Israel, Days 8 – 9: Mitzpe Netofa

Our second and final Shabbat in Israel would be spent in the Galilee, in a small yishuv called Mitzpe Netofa.  It is located near a major highway crossroads called Tzomet Golani (Golani Junction), from which the highway takes you, depending on which direction you choose, to Tiberias, to the Upper Galil, or the Golan Heights (but still feels out of the way when compared to Highway 6, which runs north to south down the center of the country).    Tiberias is only 15 minutes away, but Mitzpe Netofa is high in the hills so it’s quite a bit cooler than Tiberias’ oppressively hot, humid summer weather, and there is always a nice breeze.

There is a convenient strip mall, part of “The Big” (pronounced, comically, “Ha-Beeg“) franchise, just off the main highway on the outskirts of Tiberias (downtown Tiberias has yet another, much larger “Big”).

2014-05-25 15.36.42_resizedThis off-highway “Big” is one of many “Bigs” located throughout Israel.  The larger-scale Bigs have many stores which any American will recognize, including The Gap, Banana Republic, Nike, etc. (but this being Israel, clothing and shoes are double the price). It also has a great Rami Levi discount supermarket (a chain found throughout Israel), as well as a wonderful kosher dairy cafe franchise called Cafe Greg, that served one of the best vegetarian meals I’ve ever eaten.

A delicious vegetarian meal of handmade spinacha and sweet potato ravioli, with a feta and goat cheese, lentil, bulghur  and edameme salad.

A delicious vegetarian meal of handmade spinach and sweet potato ravioli, with a feta and goat cheese, lentil, bulgur and edamame salad, served with crusty artisan bread.

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All guests are welcome at Cafe Greg

 

 

It meant that if we lived in Mitzpe Netofa, we wouldn’t have to rely solely on the local macolet (mini-market) with its limited selection, since the Rami Levi supermarket chains are big, beautiful, well-stocked and fairly priced, and this one was only 15 minutes away.  I also enjoyed people-watching there:  there were some Druz couples out on dates, plenty of Israeli youth, and families all enjoying the food and ambience.  Until now we had been eating on the cheap:  besides my beloved Milky puddings and Choco drinks, we were subsisting on fresh pita and humus bought at convenience stores because due to our extensive driving schedule, other than the shwarma in Jerusalem, we hadn’t even had time to sit and eat at a restaurant, so the delicious meal of  incredibly fresh salad with local feta cheese, and handmade spinach and sweet potato ravioli with goat cheese along with a cold Tuborg beer that we enjoyed at Cafe Greg, was especially appreciated.

There were several things about Mitzpe Netofa that appealed to us.  First, there is absolutely no age discrimination.  There are plenty of people our age, but of course there are many young families as well.  What is impressive is that the various age groups seemed to mix; they greeted one another with genuine affection and interacted socially in one another’s homes.  Everyone we saw came up to us and greeted us in a friendly manner, really going out of their way to make us feel welcome.  At the synagogue on Friday night, during the announcements, our names were mentioned as visitors and we were publicly welcomed by the entire congregation.  The main synagogue is located in the main, original area of Mitzpe Netofa.

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The flag banners inside the synagogue are left over from Israeli Independence Day celebrations

Just outside the synagogue is an amphitheatre which serves as a great meeting spot and is perfect for community concerts and performances.

The ampitheatre outside the synagogue

The amphitheatre outside the synagogue

The newer building area is in a completely different location one hillside away, which is a bit of a shlep (not a problem for me, as I love to walk).  There is a possibility that a Sephardi syngagogue will eventually be built to service the new neighborhood.  But for ourselves, it probably makes more sense for us to buy an already-built (and rarely available!) home in the 15-year-old neighborhood, since as we age a long, uphill walk may be impractical.  Most of the “older” residents – – those who had been in Mitzpe Netofa for 15 years – – live in the older neighborhood, with young couples with small children buying in the newest areas.

New construction in a new neighborhood in Mitzpe Netofa

New construction in a new neighborhood in Mitzpe Netofa

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Mitzpe Netofa, in conjunction with Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah organization (a key administrator in NBN lives in Mitzpe Netofa), has a rather unique program called the Soft Landing Program.  In order to not only encourage aliyah to Mitzpe Netofa but also to the North part of Israel in general, they have a “try before you buy” program at Mitzpe Netofa.  This is not an option for acceptance – – the one year probationary period is a requirement for acceptance/membership/permanent residence.  One rents a “caravilla” (very basic modular prefab home) for the highly subsidized price of 1000 NIS approx for 3 bedroom caravilla to 1500 NIS approx for 4 room caravilla per month for a minimum of one year (As of this writing $1 = 3.4 NIS’ or put differently, 1 NIS = $.29).  During that time, you participate in all aspects of life in Mitzpe Netofa, with the exception of voting rights on community issues.  During that time, one’s children (if applicable) attend local schools; one is a member of the synagogue; one participates in any extracurricular activities offered by the community; one makes use of the medical clinic if necessary, one interacts socially and gets to know the residents, etc.  The community meanwhile does its utmost during that initial try-out year to make potential residents feel welcome, inviting them as guests on Shabbat, befriending them, including them in participatory activities, etc.  It’s a way of getting one’s feet wet – – a sort of baptism by fire – – without burning one’s bridges if things don’t work out.

Interestingly, there is no particular pressure to join Mitzpe Netofa itself.  The real purpose of the Soft Landing Program is to use Mitzpe Netofa as a base for further exploration of the Galilee, whether it’s towns or cities or smaller villages, moshavim, or yishuvim.  The point is to attract new inhabitants to the Galilee/Golan region.  Less than 50% of the people in the Soft Landing Program end up living in Mitzpe Netofa, yet the program organizers don’t consider this a failure, as the reasons for leaving are diverse.  If someone is going to be very unhappy at Mitzpe Netofa, it’s better for all concerned to realize it’s not a good match before they’ve committed to building a house.  One person I spoke with who was leaving who had really enjoyed living in Mitzpe Netofa looked for a job in the North but simply couldn’t find anything within commuting distance (they will be moving to Modi’in in central Israel after he got a job in hi-tech in Tel Aviv).  Another person realized they didn’t enjoy living in such a rural, small place and moved to Ma’alot, a beautiful city of 25,000 people near the Lebanese border.  Yet another tried to find work and was unsuccessful, and with broken spirit returned to the US (but these yordim assured me that had they found work and not exhausted their savings, they would have stayed, because they loved the residents and lifestyle in Mitzpe Netofa).

So what’s the downside of the Soft Landing Program?  Practically speaking, based on our observations, the caravillas were poorly maintained.  They’re hot in the summer and cold in the winter (no insulation); because they are rented and maintenance is the responsibility of the tenant, the yards are unfortunately completely overgrown with weeds and they have a generally neglected appearance.  Their location is next to the youth organization clubhouse, which is extremely noisy when meetings and gatherings take place, sometimes late on Friday night.  The majority of residents in the caravillas are very young families, with no immediate neighbors in our age range.  In short – – and yes, I’m spoiled! – – I don’t feel like I have the patience or desire to live like this, especially when this one-year “temporary” housing often stretches to 3 – 5 years (one person we spoke with had been living in their caravilla for 7 years!) while waiting for a building lot to become available.  (All building lots in the current phase are sold out; the next building phase, which will not take place for at least 2 years, is also sold out.)  I am also afraid that if we rent for many years, we will go through savings that could have been applied to a permanent home.

There is an alternative to living in a caravilla while undergoing the probationary period for acceptance, but it’s a more costly one:  renting a whole house or basement apartment from someone who has temporarily left Mitzpe Netofa (i.e. doing a fellowship abroad, doing work for the Jewish Agency or other non-profits abroad, etc.).  I am afraid that if we end up renting for many years, though, we will go through savings that will compromise our ability to buy or build a permanent home.  We met a lovely British couple who are our age that made aliyah a year ago, who are experiencing exactly this (remember what I said about age discrimination in Israel – – it is extremely difficult to find work if you make aliyah in your 50s and 60s).  And of course, if the owners of the rental house return, one is forced to look for new housing and move yet again.  But at least there seemed to be a precedent for older olim and wannabe Mitzpe Netofa residents to experience the Soft Landing Program outside of the usual caravilla framework.

We rented a zimmer in Mitzpe Netofa which was really nice; it led to a beautiful, private garden.

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It had every amenity, including a Shabbat hot water urn, instant coffee, cake, and milk in the small refrigerator.

20140523_165548_resized It was owned by a lovely woman who had built her dream house in Mitzpe Netofa 17 years ago with her husband; but shortly after its completion he was tragically felled by a terminal illness.  She converted the lower level of her house to a series of beautiful apartments that are used as zimmers and which provide her with an income.

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There was a printed piece of paper left on the counter by Mitzpe Netofa’s Aliyah Committee with our “Shabbat itinerary” telling us the names of the families where we’d be eating our Shabbat meals.  This gave us the opportunity to get to know both “Anglo” and Israeli families living in Mitzpe Netofa, and allowed us to ask many questions and address any concerns.  We met many unique and outstanding individuals with fascinating stories to tell.

Shabbat Itinerary (click to enlarge)

Shabbat Itinerary (click to enlarge)

The residents of Mitzpe Netofa have diverse occupations.  I met teachers; youth leaders; an archaeologist; a librarian; a retired plastic surgeon who is now a successful sculptor; a farmer; a computer guru who was involved with several start-ups and interested in my husband’s work experience; an employee of Raphael (Israel’s top secret weapons developer); and the retired military commander of the entire North, who lives in Mitzpe Netofa as well.  There is also a vintner whose wine is sold around the world (Domaine Netofa Winery); his grapes are grown in the Galilee and the Golan Heights, about 45 minutes away.

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The particular Shabbat we visited they had invited a guest singer, a Modhitzer chassid, to lead the prayers.  This was most defnitely not a usual event, since the yishuv is neither chassidic nor chareidi, and the usual chants are sung in more au courant tunes than those delivered by the chassid.  That said, I thought it spoke well of the yishuv that it attempts to expose its members to different cultures within cultures.  It’s part of Mitzpe Netofa’s philosophy to get exposure to an “other,” and respect and celebrate differences and foster cooperation.  (They even have a karate club with the nearby Arab village.  An Arab teacher teaches karate to the Jewish boys, and the Arab boys are taught by a Jewish teacher. These are everyday stories of daily life in Israel that you won’t hear about in the news.)  There were also many religious classes offered throughout the week in both Hebrew and English, by resident rabbis and female scholars as well as those who came from other towns to teach.

When Shabbat was over, we met privately with the rabbi of Mitzpe Netofa, a very young and gentle scholar who clearly loved the residents and whose admiration was definitely mutual.  One thing I appreciated was his honesty.  After discussing the many positive traits of Mitzpe Netofa, he didn’t whitewash the challenges and mentioned some of the issues affecting the community.  That said, Mitzpe Netofa is a very non-judgmental sort of place, with residents respecting each other’s differences, which greatly appealed to us.

I felt that Mitzpe Netofa was not nearly as selective or exclusive as Moreshet in choosing their future members.  Yet their required Soft Landing program accomplished the same thing in weeding people out, because only someone with tremendous commitment and patience would agree to live under temporary circumstances for so lengthy a period.

So what to do?  I preferred the location of Moreshet, closer to Haifa and Highway 6, although it seemed more culturally rigid and was not as socially friendly.  The reality is that on Shabbat, total strangers greeted us warmly in Mitzpe Netofa; in Moreshet people were more aloof and rarely initiated contact with people they did not know.  I am pretty sure that socially, Mitzpe Netofa would be a better fit for my husband, which of course is very important.  It’s a much more laid back sort of place.  But the thought of renting for years until something becomes available for us to buy is a genuine concern.  Moreshet will eventually grow to about 450 families; Mitzpe Netofa will eventually have 230 families.  Currently both places have 15 – 20 English-speaking families

We decided the best decision was to make no immediate decision at all, at least until we had more pieces of the application process complete.  We decided to go ahead with our application process for both Moreshet and Mitzpe Netofa, because we wanted to do whatever was necessary to fulfill the prerequisites to get the long process of absorption and acceptance into motion.  We would still be required by both places to take the dreaded Israeli psychometric exam, and acceptance to either place would hinge greatly on the results of this test.  Our feeling was this:  if we got accepted by a yishuv, great; if we didn’t “pass” the battery of tests, then it simply wasn’t meant to be.  We would not be disappointed, because we felt that we wanted to go only where we were wanted and accepted.  If living in a small, closed community was not an option, then so be it – – we would instead look at small towns or cities on a future pilot trip.  The main thing is to be flexible and remain open to a variety of possibilities, of which there are many.  Perhaps a yishuv was the wrong option for us altogether, since we’d have to add in the huge, necessary expense of owning a car, and in a city we wouldn’t need to own a car and would be closer to a major medical facility as we age (that is something that is very hard for me to think about as it is not my reality at present, thank G-d).  So much to think about!  Whatever we decide, we want it to be the correct decision; we are too old and too tired to be living like “wandering Jews” once we get to Israel.

Meanwhile, we booked an appointment with the Keinan Shefi Institute Testing Center in the center of Tel Aviv, to take place two days before we were scheduled to depart Israel, so we could get the required psychometric exam out of the way.

Little did we know what we were getting into!  It would prove to be the biggest “adventure” of our entire trip to Israel . . .

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by joan on June 22, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    I’m really enjoying your blog…getting to know Eretz Yisrael!

    Shavua tov, Joan

    Date: Thu, 19 Jun 2014 23:16:20 +0000

    Reply

  2. Posted by Patty Grossman on April 21, 2015 at 10:15 am

    Did you ever decide on a location? We are currently in Israel and doing the same search! Would love to communicate, but you don’t have a contact email address.

    Reply

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