S.F. native forges Israels future building apartments

Few things stir the emotions of San Francisco native Barry Cohn like the sight of cranes. No, not the long-necked wetland birds. The towering steel cranes at a construction site. Especially in Israel.

Cohn, 54, is a co-founder and principal of Etz Hashaked, an Israel-based real estate construction and property management company. He says Etz Hashaked has so far built a million square feet of commercial and residential real estate all across Israel, with a million more to come.

That adds up to $360 million dollars in property values for such projects as an apartment complex in Petah Tikva, luxury residences in Herzliya, a children’s activity center in Afula and a commercial center in Jerusalem.

One of Cohn’s responsibilities is to recruit American investors to finance Etz Hashaked projects. He says those investors on average gain annual pre-tax returns of approximately 20 percent a year.

The business model appeals not only to those seeking profits in the real estate market, but more importantly to Cohn, it also appeals to those who want to build the Jewish state, slab by Jerusalem stone slab.

“People pay more attention to their investment dollars than their philanthropic dollars,” Cohn noted. “It’s not that they don’t care, but once they give [philanthropic] dollars, it disconnects them. Whereas through investment, people pay closer attention. This became a natural way to expand the company and connect people to Israel.”

Barry Cohn at Talbiyeh Residences in Jerusalem

Cohn is based in the Bay Area. But he is an ardent supporter of Israel, traveling to the country at least four times a year to check up on Etz Hashaked projects. He’s there this month to help oversee construction of a new condo complex in Tirat HaCarmel near Haifa. It’s typical of the company’s mid-price condos, which run between $250,000 and $400,000 per unit.

The Tirat HaCarmel project won’t be completed until October 2016, but 60 of the 76 units have already been sold. Cohn says the brisk sales reflect a hot Israeli real estate market.

That market is itself a reflection of the overall Israeli economy, which, despite global efforts to demonize the country, continues to gallop ahead. “As the economy has strengthened, so, too, has the infrastructure developed in housing,” Cohn said.

He noted one difference between the United States and Israel when it comes to apartments: In Israel, most people prefer to buy them.

“People purchase their homes [in Israel] more so then we do,” he said, adding that consumers have more to invest in housing because “in Israel, higher education is so heavily subsidized, and the costs of education low.”

Cohn’s connections to Israel go way back. A fifth-generation San Franciscan and Camp Swig alumnus, he first visited Israel in his teens. In 1980, while they were both attending U.C. Berkeley, he met his future wife, Debbie Trubowitch. The marriage spurred his career moves.

Debbie’s grandfather emigrated with his family from Poland to Israel in the 1930s, later opening an olive oil factory in Petah Tikva. Over time, land values increased exponentially. In 1995, the Trubowitch heirs inherited the land and had some decisions to make.

Debbie’s brother, Neil Trubowitch, had made aliyah to Israel in 1997. A year later, Cohn launched his own career in real estate. Developing the family property in Israel seemed a wise move, so Cohn, Trubowitch and a third partner formed a company and got to work.

At first there was a learning curve navigating Israel’s real estate regulations.

“We were there on the ground dealing with the byzantine bureaucracy,” Cohn recalled, “which is not so dramatically different from what we do here [in the United States]. Public review, review through city departments, making sure the fire, health and safety departments approve the plans.”

What was the plan? Four gleaming condominium towers in Petah Tikva. Every unit in the complex sold, and from there the company grew. Today, Etz Hashaked employs 45 people full time.

This being Israel, politics has a way of popping up. Cohn says his company will build only inside the Green Line, the unofficial border established between Israel and the Palestinian territories after the 1948 War of Independence.

He says the company hires crews from all over the world, but the hope originally had been to hire Palestinians as a way of promoting peace and economic prosperity.

Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians largely prevented that, though Cohn said that whenever possible the company employs Palestinian crews on Jerusalem projects.

Israel has become a second home, not only for Cohn but for his wife and three adult daughters, who spent many summers there.

So for Cohn, combining his life’s work with family and a passion for Israel worked out well.

“There’s no greater sense of pride than when I watch the buildings [go up] and knowing I’m contributing to the country,” Cohn said. “ For 2,000 years we’ve been longing for the country. To be part of our people’s development of the land and know you’re doing your part is remarkably satisfying.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at