Religious Zeal Drives Housing Crisis in Ramat Shlomo

By Covering Religion Staff

By Sanaz Meshkinpour and Jose Leyva

Rabbi Matisyahu Deutsch is one of Ramat Shlomo's religious leaders. (Jose Leyva/Covering Religion)

RAMAT SHLOMO, JERUSALEM –It’s nearly sundown Wednesday afternoon, and Edan Baruch’s produce stand here is crowded with Orthodox women in long denim skirts, scarves covering their hair, hurriedly buy groceries before dinner.

Baruch, 27, quickens his pace. With the help of a young boy with blond side curls, he unloads the vegetables in his truck and tends to his customers. Baruch looks forward to finishing work so he can drive home to Ramot, another Jerusalem neighborhood just a few miles away.

Baruch wishes that he too could live in Ramat Shlomo but, he explains, the demand for housing here is so high, he couldn’t find an affordable apartment to rent, let alone buy.
“I need a room here, and I don’t have,” Baruch said. “My father and my mother live here, my world is here, all my friends, all my family live here.”

Baruch thought his housing troubles were over when the Israeli Interior Ministry announced plans to add 1,600 new units to Ramat Shlomo. But the announcement coincided with Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel flung the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood into international controversy.

Baruch’s fate still hangs in the balance.

The Obama Administration continues to demand a halt to the expansion, while, Netanyahu’s government said there has been no change in Jerusalem’s construction policy. But Israel’s district committee has stopped all new construction.

Baruch’s situation is typical. He, and many ultra-Orthodox twenty-somethings represent a population explosion that has been taking place for some time within Israel’s Haredi community. And Israeli officials say the expansion is a direct response to their need for housing.

In Ramat Shlomo, the demand for housing is particularly high both because of the Haredim’s high birth rates, and the religious zeal to be near Jerusalem.

Ramat Shlomo is located in an outlying area of East Jerusalem—on land that was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war. The Israeli government considers the neighborhood as part of a unified Israeli capital. However, the United Nations considers Ramat Shlomo an illegal settlement. Critics have condemned the expansion, claiming it is an attempt for Israel to build on contested land and prevent a future Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.

In recent months, the Obama Administration has adopted a stronger stance on Jewish settlements, insisting that Israel impose a freeze on construction in order to move forward with negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

The news of the Ramat Shlomo expansion—especially during Biden’s visit to Israel—has created a crisis within the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Ramat Shlomo expansion plan includes 1,600 new units. (Jose Leyva/Covering Religion)

But for Baruch and other residents in this tight-knit Haredi neighborhood, the expansion plans are strictly a local matter. Ruth, who preferred to not give her last name, was running errands on her way home. She wore a bright white blouse, and a black snood—a netlike cap covering her hair. Ruth has “married off” three daughters, none of who were able to afford housing in Ramat Shlomo.

“Obama shouldn’t stick his nose in our business.” she said in a clear American accent.

Ramat Shlomo is one of the settlements with the quickest population growth in the recent years. From 2003 to date, the population of the exclusively ultra-Orthodox neighborhood has grown almost 48 percent, more than any other settlement in East Jerusalem, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Currently, between 18,000 and 20,000 people live in the 2,000-unit neighborhood.

The settlement, located in the northeastern part of Jerusalem, was built in 1995, attracting ultra-Orthodox families due to a shortage of housing elsewhere in the city and the very low prices of houses in this new neighborhood. Initially, the Israeli government subsidized the 1,560 square feet apartments. The first settlers received the land for free, and just had to pay for the construction cost of the homes.

Haredi families living in Ramat Shlomo have an average of eight children per household, according to the Jerusalem Statistical Yearbook. The neighborhood’s rapid growth has pushed the demand for space and, in-turn, the price of the units. Now there are simply not enough apartments for younger couples who want to live in the observant Jewish neighborhood, close to their families and rabbis, and within the Haredi community.

Once cheap, the current price of the two to three bedroom apartments now range from $350,000 to $850,000 according to Eiferman Properties, the original developers of the neighborhood. And residents say the rent can go up to $1,000 a month.

“It’s expensive,” said an American journalist who lives in Ramat Shlomo and preferred not to disclose his name. “It is hard to live in these small apartments, but Jewish people are willing to sacrifice because there is something more important to them than just the physical setting. It’s the spiritual setting: you are living in the outskirts of Jerusalem.”

He was one of the first settlers in Ramat Shlomo. The man, a 63 year-old Chicago-native, lives with his wife, and five of his seven children. He now teaches Torah and studies part-time at the local yeshiva.

The Ramat Shlomo community has been pressing for the settlement expansion for the last five years, according to residents. In response, the government has been working on a plan to increase the units of the neighborhood located in this disputed land.

The project includes 1,600 new homes. Most of the units in Ramat Shlomo are 1,560 square feet, however, the expansion includes 1,100 units at 1,290 square feet, and the rest will be 1,022 square feet. The size is meant to specifically target young couples.

“There’s no reason why the neighborhood shouldn’t expand,” Ruth said. “Lots of young couples don’t need 145 meters [1,560 feet], they need 120 [1,290].” She hopes her daughters will be able to move back into the neighborhood.

A few blocks up Jolti Street, Rabbi Matisyahu Deutsche’s household was bustling. The rabbi just added an extra room to his home. His wife and four of their children—seven others have already married—were busy preparing the house for the Passover holidays. The smell of fresh paint and sanitizer filled the hallways.

The children restocked a newly remodeled kitchen, while the library—with its collection of hundreds of Hebrew texts—remained untouched. It was clear the sagging shelves, filled with books on Jewish practice and law, had been part of the Deutsche home for years.

For the rabbi, the expansion is not only a response to a desperate need for housing, but he says, the demand is driven by something far more simple: location.

“The reason why people start to come,” Rabbi Deutsche said. “Because it was a nice area, brand new apartments, and a view of old Jerusalem.”

Ramat Shlomo is located three miles outside the old city, or a twenty-minute drive. And from its hilltop, there is a clear view of old Jerusalem.

“All Israel is the holy land but Jerusalem itself, the most holy, is the old city where you have the Western Wall,” the rabbi said. Through a translator he explained that God led them to Jerusalem thousands of years ago.

For the Haredim, the Torah dictates that God gave them the holy land. And living in Jerusalem plays a central role in fulfilling their past, present and future.

“We have the right, the privilege, and the responsibility,” said the Chicago-born journalist. He said the ultra-Orthodox have a responsibility to move to Jerusalem, pave the way for the larger Jewish Diaspora to follow and, in so doing, hasten the coming of the Messiah and end the Jewish exile.

Many Ramat Shlomo residents referred to this process as the “beginning of redemption.” Deutsche said redemption underlies the very emphasis on creating an observant ultra-Orthodox community in Ramat Shlomo.

The settlement, located in East Jerusalem, has high birth rates. (Jose Leyva/Covering Religion)

“We believe that when all the Jews will be religious, will keep whatever the Torah tell us to keep then the Messiah will come,” the rabbi said. “Because of that, they [the residents] want to be here. When the Messiah will come, they want to be ready.”

The rabbi explained the Torah also says Jews must live in peace with everyone, and that includes the Palestinians. However, he has a hard time understanding the international outcry about Ramat Shlomo’s expansion plans. For him, this neighborhood has existed for 15 years, and there’s no difference between 2,000 and 4,000 apartments.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed the local sentiment when he spoke at a conference of the Israel American Public Affairs Committee in Washington on March 23.

“The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 year ago,” said Netanyahu. “And the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.”

For the Palestinian Authority, Ramat Shlomo’s expansion represents a major blow to peace talks.

“The decision to build 1,600 units – settlement units in occupied Jerusalem – is a dangerous decision,” said Nabil Abu Rudeina, Palestinian Presidential Spokesperson. He said that such a move is “liable to torpedo negotiations” and cause U.S. efforts to renew talks “fail before they have even started.”

One Response to “Religious Zeal Drives Housing Crisis in Ramat Shlomo”

  1. Kayode says:

    I love everything about Isreal. Let them go ahead and build. Forget about Obama, Joe Biden or any other world leader because they are no true friends they modern people who do not recognize the place of biblical history in today’s world. Don’t seek for their protection anymore because you’ll soon discover that they can’t protect after all. Let the quartet or what did they call themselves gang-up against you, it is recorded in the Bible Jesus will come to save you not another Messiah which you are hoping to get. Look up to Jesus whom was crucified for your salvation. It is high time Jerusalem recognises Jesus as the Son of God and that is the crux of the matter. Anyway before I start blasting off let apply some break. I love you and love Jesus. God bless Isreal. Amen.

Leave a Reply