French Jews seeking Israeli properties, not as income but as homes

jerusalem | As France’s chief rabbi cautioned Jews against wearing kippot in public following a recent wave of anti-Semitic violence, French Jews are thinking about their future options. And for many the future may involve a home in Israel.

“I wouldn’t call it a panic,” said Emmanuel Turk, a French immigrant whose family runs ICUBE Ltd., an Israeli firm that has organized several dozen real estate fairs in French-speaking countries since 1989. “French Jews always bought apartments in Jerusalem and by the water. Now they’re thinking of it less as an investment and more as a possible place to live.”

The most recent ICUBE fair was in late November, about a week after arsonists set fire to an annex of the Mercaz Hatorah school in a northern Parisian suburb. During the two-day housing fair, 6,000 people attended and 64 apartments were sold. In past years, about 3,000 to 4,000 people would attend the gathering.

“We didn’t even think we’d sell anything,” said Menachem Weiss, a sales director for Ambassador real estate, which was marketing apartments in the Meltzit Sheinkin complex, a top-end apartment development in central Tel Aviv. Much to Weiss’ surprise, he sold two apartments in the complex, which is being constructed at Sheinkin and Meltzit streets.

The Sheinkin complex may not appeal to all French buyers, given its location in the middle of the trendy and busy street, as well as its high prices.

A cozy two-room apartment costs between $200,000 and $220,000, while larger, four- or five-room penthouse apartments can go up to $1.3 million.

But two French couples purchased apartments, and two other buyers expressed serious interest in the seven-floor, 99-apartment complex, which has a Bauhaus-style exterior designed to complement the architecture commonly found in Tel Aviv.

The development, which is being built on the site of Beit Davar, the former Histadrut newspaper building, is due to be completed in May 2005.

The fact that the complex won’t be ready for another year and a half didn’t deter buyers, according to Dror Toren, the marketing manager for America Israel Investments, part of the Meltzit Sheinkin development group.

“They’re thinking long-term,” said Toren. “They’re looking at what’s going on in the world and considering that they might not want to stay in France.”

At the same time, Toren didn’t initially believe that French Jews would be interested in a Tel Aviv apartment.

“This isn’t Jerusalem or la mer,” he quipped, referring to the French penchant for purchasing Israelis apartments in the holy city or on the water.

“But people were looking for properties that they could live in, not just vacation homes.”

Turk says that French Jews are much more serious about living in Israel, as opposed to using an Israeli apartment as a vacation home or an investment.

“They’re seriously thinking about locations,” he said. “They’re looking at Ra’anana, Rishon le-Zion, Petach Tikva, places near the country’s center where can they find work and where they have friends and relatives.”

In a recent survey commissioned by mortgage Bank Adanim, examining the common characteristics of French homebuyers, 600 people between the ages of 32 and 65 questioned were looking for apartments priced between $150,000 and $250,000, primarily in the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Netanya, Nahariya and Jerusalem.

Some 65 percent of the buyers were planning on providing two-thirds of the down payment, seeking a 20-year mortgage.

“The French aliyah is characterized by a strong religious affiliation, Zionist, and well-to-do people who are accustomed to a high standard of living,” said Jean Guggenheim, who handles marketing for French clients at Adanim. “The current French olim are immediately purchasing apartments when they get to Israel, looking for mortgages and homes in the cities that best suit their families.”

With the increased interest, ICUBE is stepping up its activities, holding additional meetings with Parisian Jews, fairs in Brussels and Marseilles — which has the second-largest number of French Jews — and is considering extending its operation to Montreal.

The firm generally holds separate fairs for religious and non-religious Jews, given the differing interests of the two groups.

According to the Jewish Agency, 2,035 French Jews made aliyah in 2002, a more than 100 percent increase from 1,007 a year earlier.

“People are looking for options in Israel,” said Michael Jankelowitz, a Jewish Agency spokesman. “They’re also looking at the U.S. and Montreal. But the French Jewish community is on the move.”

France is home to about 800,000 Jews — the largest Jewish population in the world after Israel and the United States. According to estimates, there are also as many as 10 times that number of Muslims of Arab origin, the largest such population in Europe.

Following the arson at Mercaz Hatorah school, the French government is considering banning all religious symbols from schools.

But even as French Jews have praised their government for acting swiftly, some are not entirely convinced that France is safe for them.

“There’s lots of paranoia,” said Turk. “People feel more secure here, surrounded by other Jews.”