For three very full days last week, June 14-16, seven representatives of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey toured Israel’s Negev region, meeting in towns and farming areas with local people, exploring existing projects, and hearing about plans for new ones.
Their goal: to assess the impact of the grants allocated over the past few years from the federation’s Ness Loan Fund and to explore new avenues of investment.
Federation executive vice president Stanley Stone, who led the group, voiced enthusiasm over the caliber of civic leaders they met — part of a new cadre with fresh vision, he said, and the dedication of the young people spearheading developments in what was in many areas a bleak and neglected part of the country.
“It was a chance to learn about cutting-edge programs, and to solidify our relationship with some of the top individuals involved with them,” he said. “We were able to get a sense of their vision and idealism.”
The group was made up of members of the Ness Fund Loan Committee, part of the federation’s Jewish Community Endowment Foundation. It included past federation president Eleanor Rubin, foundation chair Bob Kuchner, Phyllis Bernstein Kuchner, Eric Harvitt, and Stone’s wife Ellen; the group was escorted by the federation’s representative in Israel, Tehila Nahalon.
The Ness Loan Fund, administered by the Jewish Agency for Israel and funded by the federation, is drawn from the estate of Watchung farmer Mack Ness. The fund supports and nourishes new businesses and aids in the development and expansion of existing businesses, particularly along Israel’s periphery regions.
Perhaps the most potentially ambitious plan they heard about is for a rehabilitation hospital to be built in Arad. Harvitt pointed out that for the city, situated near the Dead Sea and its many health resorts, such an institution could be “a game changer.”
Stone said the hospital “could transform the city.”
The new mayor of Arad, Tal Ploskov, a woman who emigrated from Russia in 1991, was among the leaders the NJ visitors met. Others included the appointed mayor of Ofakim, Tzvika Greengold, a hero of the Yom Kippur War, and Roni Flamer, CEO of the Or movement, who showed them its new tourist and information center, “The Gate to the Negev,” in Be’er Sheva.
That evening, in Be’er Sheva, they got to see one of the increasingly popular “Monday at the Museum” concerts. Funded in part with Ness money, they are part of the cultural renewal of the city, intended to make life in the region more inviting for young adults.
Earlier that day they met with members of the Hinenny and Kama communities in the region, to learn about “young communities,” a phenomenon the Jewish Agency is orchestrating as a means of bringing new people to the region and to grow new businesses.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is also working with young people in coordination with the Ness Fund, and the mission was briefed, in Jerusalem, on the Young Adult Centers they support in which youth from underprivileged communities get training and job support.
In Arad later that day, mission members had a dinner meeting with the professional staff from the Arad-NJ Partnership 2000, the program that links the city to the Central federation and 10 other area federations.
On the third day, the mission went to Ashalim, half an hour south of Be’er Sheva, and met with people from the Ayalim movement — Israel’s “new pioneers” who are establishing communities in uninhabited areas.
While in the area, the mission members also met with leaders and students of the Mirage Foundation, which offers training courses for young entrepreneurs.
Harvitt, who managed to stay up late after those long days to catch up on World Cup soccer matches, said, “It was a great trip. It was really good to see where the money we’ve allocated has been used, and the ways our funds can be used in the future.”