Making the desert bloom 2.0

Making the desert bloom 2.0

Greater MetroWest a pioneer in revitalizing Negev

University of Beersheva students with members of Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Photos courtesy Keren Ness
University of Beersheva students with members of Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Photos courtesy Keren Ness

Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said in January 1955 that the creativity and pioneering vigor of Israel would be tested in its southern Negev desert.

For decades after Ben-Gurion spoke about that test, Israel earned a failing grade. Jobs were created in the overpopulated center of the country, while the Negev lagged behind in what has been derogatorily declared Israel’s periphery. Culture and the arts bloomed in the center of the country as well, while the Negev became a cultural backwater. Young people left northward for college and never came back.

In a recipe for serious future problems, the Negev became home to only 8.2 percent of Israel’s population, even though it comprises 60 percent of the country’s area. 

When the national government of Israel was not doing enough to help the Negev solve those problems, non-governmental organizations stepped in, and when those organizations and local authorities required assistance, diaspora Jews started doing their part to support them.

One such pioneer in advancing the Negev has been the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, which continues a partnership with the towns of Ofakim and the surrounding Merhavim region and Arad. The Union began in 1994 under the auspices of the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000, an effort to connect development towns in Israel with strong diaspora communities. Today the relationship between federation and the Negev towns is maintained  under the Partnership2Gether program.  

The Jewish Federation of Central NJ (which merged with MetroWest in 2012) then expanded to helping the economic development of the entire Negev a decade ago, thanks to the Mack Ness Fund, known as Keren Ness in Israel. 

Greater MetroWest’s Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) executive director Stanley Stone, who initiated connections with Arad when he was head of Jewish Federation of Central NJ, said that while much more must still be done, the Negev has reached a turning point.

“There is vitality, resilience, and a feeling of optimism,” Stone said. “This could be an important juncture for the Negev no longer being the periphery and instead being part of a boom. The whole area needs to improve but we are seeing goals set 10 years ago become reality, and it is very exciting.”

Stone cited many reasons for the turnaround. Some have nothing to do with federation, such as the Israeli government’s decision to move high-level army bases to the Negev; a group of dynamic, young, new mayors who were elected to lead southern cities; the extension of the trans-Israel highway; and the expansion of train lines that have connected former development towns to the Negev’s largest city, Beersheva, and through there to the rest of the country.

But there are plenty of ways federation is involved day in and day out in projects that expand economic development, draft a vibrant population, and improve the cultural life for the residents of the Negev. The federation has multiple partners in that effort, including the municipalities, the Jewish National Fund, Or Movement, and the Negev Funding Coalition.

The federation’s associate executive vice president for global relations, Amir Shacham, noted that other partnerships were started with Kibbutz Erez near the Gaza Strip in 2001, and recently with the Bedouin town, Segev Shalom. Shacham said the federation allocates $700,000 a year to Negev economic development through the Ness Fund, and some $600,000 more for projects in the region through Partnership2Gether, the successor to Partnership 2000.

“We are an empire in the Negev,” said Shacham, who initiated the partnership with Ofakim. “The partnerships are our bread and butter. But we present the Negev as a whole as our main focus. Having New Jersey play a key role in their lives allows the residents to feel Jewish peoplehood and understand that they’re part of something bigger.”

The federation is aiding efforts to integrate the new parts of Ofakim with the old so there won’t be disconnected societies in the town. Shacham said the federation was also instrumental in helping Erez absorb another 50 families, despite its proximity to Gaza. 

The Ness loan fund, which was created as a memorial for Mack Ness, his mother Anne, and his brother Sanford, was established to strengthen businesses and develop employment opportunities in the Negev. It has granted nearly 400 loans, providing more than $17 million to 335 new and existing businesses in the region. The fund also granted some $5.5 million to more than 50 Negev projects.

“Ness is contributing by looking at the strengths of the Negev and not seeing it through the lenses of welfare and poverty,” Ness director Noga Maliniak said. “We look at what projects we can ignite that will help keep our young people and bring more.”

For instance, Ness gave money to establish the Negev Council of mayors and lay leaders, who lobby the national government for allocations and key decisions, like building another hospital in the region. It has funded youth centers throughout the area that coordinate with each other, and also gave money to Or for the successful revitalization of Beersheva’s Old City as an arts and entertainment area.

Or vice president Ofir Fisher, who lives in Beersheva’s Old City, said that when Ness allocated the funds, Or went to the Beersheva municipality, which matched it. He then approached private investors, who also matched the Ness funds, tripling the original money.

From the start, Or said the funding would be for only three years. It kept with that goal, allowing the city, the Culture Ministry, and private investors to step in, and the project is still going strong today.

Through Ness, the federation supports Or’s economic growth programs and helps fund students living in communities near the Gaza border, such as on Kibbutz Nahal Oz, which had been the target of continuous rocket fire in the past, causing many long-term kibbutz members to leave.

Or initially founded new and small communities in the Negev, bringing 350 families to the new community of Karmit in 10 months. But it has shifted its focus to the cities in an effort to build sustainable population centers. Fisher said that by 2048, a century after Israel’s founding, the center’s quality of life would severely deteriorate with rapid population growth, so Or is helping cities in the South and in the Galilee create more jobs.

Like Stone, Fisher looks back and sees a huge contrast between now and a decade ago in the Negev.

“The main difference from 10 years ago is that people are paying attention to the Negev,” Fisher said. “Now there is no leading Jewish organizations without a campaign for the Negev. The government has a Negev and Galilee Development Ministry. It became a trend to develop the Negev, and the image and the focus of the Negev have changed for the better.”

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