Revitalizing the Negev Through Creative Placemaking

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What can kids learn about community designing a Shabbat kit for an astronaut?

In Netivot and Sdot Negev — the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Partnership2Gether region in Israel — it became a prime example of “placemaking.” For more than 20 years we have partnered with these Israeli communities, supporting such programs that increase local vitality, entrepreneurship and public health in an area that historically has been sparsely populated and economically depressed.

Therefore, when in the early 2000s the Israeli military announced it would begin construction on a training base — its largest ever — in the Negev, a move sure to bring with it a swell of much-needed new residents and resources, Jewish Federation volunteered to play a major part in supporting that surge.

We set to work forming the Negev Funding Coalition, a partnership now composed of seven Jewish Federations of North America that work closely with the Southern Relocation Administration of Israel’s Ministry of Defense and the Negev Development Authority. The coalition acts as an innovation hub and advances creative and healthy placemaking programs in Israel’s southern region.

But what is placemaking?

Placemaking is a multifaceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces in order to foster social and community change, increasing residents’ quality of life. Placemaking initiatives are always unique to each community because they use local assets and potential. In our partnership region, for example, the influence of North Africa has played an important role.

Eran Yuval, creative director of Studio Lab — the coalition’s partner program integrating placemaking into schools — explained how those local traditions came to the fore when students at an Orthodox girls’ school, many of them descendants from North African immigrants, decided they would construct a Shabbat kit that could be rocketed to outer space.

Presenting at the Negev Summit in Philadelphia, Yuval pointed out that Netivot Shabbat dinners “smell a little different, sound a little different than yours.” The girls began their project by thinking deeply about their own traditions, then figuring out how to capture the essence of their Shabbat and transform it into an interstellar experience.

For many, placemaking and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) education are intertwined. To succeed in their Shabbat kit, the girls drew from disciplines ranging from Jewish studies to physics to food science to design to microgravity. Through such creative placemaking projects, students develop 21st century skills that prepare them for careers that otherwise may be inaccessible.

All the while, they use arts and culture to strategically shape their community’s physical and social character, as well as to form an emotional bond with their hometown, a concept called “place attachment” — the feeling which makes us care for our communities and stay in them, using our skills and education to better our surroundings.

By integrating local culture, using technology and encouraging students to think about the future while staying grounded in the present, the Shabbat kit was the perfect placemaking project.

“To shoot up into space, to go as far as you can, you need strong roots,” Yuval said, holding up a proof-of-concept box filled with a pouch of wine, a packet of mix-your-own hamin — a Sephardic version of cholent — candles that burn in space, crumb-less challah and a booklet of the blessings. Yuval smiled. “We’re literally going as far as we can to build place attachment.”

Visit jewishphilly.org/netivot-sdot-negev/ to learn more about our work in Netivot and Sdot Negev.

Panim’s Pluralism: Israeli-Judaism

Growing up, Michal Berman attended a modern Orthodox school in Israel, but also often traveled to the United States to connect with her more secular relatives. Her father was a sabra, an Israeli-born Jew, and her mother made aliyah (moved to Israel) from the U.S.

“I had two perspectives from the very beginning,” she said, which taught her to value and respect all expressions of Judaism. Now, as CEO of Jewish Federation-supported Panim — a pluralist organization that supports all Israeli Jews in cultivating their individual identities, no matter where they fall on the religious spectrum — Berman’s singular goal is to spread that same respect across Israel.

“The fact is, there are different ways of being Jewish, and they are all important,” Berman said. “At Panim, we think it is exciting that people have different ways of doing things.”

Since Israel is dominated by two types of Jewish practice, Orthodoxy and secularism, Panim proposes a new, inclusive category called Israeli-Judaism, which is accepting of all Jewish identities. Israeli-Judaism celebrates that there are many ways of being Jewish — cultural, historical, familial, national and religious.

Panim works with more than 60 diverse Israeli organizations in support of Israeli-Judaism, providing Israelis with the tools and activities to live full Jewish lives, in whatever ways each person chooses. These organizations pair up Israelis and Americans to digitally study together, host pluralistic programming in Israeli schools across the country, and provide resources for a range of traditional and nontraditional ceremonies.

For example, Panim’s website, which is accessed by more than 30,000 people every month, offers more than 1,200 worksheets teaching a variety of ways to participate in Jewish holidays and rituals, and hosts more than 20 educational courses. Meanwhile, Panim also supports each organization with research and government lobbying. All of this, Berman said, is in service of Panim’s simple philosophy: “All people should feel at home in their culture.”

For more information on Panim’s impact and ranging initiatives, visit panim.org.il/en.

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