• Gil Zohar

Toronto developers build luxury compound for the ultra-Orthodox in J’lem


Having recently acquired Toronto’s troubled 65-storey Trump International Hotel and Tower now being rebranded as The St. Regis Toronto, Joseph Waldman – one of the principals of the city’s Rothner Highgates Group – could only look up. The Antwerp-born developer, 45, and his partner, Ricky Rothner, are hoping to do it again with Merom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Heights) – a prestigious project of 218 luxury condominiums located on Malchei Israel Street at the highest point in central Jerusalem.

Notwithstanding that the Holy City is awash with unsold luxury apartments and unfinished high-end towers, Waldman and Rothner, together with their Jerusalem co-partner Shmuel Narkiss, have found a niche market. They’re targeting hareidim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) – a segment of society here stereotypically characterized by its low economic status. With only 34 of the 172 units in phase I left unsold and the owners occupying their homes since Passover, the Merom Yerushalyim project has succeeded beyond expectations.

With prices starting at NIS 35,000 (C$12,500) per sq m, who are the purchasers of the million dollar plus homes? They’re equally divided between North Americans and Europeans with a smattering of Israelis, says Merom Yerushalayim’s ever-affable sales manager Yehuda Eagle, who fluently banters with clients in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.

The developers are building an unprecedented and opulent housing project for hareidim on a 20,000 sq m (five-acre) site. Designed by Jerusalem’s Braidman Agmon Architects, the project adds seven residential buildings to the five historic buildings which are being preserved and repurposed. The derelict if iconic Schneller Orphanage with its distinctive Bavarian onion-dome cupola is slated to become a museum of Jewish heritage. Another 19thcentury structure will be refurbished as a synagogue, and a third as a yeshiva for teenage boys.

Of the seven new residential buildings, five have been completed. Two are eight floors high. Three were built to a height of five stories pending a zoning density change to permit an additional three levels. The housing blocs are clustered together to maximize open space. Nearly four-fifths of the historic compound has been set aside as green space. Parking is underground.

Waldman hedges about the schedule of the final two buildings. While a huge hole has been excavated for them, construction will depend on sales, he says.

Acknowledging that he will keep a condominium for his family’s use, Waldman told The Jerusalem Post, “Try not to write about me. I’m a simple guy. I don’t want kavod (honour).”

The Schneller Compound has a storied past.

In 1860 Johann Ludwig Schneller (1820–1896), a Lutheran missionary from Basel established an orphanage here for nine survivors of the recent Druze massacre of 10,000 Maronite Christians in the mountains of Lebanon. By the next year, the orphanage had taken in 40 boys, and soon also began accepting girls. For eight decades the Syrisches Waisenhaus flourished, and expanded to include an institution for the blind, and a vocational school. By the end of the 19th century, the orphanage had grown into the largest compound outside the Old City. The orphanage provided both academic and vocational training to orphaned boys and girls from Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia, Turkey, Russia, Iran and Germany.

During WWII, Mandate officials interned and deported the orphanage’s German staff. The sprawling site was turned into the largest Allied ammunition dump in the Middle East. In March 1948, with Britain quitting Palestine, the base was seized by the Hagana. Following statehood until 2008, it served as an IDF camp.

With the Israeli army redeploying to bases in the Negev, the state-owned property was put up for sale by the Israel Lands Authority, and ultimately purchased by the Rothner Highgates Group. Before construction could begin, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAI) carried out salvage digs here. Archaeologists discovered an impressive winepress and bathhouse that served Rome’s 10th Legion Fretensis.

While hareidim are notorious for opposing archaeological digs, the excavations here were carried out without protest.

“This is an excellent example of many years of cooperation and deep and close ties with the hareidi community,” said IAI Jerusalem district archaeologist Amit Re’em. “The general public is used to hearing of the clashes between the archaeologists and the orthodox community around the issue of the graves, but is unaware of the joint work done on a daily basis and the interest expressed by the ultra-orthodox sector. The Israel Antiquities Authority is working to instill our ancient cultural heritage in this population, as it does with other sectors.”

Symbolizing Merom Yerushalayim’s hareidi character, the project’s marketing wing Sun-Chen sends out a weekly Hebrew-language commentary on the Torah reading. Rothner-Highgates’ promotional video (http://www.rothner-highgates.com/MeromPro.html) depicts preparations for the holy Sabbath, make that Shabbes in the Yiddish-inflected marketing spiel. Towards the ad’s end, it pitches “20 minutes from the Kosel, 3 minutes from Geula, close to the centre, close to the heart. Merom Yerushalayim. The best of 2 worlds.”

The video portrays a leafy suburb, which it terms “Country Living in the Heart of Yerushalayim.”

Currently, there are more than 9,000 “ghost” apartments in Jerusalem which sit vacant most of the year. Their owners live abroad, and typically leave their apartments dark and unoccupied apart from their holiday visits, generally for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. With the construction of luxury towers this year and in 2019, the supply surplus of empty and unsold apartments will only increase.

For the Jerusalem Municipality, absentee owners are the “perfect residents” since they pay their arnona (municipal tax) without requiring any services from city hall. But the growing number of wealthy French and American Jews buying property in the capital without the intention of settling here is damaging the fabric of life in Jerusalem. Many residents, including hareidim, are leaving for satellite suburbs in the West Bank for lack of affordable housing.

It remains to be seen if the vision of Waldman and Rothner of a golden ghetto for overseas hareidim, however profitable, will benefit Jerusalem.


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