New projects in the Negev desert region of Israel tap into the country's largest geographical resource.
In 1955, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion challenged his people to develop the Negev and make it flourish. “Israel's capacity for science and research will be tested in the Negev … and this effort will determine the fate of the State of Israel and the standing of our people in the history of mankind,” he declared.
Members of The Negev Funding Coalition — a consortium of Jewish Federations, foundations and other funders committed to developing arts, culture, education, health care, science and technology initiatives in the region — convened at a conference hosted by the Jewish Federation of Delaware last week. They met to discuss their progress in fulfilling Ben-Gurion’s vision for making the Negev a vital and vibrant place to live and work.
The conference, which was sponsored by Jewish Federations of North America, featured a keynote presentation by Rear Admiral (Ret.) Hezi Meshita, the deputy director of the Southern Relocation Administration for the Israel Ministry of Defense. Meshita termed this “the decade of the Negev” and expressed excitement at the impact of four proposed development projects.
Chief among them is the construction of a new $650 million training facility located 20 miles outside of B’eersheva. Beginning in late 2014, 10,000 soldiers will be moved to the new base from their current quarters in Tel Aviv. The program will centralize combat support training that is currently conducted at multiple sites throughout Israel.
Three more “mega bases” are expected to be built in the Negev by 2020 — part of a strategic plan to vacate the land and buildings that the Israel Defense Forces currently occupies in high-end Tel Aviv and central Israel in order to bring jobs and investments to Israel’s south. As part of this initiative, the Israeli air force base at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport has already relocated to Netavim.
According to Meshita, these major military projects should bring 1 million new residents to the Negev.
“The IDF has committed $200 million to make improvements to the region’s infrastructure — upgrading the region’s roads, public transportation systems and utilities — to make certain that we are ready to absorb them,” he said.
The Negev Funding Coalition is working with the IDF and private and public organizations to make the region’s educational, economic and cultural climate more attractive to young families.
One of the initiatives currently funded by the Coalition is called Project FIRST Israel. It encourages high school students from both the Bedouin and Jewish communities to pursue studies and careers in science, technology, engineering and math through participation in community robotic competitions. This project will help prepare young people for lucrative job opportunities in a region that is fast becoming Israel’s Silicon Valley.
A new national research-and-development complex called CyberSpark will open soon at the Advanced Technology Park in B’eersheva. Lockheed Martin and IBM announced that they would invest in CyberSpark facilities, joining fellow cyber-security leaders Deutsche Telekom, EMC, RSA and many startups in the field.
The 15-building park is the only one of its kind in the world that includes Fortune 500 companies, cyber-incubators, academic researchers and educational facilities as well as national government and security agencies. The complex will also include a high school geared toward science and technology.
The park is located right next door to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), the site of another project funded by the coalition. The university’s Clean Technology Initiative strives to maximize the development of renewable materials and energy resources by providing fellowships to BGU graduate students interested in studying this new field and by supporting a new business plan competition for clean tech development, which targets Negev-based startups as well as BGU students.
Doron Krakow, executive vice president of the American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said “We have already received more than 25 entries — all environmentally and ecologically sound projects that will help drive development in the Negev.”
He added that the buzz about the competition is fueled by economic incentives: a $50,000 first prize and $30,000 second prize that will help the winners finance their startups.
The third program funded by the coalition is called Young Communities, Sustainable Future. This initiative, supported by the Jewish Agency for Israel in conjunction with the Israeli philanthropic foundations Shahaf and Gandyr, helps attract young adults to the region by providing critical social services that enhance the quality of life there.
The program is currently working with nine communities, both religious and secular. Two of them, MiDor LeDor in Sderot and Pe’ima in B’eersheva, are comprised of Russian-speaking Jews from the Caucasus region. The coalition-funded “Safe Passage” project helps the Caucasian children make a successful transition from kindergarten to elementary school. In Kiryat Gat, the Hineni project helps connect Ethiopian olim to their heritage by establishing an Ethiopian Jewish Identity Center.
Sam Katz, co-chair of the Philadelphia-Netivot Partnership Committee, maintains that Negev Funding Coalition projects are changing the paradigm in the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
“Israel can no longer be perceived as a nation in need of ‘charity’ from North American Jewry,” he said, adding that “Israel is a dynamic, democratic nation that wants to partner with us to achieve shared goals and objectives.”
Katz is excited by the growth of arts and cultural initiatives throughout southern Israel and is particularly proud of one project that he helped to spearhead in Netivot. In December 2013, Jane Golden, executive director of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, came to Netivot to address the first annual Cultural Entrepreneurship Conference.
During the conference, Netivot Mayor Yechiel Zohar authorized Golden to construct Israel’s first Mural Arts Program project, to be erected atop the community’s six-paneled water tower. The mural will be created by local artists under Golden’s supervision and will be a testament to the community’s cultural diversity.
In addition to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, participants in the Negev Funding Coalition include: UJA Federation of New York; UJA Federation of Greater Toronto; Jewish Federation of Delaware; Federation CJA; Jewish Federation of MetroWest, N.J.; the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and the Rashi Foundation.