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Project taps new wave of Israeli ‘pioneers’
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Project taps new wave of Israeli ‘pioneers’

In a talk in Princeton on June 26, Ziv Shalev invited an audience of about 50 to explore David Ben-Gurion’s statement that Israel must either defeat the desert, or be defeated by it.

“I believe he means that we not only can’t afford a physical desert, but we can’t afford a spiritual, sociological, or educational desert in Israel,” said Shalev, who lives in Israel’s Negev.

For Shalev, the desert is not just his current home, but also a challenge that must be faced. As vice president of partnership development for the Ayalim Association, he is aiding efforts to strengthen communities on Israel’s periphery and draw young people to underpopulated areas of the Negev and Galilee.

Ayalim, he explained in his appearance at the Jewish Center, is making the Negev “bloom” by recruiting thousands of Israeli young people to live in 14 “student villages” built in or near marginal neighborhoods and towns. The college and university students (as well as post-high schoolers doing a gap year) live in the villages for one to four years and are obligated to volunteer at least 500 hours a year in exchange for college tuition and a discounted rental.

“They live in the most difficult, rough places. They come and physically build their villages,” he said. “They volunteer every year for hundreds of hours, with children at risk, senior citizens, and families in distress, creating projects and building and renovating their surroundings.”

Ayalim students, staff, and others gather during Passover and August to erect the trailers and prefab houses that form an Ayalim “village” in three or four days. Ayalim also renovates the houses of the 10 poorest families in the area.

More than 50 percent of the students stay in the area, said Shalev, and replicate the Ayalim model in 19 alumni communities. And, he said, “It makes other people want to come and live next to them; you want to be part of a vibrant, positive, powerful community.”

Ayalim got its start a decade ago, in the wake of a terrorist attack at Carmei Tzur that killed Eyal and Yael Sorek. Five friends who gathered at the shiva talked about how to honor their dead friends. Remembering that the couple always believed that the Negev was an important place, the young men decided to move into the region, said Shalev, “and start a new life and convince other young people to do the same.”

They pooled the approximately $2,000 each received at their army discharge, bought their first mobile home, and put it in Ramat Negev.

‘The old spirit’

One of Ayalim’s many successes is the transformation of a rough, drug-ridden neighborhood in Kiryat Shemona, where four years ago the mayor invited the organization to create a student village. About 50 students renovated 25 apartments and two shelters, transforming the shelters into afterschool centers. “We didn’t have to go to the drug dealers and ask them to leave,” said Shalev. “The environment changed and they left; they had no more clients.”

Ayalim is now looking to invite Diaspora visitors to its villages and participate in its programs.

“We are building and creating community only in non-disputed areas in Israel; there are no politics involved,” said Shalev. “It is in the Israeli consensus. Everybody believes that the Negev and Galil should be more settled and become stronger.”

The government gives Ayalim 60 million shekels (about $16 million); the other half of its budget is funded from private donations and federations.

Attendees appreciated Ayalim’s goal of creating meaningful options for young Israelis.

“They are creating an ethos for young Israelis when they get out of the army and want to do meaningful things with their lives,” said Dan Brent, cochair of the Israeli Affairs Committee at the Jewish Center.

Judy Fleitman, vice president of programming, said, “I think of young adults disillusioned because of the economy and housing — it answered a need Israel has as well as bringing the old spirit back.”

Two attendees wondered, however, if Ayalim reflects the diversity of the Israel’s Arab and Jewish populations.

“I think that it would be wonderful if this organization would be able to embed in its mission and the people who work with them the diversity of Israel’s citizens so that they are mixed communities,” said Ruth Shulman. “It makes Israel a stronger country if all its citizens can participate in such activities and can live in decent housing.”

Sherry Rosen responded in a similar vein. “It’s great to see pioneer activity back in vogue, but I just wish current thinking would take into account cooperative activity with young people from Israeli Arab, including Bedouin, communities,” she said.

But committee cochair Tirza Wahrman said Ayalim connects with Israel’s founding ideals. “It is wonderful to hear the positive story about populating the Negev and doing it in a way that is constructive and hearkens to the original dream that were the seeds of the founding of the state,” she said. “It is a story we don’t usually hear.”

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