‘The Pioneers of Carmei Gat’
New Israelis describe aliyah from north Jersey to a thriving community
A hundred years ago, idealistic Zionist pioneers were reconstructing the Jewish homeland from scratch: clearing swamps, coaxing crops from rocky soil, hammering together houses and remaining ever vigilant for marauders and other life-threatening dangers.
I discovered that the pioneering spirit still moves many young marrieds from Bergen and Rockland, some of whom were my children’s classmates in Frisch or Torah Academy of Bergen County.
Their conditions are nowhere near as precarious as in days of yore. But rather than settling in comfortably well-established “Anglo” areas of central cities such as Beit Shemesh or Modi’in, they are building a community in Carmei Gat — Hebrew for Vineyards of the Winepress.
Carmei Gat is a new and fast-growing neighborhood in the southern blue-collar city of Kiryat Gat, founded in the 1950s as a tent city for Moroccan immigrants and now home to about 60,000 people. Tel Aviv is 35 miles to the north; Be’er Sheva is 27 miles to the south.
With a new rail line making Kiryat Gat a viable commute to Tel Aviv for high-tech and other white-collar workers, the government invested in building Carmei Gat as an affordable solution to the country’s housing crisis.
Atara Staiman Bienenfeld, who grew up a block away from our 20-year home in Teaneck, was among the first residents to move into one of Carmei Gat’s brand-new semi-attached houses nearly four years ago.
“We had a WhatsApp group called the Pioneers of Carmei Gat,” she told me. “We didn’t really build the infrastructure from the ground up. That was done for us. But community-wise, yes, we were pioneering.”
Ms. Bienenfeld, a 2009 graduate of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, and her husband, Zach, made aliyah six and a half years ago. They lived at first in the centrally located suburb of Ra’anana, hometown of former prime minister Naftali Bennett.
“I loved Ra’anana,” she said. “I loved everything about it except the prices and the fact that it was very established already. We wanted a place where we could make our mark. And we decided it was smart to invest somewhere. I found a like-minded group through Facebook, a few of them graduates of Yeshiva University like my husband and me. They are now all my neighbors.”
When they bought their as yet unconstructed home six years ago, “there was literally nothing here,” she said. “There was a dirt road from the exit off the highway.”
Now there are schools, parks, shops, a pizza place, a bakery, a café. A mall is coming soon, and a stadium is under construction at the side of what used to be that dirt road.
Carmei Gat reportedly has about 7,500 housing units, including apartments and two-family and single-family homes, modestly priced compared to most other locales popular with North American immigrants.
The Bienenfelds recruited other English speakers to join them in buying yet-to-be-built homes. They answered questions from potential immigrants through Nefesh B’Nefesh, and organized parlor meetings in the homes of young Anglo immigrants in Modi’in, Jerusalem, and Givat Shmuel, a Tel Aviv suburb.
“Now the community is so full that it’s a joke that we’d have to recruit anybody,” Ms. Bienenfeld said.
Though the couples I spoke with are all centrist Orthodox — or as it’s called here, “dati leumi,” religious Zionist — Carmei Gat’s diverse population includes secular and religious native Israelis and immigrants, and quite a few couples where one is American-born and the other a sabra.
An English-language Facebook group called Carmei Gat Info, created six years ago, has more than 1,000 members.
There are perhaps two dozen residents who hail from Bergen and Rockland counties, and others from Chicago, Toronto, and similarly Zionist diaspora communities. With few exceptions, Carmei Gat residents are under the age of 40, and many are newlyweds in their 20s.
The only Ashkenazic synagogue in Carmei Gat is Congregation Carmei Zion. Its president, Sruli Stein, is from Teaneck; its rabbi, Aminadav Grossman, lived in Bergenfield from 2000 to 2008 and is married to former Teaneck resident Rachel Friedman.
“In 2018, there were six Ashkenazi couples and a few others who davened together in somebody’s house,” Mr. Stein said. By the time he and his wife, Shira, moved in during the summer of 2019, there were about 25 families.
The shul group moved a few times and now meets in a high school. Every Friday, a crew of volunteers sets up 200 chairs and wheels in a portable Torah ark and other furniture.
Of Carmei Zion’s current 150 family units, including some 300 children, about 70 percent are English speakers. With total membership expected to surpass 200 families this summer, the synagogue received a plot of land from the city and is working with an architect to construct a permanent building that will include Carmei Gat’s first event hall.
“We are trying to figure out how many seats we should plan for,” Mr. Stein said. “Not a week goes by without guests here for Shabbat checking out the community.”
The 2008 graduate of Yeshiva University High School for Boys has gotten involved in municipal affairs. “I’ve met a lot of shul representatives in Kiryat Gat, and everyone’s jaw drops when they hear about us,” he said. “I think our unique selling point is that we are not just a shul but also an inclusive community of people who are always there for one another.”
Fair Lawn native Ron Simchi, who was in my daughter’s Frisch class of 2007, made aliyah in November 2017 with his wife, Tziona. Initially they settled in Beit Shemesh, where her parents and his brother Gil already were living.
“Even before our aliyah, I called a lot of Frisch friends in Israel to reconnect, and one of them was Jon Lubat from Englewood,” Mr. Simchi said. “He was one of the first English-speakers to buy on paper in Carmei Gat. He didn’t try to sell me on it, but it seemed very pioneering, and I kept it in the back of my mind.”
Two years later, the Simchis were having Shabbat lunch with friends in Beit Shemesh who told them they were looking into other communities and mentioned that they thought Carmei Gat would be a good fit for the Simchis. Ron and Tziona made a few calls and discovered more people they knew in Carmei Gat.
“We came for Shabbat and loved it,” Mr. Simchi said. “Everyone was really nice and warm. I was shocked to see how many people my age have been go-getters in making this a community with an American feel, organizing a lot of shul events and communal meals.”
It didn’t hurt that their shekels could buy a lot more in Carmei Gat than in many other places. “We made an Excel spreadsheet and started running numbers,” Mr. Simchi said. “We bought a semi-attached house in January 2020 and moved in August 2020. We were the 40th family here.”
They and their three children have made great friends in Carmei Gat. “There is still a lot to do, but pioneering something and being part of something that’s growing is exciting because we get to shape it in some way,” Mr. Simchi said.
Pioneering has its challenges, of course; Mr. Simchi has a rather long commute to work as a marketing executive in northern Tel Aviv — he takes his scooter on the train, which has a morning minyan. And whereas in Beit Shemesh he could get by with English, in Carmei Gat he must rely on what he calls his “broken Hebrew.” But even that could turn out to be an advantage in the long run.
Bergenfield native Ron Nahshon (Frisch class of 2008) and his wife, Sara (Ma’ayanot class of 2009), made aliyah in 2015 and lived in Jerusalem for a year and Modi’in for six. They are relative newbies in Carmei Gat; they moved there in July 2022.
Aside from the affordability and the flat terrain — helpful for parents pushing strollers in the hot summers — Mr. Nahshon said they value being part of “an Anglo presence in a predominantly Israeli Mizrachi community, not like the standard places Anglos move. It was exciting to go to an out-of-town place that’s a bit more diverse and peripheral, to be more part of the broader Israeli society that we felt we were missing before.”
They were also attracted to the community’s strong Zionist and Torah values and learning opportunities, he said.
Currently, the only downside to Kiryat Gat the Nahshons could think of was a lack of such services as medical specialists. “But it’s growing so exponentially here that if you fast-forward 10 years, I think it would be indistinguishable in terms of amenities from Modi’in or Jerusalem,” Mr. Nahshon said.
Eitan Rapps, 35, feels that Carmei Gat already has grown past the pioneering stage. A native of Teaneck who made aliyah after graduating from TABC in 2006, he and his wife, Kayla, started married life in Givat Shmuel.
As their family grew, they began looking for affordable places with community-building potential. They bought a semi-attached four-bedroom house under construction in Carmei Gat five years ago and moved in during the summer of 2019. Mr. Rapps, who commutes to Tel Aviv for work three days a week, says a similar house there recently was listed for double what they paid.
“When we moved here, it was a pioneering community,” Mr. Rapps said. “Our shul had maybe 30 families. Our street wasn’t paved, and there was no grocery store. We did all our shopping nearby in Kiryat Gat. But in the last two months we’ve gotten supermarkets, restaurants, and health clinics, all in walking distance.
“So it’s not really a sacrifice anymore; there is no downside to living here at this point. Anyone moving here is just following the next trend.”
Some of the couples I spoke with are extra fortunate in that their parents also have moved to Israel or will do so in the coming months or years. Most are opting for more established Anglo communities, but they’re proud of their children’s choice to build up Carmei Gat.
Sruli Stein’s parents, Phil and Shelley Stein, live across the street from us in Ma’aleh Adumim. When they made aliyah from Teaneck in 2017, Sruli and Shira were living here too. I asked Phil how they feel about their son’s decision to move to Carmei Gat.
“As much as we were disappointed that Sruli was leaving Ma’aleh Adumim, we are very happy about the choice he made,” Mr. Stein said. “He moved there when there was only an incipient Anglo community, and the Ashkenazi minyan was just that — a minyan and a dream to build a new community. He and his cohorts had to give structure to a community probably very much like the community-building that Israelis are so famous for.
“Needless to say, we are very proud of his and his wife’s achievements and this wonderful group of young families.”