The city of Beit Shemesh, adjacent to Jerusalem, has grown at a wild pace and seen its population increase by 63% within a decade – the fastest growth rate among Israel’s major cities. Two huge plans are currently being recommended to ensure that this rate of growth continues. But there is still a lingering question mark regarding the future character of the city, 50% of whose population today is Haredi.
In the Israeli real estate world, a lack of cooperation on the part of local authorities, who are generally not interested in increasing residential housing, is not uncommon. This is one of the main challenges in increasing the supply of homes in Israel and indirectly has contributed to the ongoing housing crisis for the past 15 years. However, in the city of Beit Shemesh, located around 20 kilometers west of Jerusalem, this problem does not exist.
According to data published by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the city’s population has grown over the past decade by about 63% – the highest growth rate among the 15 largest cities in the country. Two additional mega-plans approved this year by the Jerusalem District Committee, which jointly add another 10,000 apartments to the city, ensure that this growth will continue in the coming years and that the city, which currently numbers approximately 153,000 people, will continue to expand rapidly.
Beit Shemesh was established in 1950 as a transit camp for immigrants who arrived during the years of massive immigration from Iran, Iraq, North Africa, and Romania. In 1953, the settlement received the name Beit Shemesh. Beginning in the 1990s, and even more so in the first decade of the millennium, a large Haredi population began to migrate to the city, which changed its character. In addition, during these years, Bet Shemesh became a popular destination for modern-orthodox, Anglo families who had made Aliyah and were looking for a community, with private homes and gardens, that was commutable to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The following years were characterized by the massive construction of new neighborhoods that were added to the southern part of the city – Ramat Beit Shemesh. One after the other, Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, Bet, and Gimel were built.
Today, the Haredi population constitutes about half of the total population of Beit Shemesh, even a little more. This demographic change also included quite a few tensions, and sometimes even conflicts, when the longstanding and non-Haredi population of Beit Shemesh was required to adapt itself to a changing public space. After several years of great tension and multiple high-profile events, in recent years there has been a lull under Mayor Aliza Bloch, who comes from the national religious sector and is considered an accepted figure by all sectors.
Due to the sensitive relations between the ultra-Orthodox and the non-ultra-Orthodox in the city, the last two neighborhoods – Ramat Beit Shemesh Dalet and Hey – were marketed by the Ministry of Construction and Housing specifically for the two different communities. Ramat Beit Shemesh Dalet for the ultra-Orthodox and Ramat Beit Shemesh Hey, which has since changed its name to Neve Shamir, for the national religious and secular. The two, which both number thousands of apartments, are still under construction. In order to prevent an ultra-Orthodox “takeover” of the neighborhood that was designated for non-ultra-Orthodox Jews as well, Neve Shamir was planned in a way that was considered unsuitable for the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, with high-rise construction of at least 10 floors, without Sukkah balconies, and with few synagogues.
The massive construction in Ramat Beit Shemesh also leads to a large number of transactions. During 2021, about 2,300 contracts were signed for the purchase of an apartment in the city, about 1,740 of which were for new apartments. Home prices in the city are considered reasonable for the Israeli market. The average price of a three-room (two-bedroom) apartment is currently NIS 1.4 million, the average price of a 4-room apartment is NIS 1.78 million, and a 5-room apartment will cost an average of NIS 2.44 million. Prices include new apartments and second-hand apartments, with the average price of new apartments being slightly higher.
Last May, the Jerusalem District Committee submitted two additional large building plans for the city. One is a plan for the construction of a new main business center for the city (Ma’ar). The location for this planned development is in the north of the city on an area of about 2,276 dunams and includes around 4,700 housing units, 550,000 square meters for commercial and employment areas, 33,500 square meters for public buildings, and 600 hotel rooms. The plan also includes an integrated transportation center that will include a train station and a bus terminal.
In addition, the committee decided to submit a plan for the construction of a new residential neighborhood south of the city, which is south of Ramat Beit Shemesh, and north of the Ella Valley. The plan covers a total area of about 1,350 dunams and includes about 4,600 residential units and 221 dunams for open spaces, of which about 95 dunams will be designated as a national park.
But the true plan for the future of Beit Shemesh will not be determined by any planning committees, but rather by demographics. After the ultra-Orthodox population of Beit Shemesh reached 50% of the population, it is very doubtful whether you will stop there. Already today, Ramat Beit Shemesh is considered the third largest and most important ultra-Orthodox residential center, after Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, and this fact will not change. The question is whether the city will continue to serve as a home for a significant number of non-ultra-Orthodox residents who will live in peace with the ultra-Orthodox public, or whether this population will continue to decline, in relative terms, until Beit Shemesh becomes an ultra-Orthodox city in every respect.