A small but significant number of Sabras pursue a dream that transcends patriotism, buying large tracts of cheap rural land on which to live eco-friendly alternative lifestyles
After 100 years, the red ceramic roof tiles came off with surprising ease. Plink, plonk, and another curved tile came loose, showering down a century’s worth of dust to the tile floor below.
Tamir Burstein Nevo was perched precariously atop the mud brick walls of the traditional Portuguese farmhouse he and his family purchased last summer, as part of a wave of hundreds of Israelis purchasing rural properties in Portugal. Drawn by cheap land prices and the ability to create alternative, environmentally friendly homes, many young Israeli couples are relocating to the formerly abandoned farms as they seek to create a totally different way of life for their families.
A few hundred Israelis have moved to Portugal over the past few years, making for a relatively small expat population. But these communities — bucolic rural farmsteads where ecology and alternative therapies, organic farming, sweat lodges, and free love workshops intertwine among the gnarled branches of the cork tree — have drawn outsized attention from Israeli media and Israelis looking for a different way of life.
It’s a place where, one Israeli explained, she can tell people she is turning the ruins of an old farm house atop a hill into a Love Temple, and the only question people have is what kind of water recycling system she has on her land.
Portugal has the allure of dirt cheap land combined with a European location, close enough to Israel to visit but far enough away to feel the distance. Tools and machinery are much cheaper without the Israeli customs and import taxes, and widely available from elsewhere in Europe.
Southern Portugal, especially the Alentejo region, also has a history of embracing radicalism and alternative, ecological living that has attracted people from around the world. Tamera, one of the most established alternative communities, was founded in southern Portugal in 1995 and now draws thousands of visitors each year for courses and workshops. A popular meditation guru named Mooji also has a retreat center and ashram in the area, which also brings thousands of people to the rural and isolated region.
Portugal is just one place where Israelis are creating these types of alternative communities. Costa Rica is another, while others have congregated in southern Spain. Nevo said he originally wanted to create an intentional community in Israel, for families who wanted to live together in cooperation with each other and the land. But it was simply impossible to find any available land in Israel, much less someplace affordable, so he and three other families decided to look abroad.
‘It’s about choosing something different’
Overcrowding is a serious issue in Israel, one that environmental activist Alon Tal pointed out in his 2016 book “The Land is Full.” But those feeling this squeeze most acutely are the ones who want to live as close to nature as possible.
Hemmed in by Israeli laws that forbid practices like collecting rainwater and draconian bureaucracy that makes alternative home construction almost impossible, some Israelis interested in living an alternative lifestyle have traded falafel for the traditional Portuguese pastel de nato pastries.
“I think people in Israel, especially after Bibi won [the first 2019 elections], are in shock and they are looking for alternatives,” said Nevo, using Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname. “They are looking for things that will allow them more possibilities, without fighting against the entire world. It’s about choosing something different.”
But Nevo is quick to explain that while many Israelis in Portugal made the move because they were angry and frustrated with their home country, he and his family did not move to Portugal as a type of protest against Israeli society.
“We didn’t flee or leave Israel, we chose something specific,” he said. “It’s very easy to say, it’s us or them. They are using this type of separation in Israel — that there’s Israel, or you’re a traitor. You hate Arabs, or you’re a traitor. But I didn’t do anything against anyone or anything. I just did things, made my choices, in favor of what I believe.”
For many Israelis who chose to move to Portugal, there’s a special connection to the land that they can’t quite explain. Nevo said he and his family felt it as soon as they landed in the Lisbon airport. They were about to buy a farm in northern Spain with other Israeli families, when they decided to have one last look at Portugal, mostly in order to rule it out. But as soon as they walked out of the airport into the Portuguese sunshine, he said, all of the families were in agreement: there was something about Portugal that felt like home.
It can be disorienting to walk among the small shops and cafés in the villages of the area, where weather-beaten elderly Portuguese quietly sip glasses of Sagres beer next to young Israeli families with boisterous children yelling “Imma” and “Abba,” Hebrew for “mother” and “father.” Hebrew floats through the air in dusty mom and pop hardware stores, as Israelis run into each other in the small villages while picking up supplies.
There are the small seeds of what could one day be a strong Israeli Diaspora community in Portugal. A few Israelis sell hummus on the weekends, providing an impromptu gathering point. Central Portugal near Coimbra, where the land is even cheaper, boasts a new Israeli-Portuguese school, built in part by the parents. But for the most part, said Nevo, people are too focused on their own projects, building their homes and land, to think about building a wider community.
“All the time you have, it is spent here, on the land,” he said. “Any energy that you have is needed here.”
There is little interaction between the native Portuguese community and the new, young arrivals from Israel and the rest of Europe. This is mostly because young Portuguese have fled the area for the cities or the coast, where there are greater opportunities. The Portuguese that stayed in the area, most of them older, acknowledge that this influx of young buyers has infused the economically depressed region with new life, filling traditional cafes to capacity and supporting struggling hardware stores.
The vast majority of the Israelis in Portugal refused to be interviewed, angry and anxious that media attention might cause a stampede of their native countrymen and ruin their corner of Eden.
But Nevo said he doubts that most Israelis will want to pick up and move. It takes an incredible amount of courage to buy an overgrown, rural property in a foreign country, an audacity and pluckiness to think that you can carve a living into a rocky mountainside.
‘What am I doing here? Am I crazy?’
Most of the farms up for sale have been abandoned for years.
Tamar Mali, 36, from Tel Aviv, recalled her first night on her 14 hectares (roughly 34.5 acres) of land, her caravan mostly obscured by the riot of green in the valley she just bought. Thoughts raced through her head as she asked herself, “What am I doing here? Am I crazy?”
She had come to Portugal to think about renting an apartment, and ended up buying a whole valley, complete with a small stream and a decrepit farmhouse, though she declined to say how much she paid. When she sits at the fire pit next to her outdoor kitchen, she owns almost all the land she can see.
“I wandered the world for a long time between different intentional communities,” said Mali. Something about Portugal called her to put down roots.
Living in such rural conditions is not easy. Each day is a fight against the invasive brambles and blackberry bushes that migrated from northern Europe and threaten to dominate the landscape, choking fruit trees and killing native plants. There is no running water until you dig a well, no electricity until you buy a generator, set up a solar system, or pay thousands of euros to connect to the electricity grid. In most of the region there is no cell phone service. Main roads are paved, but the roads leading to the homes and farms are a teeth-rattling experiment in pothole dodging that cause some people to call Alentejo “the place where cars come to die.”
This region is the area of Europe with the least amount of light pollution, and on clear nights, the sky can seem crowded with stars, the Milky Way splashed against darkness that goes on forever.
The biggest draw for Portugal is the cost of the land, next to nothing compared with real estate in Israel or even other parts of Europe. In northern Portugal, a 30 dunam (7.5 acre) farm without a house can go for as little as 15,000 euros, which comes out to roughly NIS 60,000 or $17,000. Nevo paid 100,000 euros (NIS 400,000 or $112,000) for 200 dunams (50 acres) with two housing structures in terrible condition. These prices have attracted not just Israelis, but people from all over Europe, especially from Belgium, Holland, and Germany.
Some people are looking for rural vacation homes, while many others are building their own organic farms from scratch. Few have an economic or business model in place, but that doesn’t seem to bother them.
Israelis have congregated in two main regions: the Alentejo region, about two hours south of the capital of Lisbon, and the Coimbra region in central Portugal. All told, there are only a few hundred Israelis in the area, which is why some are perplexed by the recent Israeli media attention, with major articles in Haaretz and Channel 13 over the past few months.
‘There’s space, and there’s demand’
Moving to Portugal is also an opportunity for people to completely reinvent themselves. Thousands of Israelis from Sephardic backgrounds have begun the application process to obtain Portuguese citizenship, but anyone with a European passport can live in Portugal. Others who start a business, including buying land to start a farm, are automatically put on a 10-year track for citizenship, one of the ways Portugal is trying to jump-start their economy. The cheap real estate prices — both for urban apartments or sprawling farms — make it an attractive location for Israelis looking to restart their lives in another country.
Husband and wife Vital Ehrlich and Omer Katanov were on a month-long camping trip to Portugal when they fell in love with the city of Porto, the cultural and economic capital of the north.
“Not only did we fall in love, but we also felt there are a lot of opportunities, both in real estate and other businesses,” said Ehrlich. “We felt it was the right timing. There’s space, and there’s demand.”
Ehrlich and Katanov now run a relocation consulting business, helping Israelis interested in making the move navigate issues like buying an apartment or piece of land.
For those seriously considering the move, Ehrlich has one major piece of advice: make sure you bring your job with you. “The Portuguese don’t have a lot of work available,” she said. Unemployment in Portugal was almost 11% in 2016, though it has fallen since then. Minimum wage salaries hover around 550 euros (NIS 2,200 or $615) per month, which is significantly lower than the monthly Israeli minimum wage of NIS 5,300 ($1,500).
“It’s cheap here, and it’s fun, but only if you come with money from outside and don’t try to make the money here,” she said.
Moving to Portugal is much easier for someone with a European passport, which makes opening a business or buying property much easier, said Ehrlich. There are also many opportunities for Israelis working in hi-tech to make an impact on Portugal, which has a limited tech scene.
“Portugal is a European country and very developed, but a lot of things feel like they’re stuck in the 1930s,” said Ehrlich.
She noted that many government ministries have not digitized the bureaucratic procedures.
“Sometimes there’s a feeling that if I go to the Interior Ministry here I feel like we came from the future,” she said. The cellphone network is poor and internet speeds can be exceedingly slow. “It really gives us Israelis an opportunity to come and be initiators and bring things we know that are working,” she said.
But mostly, it’s an opportunity for Israelis looking for something different, for a chance to start over, on a different adventure.
“The weather really is similar to Israel, and people are really nice, and there’s the sea,” said Ehrlich. “There’s this atmosphere of chill that really relaxes you after living in Israel. There’s so much hysteria and stress in Israel, and here you can breathe. Here there’s space, everything in Israel is already built up and there’s no place to expand.”
For Nevo, the space to pursue a different lifestyle is what called him to the Portuguese sunshine.
Nevo, now 47, used to have a regular 9 to 5 job as a publicist for the Holiday Inn hotel chain, and then as a liquor importer, spending hours commuting in his car and living in a small apartment in the suburbs. When prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, he started to see the hopelessness of trying to change things from within.
“I saw that all the systems are the same and nothing was changing despite all of the efforts,” he said.
It was the beginning of a major shift for him, one that took years to realize as he searched for the right kind of community, first in Israel.
“There were more revolutions and more [protest] tents and nothing was changing,” Nevo said. “So I said, okay, you do what you want to do, do what’s good for you. I’m going to play my own game.”
Nevo and his wife, Luna, a spiritual healer, and their two children, moved to Portugal four years ago with three other families in the hopes of starting an alternative community based on simple, ecological living. Although their intended community eventually fell apart, Nevo and his family stayed in Portugal, buying around 200 dunams (50 acres) of woodsy, hilly property with a small stream running through the valley. The farm is surrounded on all sides by eucalyptus plantations, commercial farms which have been devastating for the local ecology. The eucalyptus plantations, found across Portugal and mostly used for making toilet paper, have stripped the soil of many nutrients and strained water sources.
Nevo’s family christened the land, originally named “Land of the Springs” SoLuNa, a combination of the words “sun” and “moon.” Two traditional Portuguese homes, now crumbling ruins, will eventually hold guest houses and a dome will host a workshops space. Eventually, Nevo hopes the land will be a learning and healing center for people to learn about gardening and environmentally friendly building techniques.
Nevo said that is why he continues to open his home to journalists, wandering volunteers with broken hearts, and anyone who is ready to get their hands dirty and help build an outdoor mud kitchen or disassemble a 100-year-old red ceramic roof.
“It’s important for me to give people inspiration,” he said, helping people take a step in their own lives towards a more sustainable future for the planet and for humanity. Rather than getting people to be vegan, he encourages them to think about cutting down on milk products. Instead of shopping at big malls and chains, spending money at local businesses and buying local products.
“Moving here, there aren’t a lot of people who can do it,” said Nevo. “But they can make changes in their day-to-day lives, in their own villages, in the worlds they live in. It’s about choosing to believe in something.”