Like water drops on hot sand, the money from the Ness Fund invested in Israel’s Negev communities might have vanished without a trace. But, instead, it seems to be sprouting oases of development in what until recently was a much neglected portion of the country.
Two years after the establishment of the fund — drawn from the estate of Watchung farmer Mack Ness — the endowment arm of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey came to a crossroad as the end of the first cycle of grants approached. The Jewish Community Endowment Foundation has issued a report, looking back — to assess the success of funded projects — and forward — to determine how best to allot monies from the fund into the future.
The foundation has had a rare opportunity to make a major impact: Its Ness Grants Committee had $450,000 to work with. Mack Ness’ only proviso was that his money benefit Israel, and that some be used for a memorial to his mother, his brother, and himself.
In 2007, when the foundation decided to invest the money with a view to supporting economic development in the Negev as a whole, as well as with local communities in the region, few philanthropies were taking that route. Now, two years later and ready to invest further, they are also seeing others inspired by their example. That includes other North American federations that came together last spring at a conference in Miami, where the Central federation described its projects in the Negev, to explore ways to further support development in the region.
Stanley Stone, the federation’s executive vice president, told NJ Jewish News the local/regional approach had proved highly effective. “It works, and it’s needed,” he said.
The federation already had a relationship with the town of Arad, through its Jewish Agency for Israel Partnership 2000 affiliation. The Ness committee provided funding for the creation of a young adult center in the town that offers help with training, job placement, and housing. Working with the Israeli organization Or, it allocated other funds for cultural projects in the Old City of Be’er Sheva, and teamed up with the Israel Venture Network to establish business mentoring programs in the Negev.
The goal of all those projects, according to Stone, has been to keep young people in the region and to attract newcomers from elsewhere in the country by providing economic opportunities and cultural attractions.
Though there are a number of institutions of higher education in the Negev, most students leave the region after graduating, in part because of the lack of jobs or business opportunities, and in part because there is so little to do in their leisure time.
The Ness Fund decision to invest in the region was supported by a large-scale plan backed by the Israeli government known as the Daroma plan. It included the establishment of large army bases there, the construction of a highway to Be’er Sheva, and the extension of train service to the area. There was also growing support for economic development programs for the region’s Bedouin population. Though the Daroma plan has not been fully implemented, progress has been made on all those aspects.
Stone said the Arad Young Adult Center, despite having only two full-time and one part-time staff members, has established itself as a major player in the town. During Operation Cast Lead, the military conflict with Gaza last winter, the center was asked to relocate and settle 300 displaced people — which the staff accomplished successfully.
In addition to coordinating a range of cultural, job counseling, and tutoring programs, center staff also were instrumental in bringing 11 military families to the town this past year. Stone said they have worked closely with youth centers in other towns, effectively demonstrating the benefits to be had from such collaborations.
Despite its successes, Stone said, the center needs more time to establish alternative funding sources. The Ness Fund will therefore continue to fund it for a third year and possibly more beyond that, until it has a secure base.
Programs in Be’er Sheva, including about 100 musical and arts events, have drawn over 30,000 people from around the country. Organizers say they are now being approached by performers eager to take part in them. The Ness Fund and Or hope to step back as the municipality and private entrepreneurs take over funding the events.
On the mentoring front, for the past year a Ness grant has funded an Economic Recovery Initiative run by the Israel Venture Network. Working with businesses financed by the Ness Business Loan Fund and other sources, some 35 entrepreneurs have had mentoring, and a number of mentors and business consultants have been trained — including a few Bedouins. There is another year to go with the present Ness grant.
The fund also helped finance the Ayalim entrepreneurial training program for students, and a similar program for residents in Yerucham.
Tehila Nachalon, director of the Central federation’s Israel office, said last week, “We were one of the first organizations to take that regional approach. Though we are relatively small compared to the very big philanthropies, a lot of them are coming to talk to us and draw on our experience.”
The conventional wisdom, she said, was that communities in the region were too diverse and competitive with one another for a coordinated approach. “Today, they are seeing what they have in common, and there is more and more cooperation between the projects in the different towns. They are thinking regionally.”
Municipal leaders, formerly at loggerheads with one another, are coming on board too. “At least they are talking the talk,” Nachalon said. “Now let’s see if they walk the walk.”
Norman Weinberg, who cochairs the Ness Grant Committee with Eleanor Rubin, credited Nachalon’s “outstanding work” promoting cooperation in the region.
“The second-most gratifying thing is the groundswell of grass-roots activity,” he said. “Most of the people getting involved are young and idealistic — part of the ‘new Zionism’ we talk about. It’ll take time to see results, but we’re on the right track. The Negev is where our future lies, and the sky is the limit.”
Rob Schwartz, a member of the grants committee and of the Ness Business Loan Fund, agreed. He said it had been eye-opening and gratifying to witness “a new generation of pioneers,” willing to leave the established areas of the country and move to the Negev, to tackle the tough task of rejuvenating rundown communities and creating new ones from the ground up. “It’s been amazing and refreshing to see,” he said.