Ben-Gurion's dreams
Ben-Gurion's dreams
The Jerusalem Post - April 21, 2005
By Tamara Novis

A cluster of white caravans that glow in the sun about half an hour south of Beersheba off the Mitzpe Ramon highway, Kfar Adiel is home to 22 young Israelis who decided to fulfill Ben Gurion's dream in the 21st century.

The first of 11 projected student villages in the Negev and Galilee, Kfar Adiel was established in December 2003 by a group of students led by two childhood buddies from Jerusalem, Matan Dahan and Dany Gliksberg, both 25.

They expect to turn Kfar Adiel into a permanent settlement, with 110 houses. Next year, dozens of students will take up residence in similar villages to be built in Dimona, near Tel Hai college in the Galilee and close to Sapir college in Sderot.

The idea first came to Dahan during his military service in a Nahal combat unit. While serving in the area, the young Zionist dreamt about settling the Negev. He remembered a relative who served in the pre-state Palmah saying: "If we had gone traveling around the world at your age, the state would not have been established."

After his discharge from the IDF, Dahan established the Ayalim Foundation, together with five friends. The group managed to find a few private and public sources, including the Jewish Agency, the Sacta-Rashi fund and Jewish philanthropist David Mirage from Denver, Colorado who decided to invest in the Negev during a visit to Israel. The government is set to decide in May whether to grant a substantial sum to the project.

The students who populate the village spend 10 hours a week doing voluntary work within the community. The project is proving popular, and this year 1,300 students competed for over 100 available places. The students who were accepted volunteer as English or science teachers, or as personal tutors in Beersheba, Dimona, Kiryat Malachi, Ofakim and other places.

SEVERAL YOUNG people sprawl on colorful carpets, leaning on large red cushions - and each other. Sipping hot green tea, they warm themselves beside a makeshift fireplace under the cool Negev sky. Soon, they will gather for Shabbat dinner in the caravan that doubles as a dining room on weekends and as a clubhouse during the week.

Night falls on the Kfar Adiel caravans. Once a month, all the students stay in for a "village weekend." Others, who are volunteers with the project, join them for the Shabbat meal.

The students gather in the clubhouse for dinner. One of the five religious residents recites kiddush and the food - reminiscent of army catering - is passed around: rice, carrots and peas, chicken and humous. At the end of the meal, one of the students stands up to announce: "Now we sing."

The atmosphere is so intense that you forget that you're sitting between a few Beduin tents in the middle of the Negev. When somebody suggests ending the singing and moving on to the bonfire, the rest break out in the traditional anthem "Lo nafsik lashir!" ("We won't stop singing!") After the grace after meals, everybody pitches in to clean up the dining room that rapidly returns to its role as clubhouse, with cushions and wall-to-wall rugs.

On Mondays, the public caravan is transformed into a pub. The pub is a popular social space, attracting about 200 youngsters a week. During the rest of the week, a home theater is erected in the middle of the room.

"Usually after coming home from a long school day, each of us heads for his own caravan, but sometimes we crash at each other's places," says Zvicka Deutsch, 26, a member of the village who became a national celebrity as a finalist in the TV reality show The Ambassador.

"The atmosphere is good and there's nothing like it in the city. We mainly get together to watch television," says Deutsch.

Those students who participated in the project from the outset recount that the atmosphere was always positive, despite the inconvenience. The very first students who arrived found a large area of desert sand. Within a week of hard manual labor, they had installed the village's infrastructure.

"We slept in two caravans with no water or electricity," recalls one of the first settlers, Tami Nahmias, 24.

"It was a tremendous feeling. We'd wake up early. By 7 a.m., you'd already be feeling guilty if you were still in bed. I saw people who were light-years away from physical labor, hammering nails and painting. A new village was born out of nothing."

Now she returns from university and her community service to a comfortable caravan that she shares with her boyfriend, whom she met in the village.

Merav Yamin, 24, lives in the adjacent caravan.

"I started studying law in Jerusalem, but was considering leaving. Dany [Gliksberg] and I both belonged to an acting troupe - he told me about the project. I thought it sounded totally unrealistic, but the idea of settling the Negev also enchanted me. That was my signal to leave Jerusalem and go study in Beersheba," she says.

Another factor that attracted Yamin to the village - which appears to be a common factor - is the desire to be more involved in the community. Now she helps prepare high school students from Ofakim for their English matriculation exams.

"Beersheba and the area have developed much less than you might expect from the fact that there are 17,000 students at Ben-Gurion University. They don't leave the campus because they have everything there: a cinema, parties, friends. Living here means changing that attitude," she says.

MOVING TO Kfar Adiel means making some compromises, but all agree that the gain is greater than the sacrifice.

There are still difficulties, though they are being slowly overcome. Only two months ago, there was still no telephone line or Internet connection. Another major problem is transportation. Some of the students have cars, and the resourceful students have arranged a hitchhikers' list on the clubhouse wall to organize rides to the university and back.

Lior Sternfeld, 25, from Rehovot, is responsible for attracting new students to the project.

"This project has become the center of my life. It's all I can think about. The Negev is therapy - the best part of the day for me is the half-hour drive to the university," he says.

The project's participants aren't the only ones who are enthusiastic.

Kfar Adiel's residents welcome different visitors every weekend. In February, the mayor of Dimona, Meir Cohen, paid them a visit. Cohen - who is looking forward to the establishment of the new village planned for his city - rose to his feet during dinner and exclaimed excitedly: "This feels like a dream come true. This year, Dimona is celebrating its 50th year of settlement. We've received many gifts, but the greatest one is that you will be coming."

Other weekend visitors have included Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"This project is a role model and should be encouraged as much as possible. If I were a student now, I'd probably join as well. It's a huge temptation," said Carmi Gilon, former head of the Shabak security service and now mayor of Mevasseret Zion, during his visit to the village several months ago.

MK Omri Sharon, one of the project's staunchest supporters, has been assisting the students from the outset and came for a weekend follow-up visit to what he terms his "favorite project in the Negev."

Dahan and Gliksberg show him around the caravans and the orchard dedicated to the numerous donors. Sharon gives some advice on irrigation and then notices the donors' plaques, hung on the back wall of one of the caravans. His father's name is among them.

"I know that Salah Shabati scheme," he jokes, referring to a scene from Ephraim Kishon's cult movie in which the characters changed the donor plaques to the names of visitors as they arrived - a practice that was stopped by the JNF after the movie appeared.

Sharon, who also serves as head of the Knesset's "green lobby," particularly likes the aspect of the project that envisions student settlements in the southern town of Dimona and other developing communities. Adiel, he notes, is detached from local communities and therefore elitist.

"I'm against establishing new settlements. There's no need for it. It's better to enlarge and strengthen the existing settlements. If my family's Sycamore farm was to be established today, I probably would have objected," he tells the students, sitting on a rug outdoors.

The students listen attentively. According to them, everyone who lives here loves the Negev and appreciates the countryside - this is what led most of them to join the project. They prefer people to come to an "elitist" village and eventually settle in the Negev than not come at all.

"What is your goal?" Sharon asks Dahan.

"I want to see a thousand students in the Negev," the modern pioneer confidently answers.

"Don't take offense, but that's too ambitious," replies Sharon.

THE STUDENTS are used to such criticism. After hearing about the project, many Israelis express disappointment over the government's handling of the Negev and its disregard of its Beduin population.

The students established a summer camp for local Beduin children, and throughout the year the children participate in science lessons given by the students.

"The Beduin problem is much bigger than this," says Gliksberg. "I don't think they have tried to extricate themselves from their situation - and besides, we received money not from the state but from Jewish donors. I think the state should help them, but we shouldn't be ashamed to say that the Negev should be settled by Jews."

This belief is supported by many climactic moments that Gliksberg finds much easier to remember than the more difficult times. One such moment was when they invited a released convict from Beersheba to help build the village, because he owned an electric saw.

"We discovered that he had golden hands, and now he instructs us in all the labor work. His children were kicked out of school, so one of our students tutored them until they were readmitted. One day, he showed us one of his kids' report card - it was all in the 90s," exclaims Gliksberg.

Indeed, it seems that were Ben-Gurion to peak out of his hut, he would see his dream coming true. But if he were to express his feelings to the students, he probably wouldn't receive a very enthusiastic reply.

"It feels uncomfortable when people appreciate us so much," says Nahmias.

"We're not something special. I mean, there's a home theater in our club, after all."