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(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Rousso)
For 4,000 years, Beersheba has been known the city of hospitality, says longtime resident Barbara Goldman. "[The patriarch] Abraham opened his tent to everyone who passed by, extending a warm welcome to people from all over the world."
Israel's fourth largest city is also one of the country's fastest growing and most diverse population centers. In 1988 only 113,000 people called Beersheba home. Today that number has almost doubled. Beersheba serves as "first home" for about 70,000 new immigrants - nearly eight percent of Israel's entire crop of olim - hailing from some 60 countries.
That said, the Anglo population of Beersheba is remarkably small, perhaps 3,000 out of the total 200,000. "We have a basic framework for Anglos here," says Goldman. "There are clubs and classes. But because we're so small we tend to be well integrated into the larger society of Israelis."
Most of Beersheba's Anglos moved there because of school or job opportunities at one of the major institutions - Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Soroka Hospital or one of the large industrial companies. Anglos are distinct from the general population in several ways: Many are "alone" in the sense that their extended families live elsewhere. Most are better educated than the average Israeli. And many brought their environmentally-conscious ideas with them.
Beyond that, as Goldman says, Beersheba's Anglos may be less "ghettoized" than elsewhere, says Goldman. Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) counselor Miriam Green agrees. "Anglos here are more integrated into general Israeli society than elsewhere." she says. "We all live and work among Israelis from all walks of life. Of course we share common interests, but that's true of any immigrant population."
In terms of residential choices, many Anglo families choose either Hey or Tet, two of Beersheba's alphabetized neighborhoods. The adjacent residential areas offer a mix of single-family homes scattered among traditional four- or five- story apartment blocks. A favored home site is Hey's distinctive misholim (alleys) in which single family garden homes lie side-by-side behind high walls. "I like to think our homes are connected, and so are we," says Green.
The Goldmans, Barbara and Mordechai - known universally as "Macky" - who came in 1975 as a part of a garin (immigration group) from Toronto, have been community leaders for their 30-plus years in Israel. "We came in ," Macky Goldman recounts. "We started out rurally and farmed for a while, but decided to move into an urban area. As a kid I was fascinated with Ben- Gurion and his love the Negev, so we decided on Beersheba. Canada has a multicultural mosaic of its own, so I was used to diversity."
The fact that the Anglo population is small has had little impact on the Goldmans. "I'm used to being different," he says. "I'm Orthodox, left-handed and my politics are different from many. We just have a different way of looking at the world, so for "For me to be an Anglo in Beersheba is just one more way of being different. I work with all kinds of people, including Beduins and Jews of all kinds - religious and secular, left and right, old and young, from every culture in the world. We all get along. It's a very integrated place," says Macky.
For decades, Goldman has dedicated herself to seeing that the women of Beersheba have access to quality Torah education. "I'm not a feminist, but women need enough Jewish knowledge to run a Jewish household and raise Jewish kids, so it's important to me that women have educational opportunities," she says.
In her work with women, Goldman sees Beersheba's uniqueness every day. "The level of integration here - on all levels - is amazing," says Barbara Goldman. Right now we're running a variety of Torah classes two mornings and one evening a week. One class is in English, the rest are in Hebrew and all are attended by women from various ethnic backgrounds. Any single class will have women with very little formal education and those who have spent decades learning. Everyone seems to want it that way - the one time we tried to set up a 'beginners' class as compared to a 'regular' class, no-one came. Beersheba is a city that's accustomed to diversity."
Reesa Stone and her husband Martin came to Beersheba in 1985 as newlyweds. "I'm from Winnipeg, Martin is from London," Stone says. "Martin got a job and we knew we'd be placed in either Haifa or Beersheba. Wwhen we heard it was in Beersheba, I was miserable. All our friends told us we were crazy for coming here, but wow, were they wrong! When we arrived, we didn't know anyone at all - except a phone number for someone's cousin. We called him, and that was it. He helped us find a place to live, then brought us to his shul, Moledet, where we still daven. From that moment on, we were home. We were invited out for every Shabbat."
The Stones and their five children, aged five to 18, live in a large, airy home in one of the newer sections of Tet. "Life in Beersheba is still unique. I can get up in the morning and see Beduin women on their donkeys. One morning I shared one of the little bridges with a pair of camels. - right here, in one of the best neighborhoods in the city! I love that kind of thing," says Stone.
The wide diversity also contributes to a sense of freedom. "We're a very open-minded place. No one cares what you do, how you dress or what you eat. No one is judgmental about how you live your life or looks over your shoulder. Of course there's a downside to that: Not everyone has the same standards we do, especially in terms of litter. When we go to the park, bottles and Bamba wrappers are all over - plenty of donkey-do, too - but compared to the warmth of the people, that's a small thing."
An incident with the family car proves Stone's point: "A few months ago, our car burst into flames several blocks from home. We got out and were standing there, shocked. People started coming out of their houses. At first I thought it was just to gawk - but no, they'd come to help. I'd never met any of these people, but first one woman came with bottles of water for each of my kids then another came running with juice and cookies. People handed us their cellphones. Someone volunteered to take us shopping whenever we wanted, another just handed me his car keys. "Use it whenever you need it," he told me. We lost the car, but I saw the very best of Israel. I said that to our French neighbor and he commented, 'But of course. That's the way it is here. We're Jews.'"
Being in a tiny minority has a few disadvantages. Sports and cultural events with Anglo appeal are in short supply, which means that make-do substitutes have to be arranged. Twice a year, Beersheba dentist Marc Wachpress, who came to Beersheba from Long Island with his wife Barbara in 1987, organizes a pickup softball game. "I really like playing softball," says Wachpress, "On Fridays I'd watch other Israelis play their version of soccer, and thought we should have something of our own. We tried to schedule a regular game, but it takes 16 people and that's tough on a regular basis so now we play on Hol Hamo'ed Pessah and Sukkot."
The Wachpresses, with five children, believe that Beersheba is the best place in Israel for families. "The kids love it here and never want to leave. Beersheba is relatively safe, without much crime. Children have greater mobility here than they would elsewhere."
Sometimes adjustments have to be made. "Beersheba is a very Middle Eastern city," says Wachpress. "There wasn't much of a support system here when we arrived and we had no family here. But we joined Rambam Shul and found 'family' there. Lots of other people were alone, too, so we became family for each other."
"Beersheba is still 'the big tent,'" Goldman concludes. "We welcome strangers and open our homes to take them in. That's how Beersheba has been for thousands of years."
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