and we try to give the neighbors a feeling that things can be better. In the end, it’s not just the help we extend, the games we play with the children, or the food we distribute. It’s just our presence, just being here, which makes all the difference in the world.”