Thursday, September 20, 2012

Har Bracha - A small, sweet community with a winning economic formula

Emily Amrousi..
Israel Hayom..
20 September '12..

Thai kickboxing lessons for children at 65 shekels ($17) per month; zoology lessons at NIS 45 shekels ($12) per month; ballet lessons at NIS 60 shekels ($15) per month; Pilates for women at 55 shekels ($14) per month. These are not prices from a decade ago, nor is this a price list in Eritrea — this is Israel, 2012. These prices aren't subsidized by the state or a any private donor, they are simply the product of foresight and efficient public conduct.

The name Har Bracha may sound familiar in the political context: There was a clash there between the Defense Ministry and the head of the hesder yeshiva (which incorporates mandatory military service with Torah studies) over encouragement to refuse military orders, which consequently cost the yeshiva its place in the program.

I recently visited Har Bracha, a small, sweet community on Mount Gerizim, adjacent to the fascinating Samarian community and overlooking a heavenly view. What I found there was an economy that exquisitely cracked the code. Take the issue of housing. The community's leaders eschewed greedy developers and initiated its own housing projects: They figured the precise amount that young couples could afford in monthly mortgage payments, multiplied that sum by a certain number of months and years, and wrote up their own proposals, which they submitted to local developers. The proposal stipulated that the developers build dozens of units without exceeding the agreed sum.

The result: The pricing equation tipped in favor of the consumer, rather than the developer, and housing prices in Har Bracha are 40 percent lower than anywhere else in Samaria, and much cheaper than anywhere else in Israel. By saving management costs and doing away with middle men, and without a dime from the government, the community has attracted dozens of new families just this year.

The cost of summer day camps in Har Bracha also proves that where there is a will, there is a way to do things differently: 270 shekels ($70) per month for pre-schoolers, and 320 shekels ($82) for elementary school children. For an entire month. Including lunch. With a proper balance between indoor and outdoor activities. How? Frugal transportation and a carefully planned budget.

The local daycare center is also self-run, with a lean and efficient management. The initial cost, before the sliding scale discounts, is about half the sum that any other Israeli parent would pay: 1,350 shekels ($350) per month per child. And still, the center manages to make a profit, and the profit is invested back into the children, with the surplus being used to upgrade the facilities. This center meets all the state standards, including the enforced ratio between children and caregivers (200 children under the care of more than 50 staff members). It thrives thanks to savvy fiscal planning and frugal management. The afterschool programs are run in a similarly efficient manner.

When they realized that youth movements were also bottomless pits of money, the community’s leaders opened an independent branch of a youth movement, unaffiliated with any national movement. Again, a kick to the accepted channels and the bloated mechanisms. The children don't suffer and the parents pay a minimal price for their children's activities. The youth movement's summer camps, for example, cost between NIS 150 and 180 ($38-$46) per child.

Let's go back to the unbelievable extracurricular activity price list. Community centers usually relinquish control over prices when they abandon the arena in favor of the free market and are tempted to outsource. In Har Bracha, the extracurricular activity coordinator determines the hourly wage to be paid to any operator of a class, regardless of the number of children who sign up (the more children join, the lower the cost per child). The operators of the classes adapt to the going rate. They still make a nice salary, and the classes are at a very high level.

It is hard not to get mad at the reality we live in when looking at these figures. A public system can actually do right by the public, when it actually cares about the greater good. When a public body takes it upon itself to work out details and invest a greater effort, it is bound for greatness.

The story of Har Bracha is the tiny difference between welfare and profit. Instead of establishing a charity fund to support the families and hand out food baskets, they are taking measures in advance to prevent such a situation. This little community's clever planning, which does not rely on the government, has managed to create thousands of shekels in savings for each family and a good socio-economic reality even for low wage earners.

The Shiluvim program, in which students incorporate science and humanities with Torah studies, has been active in the community for over a decade. Graduates enter the private sector as construction engineers, computer scientists and biology researchers. One can assume that even when they have large families they won't be begging for food baskets from anyone.


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