It Takes a Village
At a time when the fires of revolution fanned by young people throughout the Middle East have captivated the world, a quiet, grass-roots revolution led by young Israelis is slowly creating change in the country’s lower income neighborhoods.
In recent years, some college students are choosing to live off-campus and joining together in cooperative initiatives that reinforce and bolster local communities. The ventures are called student villages and there are about 30 throughout Israel. Among the projects the villages have taken up are creating new arts ventures, tutoring area children and helping to build housing and community centers.
The student village network Ayalim encourages young Israelis to create student villages in the Negev and Galilee.
“It all began in September 2002 during the second intifada,” says Danny Gliksberg, director of Ayalim. “A group of us had finished the Army and were doing the ritual trek in India, when we heard that two of our friends, Ayal and Yael Soreg, a married couple living in Carmei Tzur near Gush Etzion, had been killed in a terrorist attack. We immediately came back for the shiva, and as we sat at the shiva house, we decided to do something in their memory.” All of them had grown up in Zionist homes and were planning to study at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, so creating a student village to bolster the Negev settlement of Ashalim, whose population had been shrinking, seemed a step in the right direction. They named the movement Ayalim after their friends and started it with one caravan (a prefab housing unit) bought with money received when discharged from the Army. A meeting with the head of the Negev Council and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon brought 17 more caravans and a charter: Students would receive subsidized housing and free tuition in exchange for 500 hours of volunteer community work.
“We announced a meeting about Ayalim at Ben-Gurion University,” recalls Gliksberg, “and expected 30 to 40 students to come; 600 students showed up. Suddenly we realized we were not alone. Young people today are no less pioneering than their forefathers. They seek national ideals they can identify with.”
The bus from Beersheba travels 40 minutes to the Ashalim moshav past barren, sandy hills and scattered Bedouin huts and tents. The moshav itself is a green oasis in the desert. Inbal Elberg, manager of resource development for Ayalim, points proudly to the mud brick houses going up to replace the caravans. “It is part of our agenda to create ecological housing in the Negev,” she says. “We have also created ecological tourist facilities, a large mud- and hay-covered building for groups of hikers and individual, more private facilities for tourists.”
“I have come to love the place,” adds Elberg. “I grew up in Kfar Saba, and now when I wake up in the morning and see the open spaces all around me, the Negev hills, I feel very grateful I am here.”
Currently, Ayalim has 11 student villages with 600 members, from Ashalim, Dimona and Beersheba in the Negev to Akko, Karmiel and Kiryat Shmona in the Galilee. Their goal is for members to settle permanently in the Negev and Galilee, bolstering existing moshavim and kibbutzim—physically renovating them with new housing and creating public facilities like clubhouses.
“There’s no such thing as a vacuum,” admits Hadas Wilensky. “If we don’t settle the Galilee and the Negev, the Arabs will spread into these areas.” Wilensky was among the first residents in the Ayalim student village. She is now married and lives in the Golan.
“At the same time,” adds Elberg, “we have good relations with the Bedouins who do live here. We run club activities for the children from the nearby Bedouin village, Birah Daj.”
Wilensky, a physiotherapist, recalls the sense of solidarity she felt as members of her student village paved sidewalks, painted walls and put down the gravel for floors. “Projects were organized spontaneously,” she says. “We also did volunteer work in development towns. I ran a ‘medical’ club in Kiryat Malachi. Once someone brought a pig’s heart to study.”
The Ayalim student village at Ashalim was just the beginning. In 2006, a student village was built on the edge of the development town of Dimona, and then a number of apartments were renovated to house a student village in the inner city. Half of the members of these student villages come from the town itself.
Karmit Arbel studied biology at Ben-Gurion, but as a member of one of the Dimona student villages, she found herself running the town movie theater with fellow member Gal Rambu. “A cinamatheque had been built but had closed down, and there was no other movie theater in the town,” she says, “so we began bringing in movies for the children. In the year and a half that I ran the cinematheque we brought 200 to 300 children’s films.”
Tickets were $4 per child. The proceeds allowed Arbel to bring in other films and run film festivals. One festival included a premiere of the television series Srugim, about religious singles in Jerusalem, and the producers and creators of the series came to Dimona to speak. The festivals also connected Dimona to film distribution groups and led to the opening of a local theater company run by actor Ohed Kneller.
“I would never have thought myself capable of entrepreneurship, running a cinematheque,” notes Arbel, “but I had the backing of the group, and discovered talents I wouldn’t have realized otherwise.”
Rambu, who is interested in film, met people in the film industry, did graphics and cinematography. This encouraged him to study film in Jerusalem.
For two years, Einav Tzitiat administered the student village in Yahini, a moshav close to the Gaza Strip. Students from nearby Sapir College live there and helped the people of Sderot during the ongoing rocket attacks. But the Yahini student village has another special quality. “Not only does it work with Sderot, it also integrates the 11 handicapped students within our own village of 50,” says Tzitiat. “We had to make the village handicap accessible. In the beginning, it wasn’t natural. We were always trying to figure out how something would work. But today they are very much part of the group.”
The students in the Housing Project D of Beersheba have renovated their own building and are planting a vegetable garden in the middle of the housing project. A pony-tailed little girl works vigorously, while some of the older children watch listlessly. “Social change is a long, long process,” says Yuval Sabar. Under the auspices of the Beersheba Municipality, Sabar runs youth activities in a building called The White House. It includes a drop-in center for at-risk 6th to 12th graders. ”They come to feel a connection with the counselor,” he says. “I play soccer with them and hope that we can become alternative models for them.”
“The fact that we live in the neighborhood makes all the difference,” says Sivan Shachari, a bright-eyed student. “I can hear a mother screaming at her kids, but I also throw out garbage with her. It’s complicated, but there’s real connection. They come to us when they have to write letters to the city authorities. They ask our advice when their children are having problems.”
A similar situation can be found on Olei Hagardom Street in the northern border town of Kiryat Shmona. Marking the heroism of the Herut underground fighters sent to the gallows by the British, the street had become a dangerous and crime-and drug infested slum. “We had come down from the Second Lebanon War to see much of Kiryat Shmona in shambles from bombing,” says Chaim Shulman, who heads the Ayalim student villages in the Galilee.
“We were determined to do something. And when Matan Dhan, head of Ayalim, came to Tel Hai College near Kiryat Shmona to tell us about the student villages in the Negev, we decided to try something similar for the Galilee.” The group approached the Kiryat Shmona municipality and received permission to renovate 12 abandoned apartments. The building was in disrepair, apartments filled with dead pigeons and drug paraphernalia; sewage ran openly on the streets. Under the direction of a contractor, Shulman and his group cleaned and renovated the building and 24 students moved in.
“The neighbors were very suspicious of us,” recalls Shulman. “They felt we were taking over their place. We made a sukkaand they tore it down. But when we cleaned up a small building to make a moadon, a clubhouse, and started activities for the youth, things began to change. The parents began to help, the municipality invested in the neighborhood. When people saw that there was a possibility of light, they began to speak up against the forces of darkness. The drug dealers realized they had no place there, and began to leave.”
Today, there are 70 students living in Kiryat Shmona, working with the community. Families have moved into the neighborhood, and real estate value has risen 14 percent.
One of the most challenging student villages in the north was created in the heart of the mostly Arab Old City of Akko. Twenty students moved into long abandoned, Jewish-owned buildings (there had been a Jewish community here two decades ago). “At first there was opposition,” says Shulman. “Arab youth broke their windows and put up signs against them. But then the students started renovating an old warehouse for the community center, the sheikhs gave their approval and the Arabs worked alongside them. They organized club activities, festivals. The Old City of Akko had been a center of organized crime. The police had given up on it, but now they must go in, patrol the area.”
“The student villages and young communities,” says Gliksberg, ”are part of the larger strategy to encourage settlement in the Negev and Galilee, and so far 80 percent of the graduates of student villages have remained in these areas.”
These groups of students might be called post-post-Zionist.
A similar campaign is also taking place in Jerusalem in an attempt to get university graduates to settle in the city, contributing to the economic and social fabric of the city. Founded in 2003 by a group of Jerusalem students dedicated to the city, the Ruah Hadasha (New Spirit) network encourages young, educated people to live and work in Jerusalem. “Today, there are 14 such communities of 18 to 30 people around the city, all part of Ruah Hadasha,” says Tamar Katzir, network spokeswoman. Ruah Hadasha has helped build subsidized housing, created internships for university graduates and even developed a student village for science and math students who will eventually contribute to Jerusalem’s high-tech future.
“Malkiya was a First Aliya moshav that most of its residents left,” says Shulman, who settled in Malkiya with his family. “We have come to renew the Zionist enterprise. We restored Malkiya with our own hands. When you build something yourself it becomes part of you.”