Wednesday, June 28, 2023


                                                           Interview with Tuvia Victor of Havat Efraim

Havat Efraim, the Beit El Children’s Zoo, comes upon one like a surprise. My friend had said “I’m going to the petting zoo in Beit El. Do you want to come with?”

I eagerly accepted. It’s not that I cared so much about seeing a “petting zoo” but I really, really wanted to go to Beit El. Somehow in 43 years of living in Israel, I had never managed to see this important biblical city. Here was my chance and I was taking it with or without the animals.

It was a magical day.

Havat Efraim, or “Efraim’s Farm” is not really a “petting zoo” (or “pinat chai” as the Hebrew-speaking locals call it), though there is a bunny pen for this purpose. It’s a proper children’s zoo, albeit small, nestled inside a wooded area, with numerous water features and proper benches to sit on. Some of the animals roam free, while others are in cages, and the place just seems to wind on and on, as you constantly come upon yet another interesting species of animal, just around the corner.

The man who runs this impressive—and impressively-sized—children’s zoo is Tuvia Victor. It is doubtful that Victor ever expected to become a zookeeper. Born in South Africa, the

Tuvia Victor with a deer at Havat Efraim, Efraim's Farm
accountant/insurance and pension agent has lived in Beit El since he was married, now nearly 37 years ago. Today, the Victor family is a living representation of the Ingathering of the Exiles, as its ranks swell with Israeli grandchildren of Yemenite, Tunisian, Moroccan, Polish and Ethiopian ancestry.

Tuvia took time from his busy schedule to answer some questions about his labor of love, Havat Efraim, Efraim’s Farm:

Varda Epstein: What event was the inspiration for the expansion of the pinat chai? When did you become involved?

Tuvia Victor: On the last night of Chanuka in 1996, there was a terrorist attack and I went in the ambulance as a medic to the scene of the attack. A family on its return from lighting candles with family was shot, and the mother and the 12-year-old son were seriously wounded. The son died from a head wound at the site of the attack and the mother passed away later that night in the hospital. The Tzur family were neighbours of mine. The young boy, Efraim, together with his friends had tendered a spot where they kept some ducks and a goat His friends made a sign which read: “Efraim’s Farm – in memory of our friend.” I was moved by their action and started to help them improve and enlarge the cages which they had built. From there Efraim’s Farm grew and grew until it became what it is today.

The story of Efraim Tzur, HY"D. Memorial plaque at Havat Efraim.

Varda Epstein: Is there something special about the location of the pinat chai? Why do you think Efraim chose this spot?  

Tuvia Victor: The pinat chai is located in the valley below the settlement—I imagine that the children wanted to tend to animals but their parents (mothers?) were not so keen for that to happen in their garden!

A boy feeds a red deer at Havat Efraim, the "pinat chai" or petting zoo of Beit El 

Varda Epstein: What kind of animals do you have at the pinat chai today, and how many of them are there altogether? How big a part does your location play in determining the types of animals you bring in? How much space do you have in which to house them all?

Tuvia Victor: We have a variety of animals – mammals, birds and fowl, small carnivores, reptiles and fish. We house about 250 animals in about 12 dunam.  We have deer, sheep, goats, coatimundi, horses, donkeys, peacocks, guinea fowl, a variety of ducks and geese, Sulcata tortoises and a number of species of birds. 

Sulcata tortoises 

Varda Epstein: What does it take the feed all those animals? Is the feed delivered?

Tuvia Victor: Each animal is fed with a diet suitable to it. We feed with hay and prepared dry feed mixtures, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. The community leaves leftover fruit, vegetables and bread in a special crate built at the entrance to the pinat chai. The hay is delivered by truck (about 8 tons) while I collect the dry food every 2 weeks.

Cameroon sheep, goats, and horses at the Pinat Chai in Beit El

Varda Epstein: Talk to us about the expansion. Who does the work? What kind of improvements have you made?

Tuvia Victor: We employ any worker that needs work – over the years we have employed unemployed, under-employed and those needing to supplement their income. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) built the duck pond and the caves for the farm animals. Together with the employees we spoke about before, volunteers (both adult and children), and myself, we built the rest of the structures. We use recycled materials wherever possible, like equipment from children’s parks etc.

Mandarin Ducks 
                                   The duck pond

Varda Epstein: What are some of your favorite animals at the pinat chai, and why?

Tuvia Victor: Each and every one is special to me! Naturally when we get new animals they are the most exciting and challenging – learning what they need in terms of feeding, housing and "entertainment". Our latest residents are the Jacob Sheep. Some believe that the modern breed is actually the same one mentioned in the Bible (although there is little genetic evidence). We have two males and are hoping to begin breeding them by bringing female ewes. Some of them have 4 horns!

A Jacob sheep is fed a treat of lavender from a visitor 

Varda Epstein: What can visitors expect to find on arrival at the pinat chai? Is there an entry fee? Is there a way to visit on Shabbat? 

Tuvia Victor: Efraim’s Farm is open from dawn to dusk. The information center at the entrance offers a map of the pinat chai as well as its story. The expected code of behavior is also displayed there. The entry fee is 5 NIS per visitor. Entrance fee can be paid by bank transfer (Bank Leumi, Branch 902, Account 20880098), by credit card via the website, or cash which is fed to the stone rabbit at the entrance. Visitors on Shabbat are requested to pay on a weekday.

Kids enjoy "feeding" this stone rabbit their 5 NIS entry fee. 

Me speaking bastard Yiddish nonsense to an Emu

Varda Epstein: Do you offer any activities for children? Is the pinat chai a safe place for them? Are all of the animals caged?

Tuvia Victor: We welcome schools, nursery schools and groups to visit and enjoy pita-making, a petting area, and other activities – all with prior arrangement. We also offer animal therapy for children. Although most of the animals are in their own areas, the smaller goats do wander around. We do suggest parents look after their children in the pinat chai – for both their safety and to ensure they treat the animals with the expected respect and without hurting them.

Coatimundi at Havat Efraim, the Pinat Chai of Beit El

                                                        Tuvia feeds the coatimundis 

Varda Epstein: Tell us more about your location. Are there other local attractions to see in Beit El?

Tuvia Victor: Beit El is a vibrant and growing community with about 1300 families. In addition to visiting the pinat chai, one can walk back in history by visiting the spot of Jacob’s dream, the remains of Jerobam’s altar, and ancient burial caves. There are restaurants, springs and parks. A new visitors’ center is soon to be opened.

Just a rock or the rock where Jacob slept and had his dream? 

Varda Epstein: What are your future aspirations for the pinat chai? What’s next on the agenda?

Tuvia Victor: Our next project is to complete a reptile house which will include snakes, iguanas, lizards etc. Donations will help us tremendously to continue employing the unemployed, providing for the animals and improving our unique place for the benefit of all the visitors – children and adults alike.

To make a donation to Havat Efraim/Efraim’s Farm, and for more information, please visit the website of the Beit El Children’s Zoo.

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