The inauguration on Monday of the Lauder Employment Center (LEC) in Beersheba signifies a revolutionary boost for the development of the Negev, promising to provide jobs for university graduates and thereby encourage them to remain in the area, local leaders said.
The project was conceived by international businessman and philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder, who is chairman of the Jewish National Fund USA in addition to being president of the World Jewish Congress. It will be operated in conjunction Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
For Lauder, the establishment of the LEC is, in his words, “a dream come true.” Lauder, who was elected chairman of the JNF USA following a ten-year term as president of the JNF, has been involved with the development of the Negev for the past 16 years, focusing initially on the creation of water reservoirs and ecology and then moving on to neighborhoods and municipalities.
The key purpose of the Lauder Employment Center is to find work in the Negev for BGU graduates to ensure that they remain in the Negev instead of gravitating to the center of the country.
Lauder, known for spicing his remarks with humor, recalled that 16 years ago when Avishay Braverman was president of BGU, there was talk of thousands of students graduating. When Lauder asked Braverman how many remained in the Negev, the reply was “Three, because they have relatives here.”
Lauder and other speakers made it clear that it is essential for the Negev to multiply its population many times over. Today the overall population of the Negev is somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000, he said, but he would like to see an increase to one million within the next five years, and two million within the next ten years.
But for BGU alumni to stay and for other Israelis and new immigrants to be attracted to the Negev, Lauder stipulated, there is a need for housing and infrastructure, “Education is critical,” the huge amount of water under the Negev must be put to use and jobs must be plentiful.
“No one wants to move to the Negev if they can’t work,” he declared.
What makes the LEC unique explained Russell Robinson, CEO of the Jewish National Fund USA, is that it doesn’t just interview job seekers and try to find placements for them, but brings prospective employers to the LEC so that someone being interviewed for a job doesn’t have to cross the Negev in order to meet a potential employer, but merely has to walk across the hall, because the LEC has several rooms in which potential employers and employees can get together. He also warned that if people with job offers were impressed with any particular interviewee, they should grab him or her immediately, because that person has other interviews lined up across the hall and may be snatched by someone else.
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau came to Beersheba to affix mezuzot on Lauder’s office, which is the first doorway on the porch, and on the doorpost at the entrance to the building, as well as to give his blessing to the project. The best way to help people, said Lau, is not to give them money, but to give them honor and to give them work.
Praising Lauder for his initiative, Lau said: “We pray that this place will be a place of blessing for people.”
Robinson gently added that although honor and work are indeed important, money is no less important.
The keynote speaker at the event was Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich who noted that no Israeli leader could bring so many Negev mayors from different municipalities, with varied interests and disparate political affiliations together, but that Lauder had succeeded in bringing together close to thirty Jewish and Beduin heads of municipalities.
Among them were Sigal Moran of Bnei Shimon, Alon Davidi of Sderot, Izik Danino of Ofakim, Eli Adler of Halutza Neve, Yedidia Hochman of Bnei Netzarim, Eyal Blum of the Arava, Udi Gat of Hevel Eilot, Roni Marom of Mitzpe Ramon, Dov Litvinoff of the Tamar Regional Council, Michael Biton of Yerucham, Beni Biton of Dimona, Muchamed Aldabri of Hura, Aaamar, Abu Mamar of Segev Shalom, Talel Alkirinoi of Rahat, Eli Levi of Rehavim, Aviram Dahari of Kiryat Gat, Tamir Idan of Sdot Negev and Pini Badash of Omer.
The event was also attended by some 100 JNF leaders from across America as well as the KKL-JNF leadership from Israel.
Speaking with great passion, Danilovich marveled at what Lauder had been able to achieve in the midst of Israel’s election campaign in drawing so many people together. Addressing Lauder directly, he quoted Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion as saying, “You don’t write history, you make it.”
Danilovich credited Lauder and his team together with the people from BGU and the JNF with changing history and the face of the Negev, “which takes up 60 per cent of the Israeli terrain.”
Danilovich emphasized how vital it is to think out of the box and to create new windows of opportunity in the Negev.
Although it is important for Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa to be strong, it is even more important for the Negev to be strong, he said. The government must change its priorities and invest more resources in the Negev, Danilovich argued.
He pointed out that there is something awry with the fact that only nine percent of Israel’s population are spread out over 60 percent of the nation’s land.
“We have to develop the Negev into a region of excellence,” he insisted, adding that the Negev should reflect harmony between Jews and Beduin, love, strength and peace.
“Together we represent the Negev,” he declared, “and we want to give university graduates a reason to remain here. If we give them work and the quality of life, they will stay.” Danilovich underscored that Beersheba has already become a high-tech and cyber hub because of the region’s “ wonderful human capital” and was confident that more people would come to the region if they realized that they could get a beautiful large home, for much less than a small home would cost them in the center of the country.
“We want a strong Negev without strikes and unemployment, and we can bring about change together,” he said. Everything done with love and cooperation succeeds. We have a joint long range vision and we are going through a process that will change Israel’s image and bring a bright, new future.”
Prof. Moshe Caspi of BGU agreed with Danilovich, saying: “We want our students to stay here in the Negev.” Caspit looked forward to the day when BGU alumni would be incorporated into positions in the Negev leadership.
Efi Stenzler, world chairman of KKL-JNF, cautioned that unless action is taken now, “We will lose the Negev.” Relating to Lauder’s blueprint for reservoirs in the Negev, Stenzler spoke of the impact of these reservoirs on Negev agriculture and high quality produce that sells on world markets.
“You, Ronald Lauder, infected us with your enthusiasm and concern for the people of Israel,” Stenzler said.
After listing some of the JNF achievements in the Negev, Stenzler announced that the JNF is now building tourist infrastructure which will enable many residents of the Negev to derive an income. He also pledged that the first job placements emanating from LEC would be with the KKL.
Stenzler, who has worked closely with Robinson, said that he didn’t know of anyone who came to Israel so frequently and who is so dedicated to the Negev and the Galilee. Robinson commutes from the US almost every month.
Phoenix Jewish community activist Marc Kelman, who is a leading figure in the JNF and in Zionism 2020, said that he had been introduced to the JNF some 15 years ago and soon after came on a JNF mission to Israel. When he and others on the mission heard about the plans for Beersheba which was then littered with old tires and garbage, they all stood and shook their heads. None of them could envisage what exists in Beersheba today.
No one other than Lauder believed that any of the plans could be realized, he said – and yet they were.
Robinson recalled that when Lauder had invited him to join his team, he had said that they could turn Israel’s water crisis around, and although they were opposed by almost every government office in Israel, they succeeded. He attributed this success to people like Lauder who have strong beliefs and who put their energies into turning those beliefs intro realities. Alluding to Lauder’s hands on leadership, Robinson said: “To be a leader is not just to put your name on something, but to sit in the middle and bring people around you.”
Lauder said the project, in cooperation with the JNF, meant a great deal to him personally. “I love Israel,” he said. “I love what it stands for and together with the JNF it’s changed my life. I love the JNF, which does fantastic things and has made a major difference to Israel – more than any other organization.”
Lauder had tasked Avi Balashnikov, chairman of the Executive Committee of the LEC to find suitable premises, and was delighted with the old Arab-style house ,which is in its present form a blend of modernity and tradition with both period and contemporary furniture, exquisite wood carvings in the older tables, chairs and sofas, mosaic tiled floors and large leather upholstered armchairs and couches.
It has a welcoming ambience and totally non-institutional aura. It’s a place that people will want to come to and to be in. The feel-good atmosphere is enhanced by a huge copper hamsa – a Middle East good luck sign – on one of the tables. Robinson envisages that the place will soon be busy and buzzing all the time.
As for Lauder, no sooner had he finished posing for the obligatory photographs to commemorate the occasion than he ensconced himself in his new office together with a couple of colleagues to discuss future plans for the Negev behind closed doors.