Negev Pioneers
Weekending in Washington

The Negev's 21st-century pioneers

The 35 miles between Beersheva and the tiny desert town of Merhav Am doesn’t look much like the Israel in which most Israelis live.

In a densely packed country with 500 residents per square mile, the road from the Negev’s main city to Merhav Am is a seemingly endless expanse of desert interrupted only by shrubbery and the occasional roadside Bedouin tent.

Here, the crippling traffic jams that are a hallmark of daily life in central Israel, where more than 70 percent of the country’s 7.2 million people are concentrated, are virtually unknown. Cars on these roads slow only when a Bedouin shepherd steers his flock across the highway or when a herd of wild camels finds itself on the asphalt.

The people who live in the Negev are more familiar with the weekly livestock market and shopping bazaar still held at Beersheva’s outskirts every Thursday morning than with the fashion boutiques that line the upscale boulevards of Tel Aviv.

In the small desert communities that can be found scattered around this region, homeowners don’t lock their doors at night, young children play outdoors unsupervised and the nightly desert winds, rather than the hum of traffic, lull residents to sleep at night.

This is partly what brought Elli and Dalia Rosenberg to the Negev six years ago, when they were looking for a place to start their family.

It wasn’t just the lifestyle that drew Elli, the eldest son of Canadian immigrants to Israel, and Dalia, the daughter of an Israeli father and a Brooklyn-born mother, to the rural Negev.

It was Zionism.

“We wanted to live in a place where just living has meaning,” said Elli, 33, who grew up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petach Tikvah. “The Negev in our day and age is a place that answers to that requirement. Just living here has significance.”

Having spent part of his army service in the Negev and studied in a yeshiva in the development town of Yeruham, about 30 miles from Beersheva, Elli saw his future in this largely rural, little-developed and sparsely settled part of the country.

He enrolled in medical school at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and when he and Dalia -- a native of Beersheva who was in law school in Jerusalem and also aspired to live in the rural Negev -- decided to marry, they became founding members of a new Negev community in which they believed they could live out their ideals.

It was called Halukim.

Situated on a bluff southeast of Beersheva and a few miles down the road from Kibbutz Sde Boker, where Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, lived out the last 20 years of his life, Halukim – later to be renamed Merhav Am -- started with just a handful of families living in prefabricated homes powered by electricity from a generator and fed by water that was hauled in by tractor.

Elli and Dalia were the 10th couple to move in.

“My parents made aliyah and they gave up a very comfortable life in North America because they believed in coming to Israel and making aliyah; in a sense, I wanted to continue that,” Elli told B’nai B’rith Magazine. “My mother asked me why I was moving here and I told her, ‘Ima, just like you were a Zionist by coming to Israel, I am a Zionist by going to the Negev.”

Why the Negev

In an age when Israel’s agrarian roots seem a distant memory and Israel’s future as a high-tech, densely urban nation seems inevitable, life in the rural Negev is something of a throwback to the early days of the state.

It’s a place where pioneers can still establish new settlements in the Land of Israel untainted by the politicized conflict with the Palestinians over the disputed West Bank. It’s a place where young families can live out Ben-Gurion’s dream of making the desert bloom. It’s a place where people still talk about building communities rather than building fortunes.

And, champions of the Negev hope, it’s a place that represents Israel’s future.

“The Negev and the Galilee are the future of Israel,” said Roni Flamer, founder of an organization called Or (Hebrew for “light”) that seeks to draw new residents to the country’s underdeveloped areas. “The Negev and Galilee represent 75 percent of the land of Israel and only 30 percent of the population. But it’s 100 percent the future of Israel. This is our motto.”

With central Israel becoming ever more densely populated, anchored by metropolitan Tel Aviv and sprawling Jerusalem, a movement is afoot to bring more Jews to live in the country’s periphery -- the Negev in the south and the Galilee in the north.

Families like the Rosenbergs and activists like Flamer and Or Movement co-founder Ofir Fisher believe in the Negev’s potential as a viable alternative to central Israel, and they represent the grass roots of an effort that the Israeli government, American Jewish organizations and Israeli industry all are keen on seeing succeed.

They are driven by ideological, economic and demographic motives.

Passionate young Jews eager to actualize the Zionist ideals of building the state, greening the desert and creating communities infused with Zionist values see in the Negev an opportunity to create the kind of societies Israel’s founders envisioned but which have become difficult to sustain elsewhere in the country.

Central Israel is already developed, West Bank settlement is politicized and socially divisive, and Zionism is in short supply among the cosmopolitan, post-Zionist yuppies of metro Tel Aviv.

In southern Israel, far from the strip malls of Tel Aviv’s suburbs, the Negev is the closest thing to the tabula rasa many of Israel’s pre-state pioneers found when they first came to the Holy Land.

It’s what brought Flamer to the Negev in 1999 to start a new town with three friends on a barren desert hilltop where they lived in mobile homes that ran on a generator and had no running water.

“We discovered that for 20 years no new communities were established and no fresh blood had come to the Negev with idealism and motivation to start a new initiative for the coming generation,” said Flamer, 32. “We found this fantastic place to live and suddenly a few crazy guys at the age of 22 were coming to fulfill a dream. Nobody knew what to do with us.”

Israel’s infrastructure minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, met with the boys, and he was enthusiastic and encouraging, they said. Sharon helped them establish the town, called Sansana.

“We were like real pioneers,” said Flamer, who still lives in Sansana. “Since then, lots of people came to see the miracle that there is still idealism and passion in Israel.”

“The Negev and the Galilee are the tools that create a big light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It is hope for Israel.”

The government has several reasons for developing the Negev. It wants to bring jobs to rural Israel, more evenly distribute the country’s population and tip the Arab-Jewish demographic balance in the Negev and Galilee regions -- where there are heavy concentrations of Israeli Arabs -- more solidly in favor of Jews. This is part and parcel with how Israel’s leadership envisions the Jewish state: Not only must Israel as a whole be mostly Jewish, but every major region within it should be majority Jewish, too.

In the Galilee, the government-run Galilee Development Authority and the Jewish Agency for Israel launched a campaign in 2004 to try to draw new Jewish residents to northern Israel by offering discounts on land, infrastructure support for new buildings and myriad tax breaks. The success of the initiative has been mixed, however. Arab population growth has continued to outpace Jewish population growth in the Galilee, and the 2006 Lebanon War -- during which northern Israel came under attack from Hezbollah’s Katyusha rocket fire – slowed the influx of new residents to the region.

In a remark emblematic of Israeli officials’ preoccupation with this enterprise, former Israeli ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon warned in September that majority-Arab regions of Israel one day could break away from the Jewish state -- like the separatist regions of the Republic of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- if Israel does not ensure a Jewish majority throughout the country.

“If the Israeli government doesn't make sure there is a Jewish majority in the Galilee, the Arab majority could declare independence and international recognition based on the precedent of Ossetia and Abkhazia,” Ayalon said.

While the Negev is roughly 60 percent Jewish, the Arabs who live there – most of them Bedouin -- have much higher birthrates than the local Jews.

The government has tried to shore up the Jewish population of the Negev by encouraging new immigrants to move there, particularly those who lack the means to afford real estate in central Israel.

As early as the 1950s, Israel established development towns in the Negev to encourage Jewish settlement there. But the towns, including Yeruham, Dimona and Sderot, were not great successes. They failed to attract much industry or generate a sizeable middle class, and for the most part their residents remained mired in poverty and largely cut off from the rest of Israel.

Now, however, for the first time in decades, Israel is making a serious, sustained effort to invigorate the Negev. With the help of American Jewish groups and grass-roots organizations, the Israeli government is investing in infrastructure, industry and communities to draw more Jews to the Negev.

New upscale neighborhoods are going up in Beersheva, train service to the city has been upgraded and accelerated, and the southern portion of the Trans-Israel Highway, Road 6, is almost complete, linking the Beersheva area to the rest of the country.

Government-provided incentives are bringing new businesses, including hundreds of white-collar jobs, to the area. Corporations like Amdocs and Intel are building facilities in the Negev, motivated by the affordability of real estate here and government enticements.

The Jewish National Fund is investing $600 million over 10 years in a plan called Blueprint Negev to build new communities in the rural desert, improve Beersheva’s infrastructure, invest in the city’s hospital, university and cultural institutions, and increase employment opportunities in the area.

“The whole revitalization of the Negev is to help the whole community and each demographic that lives there,” said Jodi Bodner, JNF’s director of communications.

Jewish federations from cities across North America are twinned with Negev communities both large and small to help build community centers, synagogues, parks and communal institutions. The Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee run programs in the Negev for new immigrants, the elderly and disadvantaged youth. The Bedouin, too, are recipients of state aid and assistance from nonprofits.

“We think it’s really important to think about the Negev not only as a series of independent locations, but also as a region with unique challenges, priorities and opportunities,” said Rebecca Caspi, director general of the Israel branch of the Jewish federation umbrella organization of North America, the United Jewish Communities.

This massive effort, however, would be nothing without people like the Rosenbergs.

Negev Pioneers

When Dalia and Elli Rosenberg first moved to Merhav Am, in 2002, it felt like a dream come true.

“It was heaven at the beginning,” Dalia said. “People would do anything for you and for each other. It was very diverse even though we were all religious families.”

There were some challenges, of course.

In the summertime, cold water was hard to come by because the punishing desert sun would heat the water running through the town’s above-ground pipes. In the wintertime, flash floods would flow through the area, sometimes obstructing the road connecting the tiny town to the highway. For residents who needed to buy groceries, the closest store was more than 5 miles away. And, of course, the occasional desert critter turned up in someone’s bedroom, kitchen or bathroom.

“If I had a dime for every scorpion we had to remove from our home…” said Elli Rosenberg with a smile, his voice trailing off. “We were living very close to nature.”

But the benefits of living in Merhav Am seemed to far outweigh the disadvantages.

“On the one hand, you had your privacy — it didn’t have the stigma of a kibbutz —but you always had friends to turn to,” Dalia said. “If you were late from work, your friend could pick up your kid from day care. People would call you to see if you were okay if they heard you were sick. If you made a batch of cookies, you’d give some to your neighbor. It was the small things we loved.”

When extended family members would visit for a Shabbat, neighbors who were away for the weekend would offer their homes for guests’ use. There was no need to exchange keys, because nobody locked their doors.

As an exclusively religious yishuv, or community – the Negev’s only one between Beersheva and Eilat – Merhav Am provided the traditional Jewish environment the Rosenbergs sought while being laissez-faire enough to contrast starkly with the religious fundamentalism of more politically charged religious settlements, like those of the West Bank.

“It fit our ideal,” Elli said. “We were looking for hard-core Negev, deep Negev.

There are lots of yishuvim in the Negev that were very well-developed—Omer, Meital and Lehavim, satellite towns for Beersheva—but we believed that by starting a new yishuv it could spark new interest and bring more people to the Negev.”

It did.

Merhav Am grew steadily over its first five years. Trees were planted, pipes were laid underground, the town was hooked up to the nation’s electricity grid and the postal service finally agreed to make a mail stop at Merhav Am. Along with the help from the JNF, the Or Movement, the Jewish Agency, and North American Jewish federations, Merhav Am built a day care center, a kindergarten, a synagogue, a playground and a mikvah ritual bath.

One day, cosmetics magnate and American Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder came to visit the fledgling settlement. He arrived by helicopter, which landed at the entrance to Merhav Am.

After a little more than a year, Dalia Rosenberg gave birth to a daughter, Tal, and two years later the couple had a son, Ido. Both children were born at Beersheva’s Soroka Hospital, where Elli, now a doctor, was getting his M.D.-PhD. Dalia worked at a small law practice in Beersheva.

It was, in many ways, an idyllic life.

“It was very exciting,” Elli said. “There was a sense of something new, something special.”

If You Build it, They Will Come

As professionals, idealists and Jews committed to the future of the Negev, the Rosenbergs look like the poster couple for the kind of people the Negev’s champions want to attract to the region.

But people like the Rosenbergs are the exception in Israel.

Of Elli Rosenberg’s medical school class at Beersheva’s Ben-Gurion University, only 10 out of 60 graduates stayed in the Negev, he said.

In 1999, Intel opened up a $1.6 billion research-and-development facility in Kiryat Gat, a city about halfway between Beersheva and Tel Aviv, but 90 percent of the plant’s white-collar workers chose to commute from metropolitan Tel Aviv and elsewhere in central Israel rather than live in the Negev.

“Part of the problem is that people who have opportunities to offer in the Negev think there is nobody to work for them there, and people who want to live there think there are no jobs to be had,” said Bodner of the JNF.

The challenge for advocates is how to draw people to the Negev.

It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Policy planners and grass-roots activists agree that the key to developing the Negev is drawing professionals to the region, but the only way to attract those other than highly motivated idealists is to create infrastructure in the Negev will appeal to young professionals: everything from schools to transportation to jobs to arts and culture.

“The vision is that people will come to the Negev because the Negev is a place people would want to come to, that could provide for the needs of its inhabitants — a developed educational system, cultural activity, transportation,” said Elli Rosenberg.

In this long-neglected part of the country, the revival already is under way.

In late 2004, the Israeli government announced a multi-year $4.7 billion plan to develop the Negev.

Since 1999, the Or Movement has established five new rural towns in the region – one of them is Merhav Am -- and has plans to bring 60 groups of pioneers to 60 existing Negev communities. The idea is for the groups -- each comprised of 15 or so couples or families from elsewhere in Israel -- to commit to some kind of community building project in the Negev, from establishing a business to providing education for special-needs kids to expanding a town’s cultural offerings.

“Each group has its own idea to strengthen the community,” Flamer said. “It gives great energy to the entire enterprise of developing the Negev.”

In Beersheva, the JNF is building a 1,700-acre park along an old riverbed that was a toxic waste site until a few years ago. Where nearby buildings once were built to face away from the polluted river, new buildings now face the rehabilitated river that runs between newly built promenades on either side and culminates in a modest lake. The water comes from recycled sewage and runoff from wintertime flash floods. The JNF is also building an amphitheater, a sports complex and playgrounds in the city.

Outside Beersheva, the government, JNF, North American Jewish federations and the Or Movement are teaming up on revitalization projects in development towns like Yerucham, Ofakim and Dimona – places built in the 1950s to house new immigrants that have changed little since. They’re putting in new parks, running after-school programs for at-risk youth and, near Ofakim, building a state-of-the-art residential village for special-needs children.

JNF and Or also are collaborating on a unique project to attract a different kind of immigrant to the Negev: North American Jews. Slated to open in 2011, the town, called Carmit, is supposed to be a religiously pluralistic upscale community comprised mostly of English-speakers. Unlike most start-up Negev towns, Carmit will launch with permanent housing, rather than mobile homes, and the houses will have central air conditioning and Western amenities.

“It will be a symbol all over Israel,” Flamer gushes. “The impact will be unbelievable.”

Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Chicago is among those who already have signed on to live in the town.

“I had been planning to make aliyah, I was looking for possibilities, and this idea of Carmit looked very exciting,” said Lopatin, spiritual leader of Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago.

“I really would love to be involved in a pluralistic community in Israel and also to be a community rabbi,” Lopatin told B’nai B’rith Magazine. “This is an opportunity for starting a fresh new community with fresh new attitudes and an openness we couldn’t find anywhere else.”

“Carmit is the future of Israel,” he said.

Lopatin has formed a nonprofit organization, the Chicago Israel Philanthropic Fund, whose mission is to bring 100 families from the United States to Carmit. The group already is working with the Or Movement on a website and marketing packet.

Rosenberg says the Negev already has the key elements in place to attract newcomers -- it’s just a question of marketing.

“I think the major problem of the Negev is its image,” he said. “I think if you’d poll the center of the country, they’d associate the Negev with desert, barren, yellow, empty.”

Flamer agrees, which is why he’s on a mission to spread the word that the Negev is changing. The Or Movement hosts information centers around the country to recruit Israelis considering relocating to the Negev or Galilee. The centers, which highlight different options for newly discharged soldiers, students, environmentalists, ultra-Orthodox groups and new immigrants, function as one-stop shops that help with everything from finding employment and housing to choosing a community.

Ultimately, the success of the manifold initiatives to revitalize the Negev will hinge on whether the movement can succeed in attracting not only highly motivated Israelis like the Rosenbergs, but also those not necessarily predisposed to life in the Negev.

People like Lopatin, who acknowledges the Negev isn’t necessarily his ideal locale for a home in Israel , will represent test cases for the Negev revitalization movement. Will the elements that drew them to the desert – in Lopatin’s case, a uniquely pluralistic community – be enough to keep them there?

Dream vs. Reality

In Merhav Av, the question of whether the community ultimately will be a success remains open.

Seven years after the town’s founding, permanent housing has yet to replace the town’s prefabricated dwellings, and the community has dwindled from its peak of 37 families. In a town designed to house 200 families, so far there are 31, according to the JNF. Though a few new families have moved in, many of the town’s founding members have left.

The Rosenbergs were among them.

It’s not that they gave up on their dream of living in the Negev – the Rosenbergs moved just 10 miles down the road, to the development town of Yeruham, population 9,000 – but, they say, Merhav Am changed in ways they didn’t like.

The Rosenbergs had hoped the town would open up and become a mixed religious-secular community, but community members voted down an initiative to welcome secular families. The sense of unity the couple felt in the town’s early years dissipated as many of their like-minded friends left, the style of prayer at the synagogue changed and the town even changed its name.

Originally called Halukim after a nearby hill, community members elected to change the name to Merhav Am in memory of Rehavam Ze’evi, the Israeli tourism minister and right-wing ideologue who was assassinated by Palestinian gunmen at a Jerusalem hotel in 2001.

The name change was emblematic of the change in the town’s character, Elli said.

“We didn’t expect it to turn into a place that was intolerant,” he said. “I’m not sure where the root of the problem was: the withdrawal from Gaza, a general swing to the religious right. People’s views became more extreme after the disengagement”—Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005. “Those new extreme views were part of why the yishuv transformed to the extent that we didn’t see ourselves living there anymore.”

Whereas once Elli hardly could bear to be away from his beloved community for just a single Sabbath, by 2007 Merhav Am had become a place he didn’t want to live in anymore.

That summer, just before the start of the new school year, the Rosenbergs found a home in Yeruham for rent. Within a week, they had packed up their things and left Merhav Am.

In some ways, the Rosenbergs’ move is a sign of the Negev’s viability: Unhappy in one place, they were able to find another community in the Negev that suited them.

Yeruham has the religious diversity the couple was looking for, there is a multiplicity of synagogues to choose from and the town is, by comparison, more cosmopolitan. There are good schools for the kids and there’s plenty of community-building work to do. And, as 5-year-old Tal boasts, now the family’s house has two bathrooms.

But it wasn’t easy giving up on the dream of living in a frontier community in the middle of the desert.

Dalia, who now is nursing her third child, daughter Yael, born in early 2008, still gets teary-eyed when she talks of Merhav Am.

“When you ask me what I wish today, I wish one day we could go back,” she says, choking back tears. “It was hard to leave. Maybe one day.”