Cultural oasis on the dunes

Once a backwater, today the Holon metropolis is attracting international attention with its cornucopia of cultural centers, and there’s a lot more on the drawing board. Holon’s transformation began in the 1990s, and it has been transformed into a green …

Once a backwater, today the Holon metropolis is attracting international attention with its cornucopia of cultural centers, and there’s a lot more on the drawing board.

Holon green transformation

Holon’s transformation began in the 1990s, and it has been transformed into a green cultural oasis.

Holon, once a humid, ho-hum working-class community near Tel Aviv, is getting lots of press on its 70th anniversary for its rebirth as an international family destination.

Condé Nast Traveler magazine named Holon’s “curvaceous and expressionist” Design Museum a New Wonder of the World soon after it opened six months ago. In July, Mayor Motty Sasson earned a place on the upscale Monocle magazine’s list of “10 of the freshest movers and shakers in urban politics worldwide.” Sasson (63), a Holon native, began planning the city’s transformation in 1993.

Municipal director Hana Caspi Hertsman has a smaller share of the spotlight. Yet it was largely her personal vision that established Holon as Israel’s ‘Children’s City,’ a green cultural oasis successfully attracting thousands of tourists and the young family demographic it was once steadily losing.

Credit for sound financial management

Every element that she planned with her management team 16 years ago – from the $23 million Mediatheque cultural complex with its Cartoon Museum, children’s theater, public library, cinemas, and Design Museum, to the Digital Art Center, Israel Children’s Museum, and 300 acres of parks – is in large measure a memorial tribute to her parents’ values.

Hertsman’s mother, a preschool supervisor, and her agronomist father strongly believed in investing in kids and the environment, and exposing them to the performing arts. When Hana was 16, her father was killed in a car crash and her mother spent many months recuperating away from home. She has since passed away.

“The roots I had gotten from my parents helped me keep my head above water during that terrible time and influenced me in what I do for my own children and for the children of Holon,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

Holon Story Gardens

There are 31 story gardens throughout Holon to encourage children to read books.

Now 54, Hertsman came to Holon – the city of her husband’s birth – with a master’s degree in public management and experience in other municipalities. Keeping her parents’ priorities and her children’s interests in mind, she defined her goals and chose a top-notch team to help realize them – all without outside sponsors or economic deficit. In fact, during Sasson’s mayoralty, Holon has consistently been cited by Israel’s Minister of Interior for sound financial management.

“We are very effective and efficient,” says Hertsman. She doubles as Holon’s culture minister, saving the expense of a second secretary. Others similarly share jobs and office staff. “Only 35 percent of our budget goes to salaries, so we’re very flexible within our budget. We always say the blanket is small, and you save one side to give to the other. We don’t have the best roads. But you need a soul for a city, much more than new highways, and this is what we have done.”

So popular, they need a hotel

Hertsman and Sasson are not finished fashioning Holon as a boutique destination in the mold of Spain’s Barcelona, Madrid, and Bilbao. Among other projects on the drawing board are a concert hall and civic center; an ecological park and ‘green’ residential housing; and cultural events for the city’s Ethiopian population. “We choose certain special things to showcase. We are always thinking about tools for children,” Hertsman states. Tolerance is a key theme.

The Children’s Museum offers Dialogue in the Dark and Invitation to Silence, two unique experiential exhibits simulating the sensation of being blind and deaf. The Cartoon Museum and the puppet-making school and theater also were conceived as alternative, even therapeutic, modes of communication for all types of children.

A park for kids with disabilities is no less well-known than Holon’s 31 ‘story gardens’ with huge sculptures themed to children’s books. “The concept behind the story gardens is to encourage reading,” Hertsman explains. “I always base my decisions on hard data, and statistics show fewer children are reading. My idea was to use character sculptures where adults could sit and read with the children, touch the figures, and compare them to the story. And it works. The most popular books in Holon are those featured in the parks.”

And it’s easy for the city to track book popularity through circulation records at its new public library in the Mediatheque, which is open seven days a week and possesses Israel’s largest lendable collection of music.

Holon roads

Less attention and money has been spent on Holon’s roads – “you need a soul for a city, much more than new highways.”

During the first weekend of September, 250 gymnasts from 26 countries are converging on Holon’s Katzir Sport Center for the Grand Prix series prior to the 2010 World Championship in Moscow, and the city kicks off its new exhibition season with live performances and shows by young Israeli designers.

Though the main goal was to keep and attract residents to the city of 170,500, Holon’s museums drew 450,000 tourists last year. Countless others enjoyed the water park (Israel’s largest) and many free attractions.

“Now we are waiting for someone to come and build a hotel because people want to stay here more than one day,” Hertsman reports. “We are also building new flats, slowly. We are not running after quantity. We are going for quality,” she concludes.

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About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.