(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Attracting and retaining young people in the Negev was the focus of the two-day United Jewish Communities conference in Miami that concluded on Monday.
The UJC, which represents 157 Jewish Federations and 400 independent communities across North America, joined with several Israeli political figures, such as Yeroham Mayor Amram Mitzna; Ramat Hanegev Regional Council Mayor Shmulik Riffman, who is also chairman of the Negev Development Authority; and Ofakim Mayor Zvika Greengold, to debate the future of the region.
"Young adults in Israel are looking for flags to follow, and when I say flags, I mean ideology, conceptions, values and Zionism," Mitzna told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. "We have to attract young couples and individuals to build their homes in the Negev, so the most important and simple goal we share in this conference is to increase the number of Israelis living in the Negev."
Mitzna's keynote speech on Sunday highlighted the need to develop the quality of life in the region, specifically in terms of education and the environment. "The most important thing is to show the other citizens in Israel that once you go to the periphery, meaning the Negev, you don't have to give up quality," he said.
Riffman addressed the conference on another key issue linked to attracting young residents, the economic and social impact of IDF bases moving to the Negev. He took a positive attitude toward the potential of the military community in the region. The challenge was to encourage the military to make their homes in the region, he said.
"It's quite an elite group of people who are going to require schools for their kids and good education," explained Marilyn Blumer, chairwoman of the conference and of the UJC Negev Work Group. "This is a challenge for the people in the Negev to be able to provide this quality of life and make it attractive for people to move there permanently."
Although no government representative attended the conference, the minister for regional development and the development of the Negev, Silvan Shalom, sent the group a note of greeting and support.
Richard Bernstein, vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and a member of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, emphasized that although the government was not represented at the meeting, the direction of the conference was consistent with the goals and ideals of the government. "Although," Bernstein added, "whether it's consistent with their actions, I can't say."
Also discussed at the conference was education challenges for the region, economic development and Beduin's quality of life.
The group heard about Negev Work Group project ideas that are to be piloted imminently. A program that is to be adopted by the UJC-coordinated Otzma volunteer program, and MASA, a government and Jewish Agency program for 18-30 year olds, for example, will see 50 North American college graduates teaching English in Arad, Yeroham and Dimona in September.
Despite the harsh economic climate, Blumer said she was pleased with the conference turnout, with 60 people attending, instead of the projected 25. She also underlined that the conference went "beyond the dollars,"
"It would be wonderful if there were more dollars, but I think it's a question of working together... Most of our Federations involved in partnerships have invested dollars over the years and this has been continuing. Whether there will be more on the table, who can tell now. Certainly, we all have our commitments there and I think we honor them very seriously."
Although no specific outcomes had been outlined due to each Federation operating independently, according to Blumer, the idea of partnership ran deep throughout the event, and the UJC hopes to build on it.
"Three years ago the communities were directly engaged with municipalities in Israel, but [now], we're thinking about the regional level," said Bernstein. "We need to look at these issues, not with individual municipalities singularly, but over a regional perspective, and that's what's taking root - a coalition of federations that are thinking about the entire region."