Howes: Israeli town turns dysfunction into opportunity

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Lod, Israel — Detroit’s not the only place struggling with fleeing residents, ethnic tensions, a dodgy reputation and a legacy of political corruption.

Nor is it the only city trying to come to terms with epic dysfunction. Welcome to Lod, a backwater hard by Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport that “99.9 percent of the visitors who come to Israel would ever set foot in,” jokes Yuval Bdolah, 31, CEO of the ReLod Project that aims to reverse the trends weighing on a city that dates to ancient times.

History and the famous Lod mosaic, dating to the third century, are no bulwarks against demographic change. As the 1980s brought suburban expansion to Israel’s metropolitan areas, places like Lod saw its young families decamp for better digs in newer ’burbs. In their place came waves of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, as well as Bedouin tribes relocated from the Negev desert.

Corruption deepened. Municipal debt soared, prompting the predictable political reflex to raise taxes to compensate for the toxic combination of official mismanagement, demographic change and increasing pressure on social services. Sound eerily familiar, Detroit?

“Lod was crappy. Nothing was happening,” Bdolah told more than 20 Michigan CEOs in Israel this month to understand the country’s entrepreneurial ethos and how it is being used to create companies, jobs and potential answers to vexing social problems. “The same thing will happen to you if you don’t start thinking about your students. When you do nothing, things get worse and worse — for 10 years.”

Yes, it does, as Detroiters can attest from their own experience with political dysfunction and financial incompetence, culminating in the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. But the arc of decline can bend upward, too, shaped by public and private leadership and the kind of risk taking that Yuval Bdolah exudes with humor and toughness so often found behind the Israeli façade.

Lod certainly is no Detroit, size-wise. Home to three of the world’s great religions, its population of 74,000 is 70 percent Jewish and 27 percent Muslim Arab. Most of the city’s population is considered low-income, with roughly 40 percent earning minimum wage. Many live in basic housing considered inexpensive by generally rising Israeli standards.

Therein lay opportunity, crystallized by student-led protests in 2011 over the rising cost of living in Israel and increasingly difficult prospects for finding affordable housing. Could Lod, situated near the country’s largest airport and on major rail lines to Tel Aviv, offer that kind of housing and reinvigorate its slumping population?

In March 2012, 60 students affiliated with the National Union of Israeli Students moved to Lod, pledging to stay as long as three years to live, work and help revitalize its neighborhoods. In exchange for scholarships and housing assistance — initially privately funded — the program requires the students to live in Lod, to meet regularly with fellow students and to share the project’s volunteer mission.

ReLod’s goals are to recast the city into a “model of civic engagement”; to reshape Israeli perceptions of a city fraught with images of corruption and exodus; to “rebrand” Lod, in the words of a program brochure, into a place where young families can live, work and raise children.

The program now includes 300 students, Bdolah says. Some 50 percent of the activists come from Lod, suggesting that the community can retain its young people and alter a demographic slide if they see change is happening. The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit has pledged $25,000 in each of the last two years to support the project.

The federation, active in Jewish philanthropy in Detroit and Israel, also is supporting the “Better Together” initiative in Lod. It is targeting two neighborhoods — Gannei Aviv and Sharet — with a $500,000 grant over five years to help “re-energize” one of Israel’s most troubled cities.

“The Gannei Aviv neighborhood will focus more on the needs of its older adult population, frameworks to engage teenagers and repairing dilapidated infrastructure …,” explains Howard Neistein, Chief Officer of Strategic Partnerships for the Bloomfield Hills-based federation. “In the Sharet neighborhood, greater emphasis will be placed on increasing employment opportunities, an on after-school and enrichment programs, as well as creating more outlets for teens.”

The focuses here are instructive for Detroit, where revitalizing neighborhoods is the next challenge now that the downtown renaissance powered by mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert and other business interests is well underway.

ReLod targets neighborhoods. Since its inception, the program has rehabbed 600 homes in Lod and is now more than 60 percent funded by Israel’s federal government because it is delivering new residents to old areas of the city. It offers inducements to young people — housing assistance and scholarships — to help stabilize neighborhoods, a logical concept that could use more traction in Detroit.

“Students can only be initiators,” says Bdolah, adding that longtime residents sometimes expect too much from the students and too little from themselves. “We’re not here to paint for you. We’re not here to renovate for you. Lod does not need more volunteers. Lod needs the people of Lod to be active.”

Daniel Howes is a Detroit News columnist and associate business editor. Watch for his columns through November on the Michigan CEO mission to Israel. His column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found here. Catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.

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