A Student Oasis on the Rise

A Student Oasis on the Rise
The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
by Amy Klein, Managing Editor

Entering university can be a tough transition, especially for Israelis, who have probably spent the previous decade of their lives prepping for the army, serving in the army and recovering from the army.

“Once you get out of the army, everything you used to study, to stand for, is gone; religiously, Zionistically —any kind of idealism,” says Tzvicka Deutch, a Ben Gurion University (BGU) grad student who won third place in the popular Israeli reality show, “The Ambassador,” in which young Israelis competed to represent the Jewish state in its worldwide public relations efforts.

The enthusiastic Deutch is a top-notch unofficial ambassador for Ayalim, an organization of pioneering university students who want to settle the Negev and the Galilee, the underpopulated southern and northern regions of Israel. Through students at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, where the program is first starting, Ayalim hopes to restore the connection of Israelis to the land and to the community, like the old kibbutz movement.

“When you get to university it’s like you’re just for yourself. It’s post-Zionist,” Deutch tells me in his crisp British accent — courtesy of his English parents — over lunch at the BGU cafeteria.

“There are still vital energies and resources, and if you stop now, there won’t be any way for the country to hold onto its roots,” he says, shaking his semi-long semi-red curly hair, which is topped by a small, knitted yarmulka.

Ayalim was founded in September 2002 by post-army Jerusalemites looking to contribute to society.

The 26-year-old former reality TV star is one of 30 students living in Ayalim’s first settlement, Adiel, where they each contribute at least 10 hours of community service in exchange for scholarships and discounted housing.

Right now, Adiel is made up of concrete caravans a half-hour’s drive from BGU and Be’er Sheva, the Negev’s main city. Ayalim hopes to change the centrality of Be’er Sheva by popularizing other parts of the Negev. The plan is to make Adiel into a thriving “student and entrepreneurial village” and then build five others like it.

There’s something about Ayalim that has struck a chord with Israelis. More than 1,000 BGU students have applied for next fall’s 200 spots, probably more for the chance to build this student oasis in the desert than for the housing and tuition subsidies.

The new towns are intended to serve a student population at first, and later a business community. They are meant to give these students a taste of life in the Negev so that they will move to the region. And to create an educated workforce in the Negev, so that companies — primarily high-tech — will also set up shop here.

“Seventeen-thousand students arrive here [at BGU] every year, and then they leave,” Deutch says. “Nobody thinks 100 percent of the students will stay. But if 5 [percent] to10 percent stay.... “

His voice trails off hopefully.

I didn’t stop by Adiel during my recent trip to the Negev, but some Ayalim representatives visiting Los Angeles on a fundraising mission showed me a video demo of the proposed village.

“What we wanted was to take the Negev and transform it into a place where people want to live, to make it sexy,” says Na’ama Dahan, a 28-year-old Israeli lawyer whose brother is one of the founders of Ayalim. In the video, the Adiel of the future has a hundred apartments, a library, a cultural hall and office space on eight acres. The town will cost $10.6 million to build. So far, they are about $2.5 million short.

One of the contributors, in addition to the Israeli government, is the Los Angeles-based Queen Esther Foundation, a private fund dedicated to assist innovative projects in Israel.

Los Angeles resident Soraya Nazarian, a representative of the Queen Esther fund, has seen the development of Adiel from the start. Nazarian has family in Be’er Sheva, and visited the village site in March 2004.

“When I went there to see the land, there was nothing there. And when they told me about their vision I was really moved. It reminded me of Exodus and Paul Newman,” says Nazarian. She was impressed by the idealistic youth, especially compared to the young people in Los Angeles, “who want everything to be served to a silver platter,” she says.

There are some apparent kinks in the plan — such as how these student villages will be much more than just satellite dorms for BGU, and what, besides a pioneering spirit, these young students will contribute.

I asked Deutch about this in Be’er Sheva.

“It sounds like a bit of a dream,” Deutch confesses, leaning his head sideways with that boyish smile that almost made him “The Ambassador.” “But that’s how Israel was built.