Tor Hamidbar making a difference

Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, declared: “The Negev offers the greatest opportunity to accomplish everything from the very beginning.”

Presumably, by that he meant that the Negev provided the basis to build any desired infrastructure from scratch.

The problem today is that the Negev has not only remained largely undeveloped but those parts which have been populated have tended to accommodate newcomers during periods of mass immigration.

For some that has meant lower standards of living and reduced employment prospects.

The challenge now is to attract Israelis to relocate to the Negev and to this end students are being encouraged to live there and in return for free or heavily subsidised accommodation to give their time and contribute something to the local community.

Some though have decided to establish idealistic communities there.

One, Tor Hamidbar (“the generation of the desert”) saw a group of 30 individuals and families move to Beersheba from different parts of Israel 10 years ago.

At the time, they were all about 20 years old and the idea was hatched by nine Israelis serving in the Nahal infantry brigade. Today there are some 60 members of Tor Hamidbar.

Naomi Efrat, one of the pioneers and today a member of the management committee responsible for development and fundraising, told me that originally they planned to devote some of their time to building a community but most of it “to create a change in the Negev region as a whole”.

Naomi is one of five people employed full time by the organisation while all others have jobs in the non-profit or public sector.

Among them are two lawyers, two psychologists and 10 social workers. The remainder work either for the municipality or at the local university.

Tor Hamidbar’s members all live in the same neighbourhoods and send their children to the same schools. Naomi enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Haifa and in the army taught youth who at 18 were either disadvantaged or had drink or drugs problems.

“There is a big gap in Israeli society,” she said. “At the time I was 20, but I was thinking that I wanted to settle in a place long enough to make a difference.

“To make a difference you have to commit yourself to a particular time. After a time I realised that the community was good enough for me to stay for a lifetime.”

The community is what Naomi describes as “Jewish pluralist”.

She explained: “We celebrate Judaism. We study Judaism on a weekly basis, but we don’t go regularly to synagogue.

“So many, like myself, are considered secular but care enough about Judaism to be part of a community.”

There is a Conservative synagogue in Beersheba, but their aim is to open a pluralistic congregation there.

The community has written its own haggadah which it uses on the last day of Pesach. It poses questions such as: ‘What is freedom today?’ and special kibbutz songs. Tor Hamidbar also holds a traditional seder.

But its community work is its raison d’etre. A kindergarten provides high quality education, focusing on parental involvement and sustainability.

There is an animal corner with rabbits and children use composte to grow their own vegetables. At present 16 children enjoy the facility in a single class. This will increase to four groups of 16.

It operates as a co-operative with parents actually running it and some of the children attending are not disadvantaged.

“We are bringing disparate groups together,” said Naomi. “We will have to bring in a social worker and next year we want a foundation that gives grants to kids.”

The kindergarten and community centre are housed in a three-storey villa.

During the recent rocket attacks from Gaza, relatives of Tor Hamidbar members who live in areas away from the direct line of fire asked them to join them.

Eliad Melamed, one of the group’s founders, who is in charge of project community incubator which has helped establish 13 of the 21 similar groups throughout Israel, explained: “We asked our relatives what would happen to the other people who didn’t have cars etc.

“We asked the municipality how we could help. They said that the orders from the government were to do nothing.”

Eliad and his colleagues visited some homes and were told that the biggest problem was that bomb shelters had been used for storage and were inaccessible.

And up to 20 per cent of them had no power supply. So Tor Hamidbar supplied torches and helped people to clear their shelters.

They also provided food and other supplies, including medicines, for elderly and vulnerable Beersheba residents.

They used Facebook and email to appeal for volunteers, 100 of whom responded on the first day. This eventually increased to 300 and they were able to assist in a wider area.

Tor Hamidbar was forced to fundraise specifically for the operation and JNF UK gave an immediate 4,000 shekels in emergency aid.

In all, 30 shelters were repaired, power was restored and local residents helped by donating food, torches and toys.

Eliad said: “The running costs are so finely balanced with no contingency, which is where organisations like JNF come in.”

Tor Hamidbar is planning an ambitious project in the form of the Negev Hub in Beersheba which will see a group of entrepreneurs sharing space for for 500 shekels or less each month.

The funds raised will pay for courses to enhance their levels of professionalism.

The scheme is in its early stages but it is envisaged that 15 to 20 entrepreneurs will share facilities. The Jewish Agency will supply a mentoring service. One entrepreneur makes tee-shirts promoting Beersheba.

On the second floor of the building will be a young adult centre providing networking and start-up opportunities.

The aim is that graduates who use the facility will then remain in Beersheba.

The cost of renovating the space will be 600,000 shekels (about £100,000) and it is hoped that JNF UK will contribute 280,000 shekels.

Tor Hamidbar has also helped at-risk youths to establish what is now the highly regarded Ringleblum restaurant.

It began as a project to occupy young people who had nothing else to do in the evening.

“Rather than provide them with something that wasn’t so useful, we asked them what they wanted,” said Naomi.

Their answer was that they wanted to work somewhere that paid them realistically. But the condition was that they could only be employed there if they attended school regularly, did not play truant and kept off drink and drugs

“We had no knowledge of running a cafe,” recalled Naomi. “We raised 750,000 shekels and we started running it, but we were losing money.

“One of our members went on a business course and he returned to manage it. He had worked in a cafe in Tel Aviv.”

A venture capitalist joined as a 50 per cent partner and celebrity chef Nir Tuk organised a training course and devised menus. Forty seven youngsters completed the course successfully and acquired a skill for life.

Some have actually moved on to work in restaurants as sous chefs and in other capacities.

Another project is a neighbourhood sustainability centre which offers residents of the district known as Daled a community garden where they can grow their own vegetables and other produce.

There are also be cultural events, including parties, films and lectures on subjects such as how to conserve energy at home.

Up to 1,000 residents a month use the community centre.

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© 2012 Jewish Telegraph