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"Mr. Mayor, as CEO of JNF America, I would like to say to you and to everyone in this room - the development of Nahal Beersheva Park is not a project, it is a vision." Mr. Russell Robinson, CEO of JNF America, was speaking at a meeting with the mayor of Beersheba, Mr. Rubik Danilovic, and representatives of all the government offices involved with restoring and developing Nahal Beersheva Park, in the capital of the Negev. Mr. Robinson was visiting KKL-JNF projects in the Negev together with the Israel Relations Committee and the Budget and Finance Committee Mission to Israel and the JNF America Solidarity with the South Mission during the week of January 25.
Nahal Beersheva Park is KKL-JNF's flagship project in the Negev. Work involves the cleanup of the heavily polluted Nahal Beersheva stream and developing promenades, bridges, lawns, an amphitheater and an artificial lake along the stream banks. The mission visited parts of the future park, getting a firsthand view of what has been accomplished and learning about future plans. Mr. Itai Freeman, project manager, explained about the sort of challenges the project faces: "As you can see, the river runs through sections of the city that are old and dilapidated. In the industrial area across the street are the remains of the only Turkish town that was built outside of Turkey. On your right, tucked in next to a two-story building, is Abraham's Well. These are potentially great tourist sites and we want to integrate them into Nahal Beersheva Park. We believe that as a result, the nature of these neighborhoods will change and they will attract young people and new tourist-oriented businesses. There's still a lot of work to do, but work is underway and we can already see the results."
Mayor Danilovic was very emphatic about his total commitment to Nahal Beersheva Park: "We have a meeting with representatives from KKL-JNF and all the government and municipal bodies involved in realizing this vision, once a month. The past three weeks have been quite a crisis for us, since Beersheva was bombarded by Hamas missiles. We have come out of this crisis stronger and want to get to work.
"I call KKL-JNF our family, because that's how working with them feels. I told our KKL-JNF family that one of the things the war highlighted is that the development of Nahal Beersheva Park is important not only on a local level, it is important nationally. After the upcoming elections, we need to meet with the new prime minister and make him or her realize that this park should be a national priority. It is a change inducer for Beersheva and will help us to attract young, well-to-do residents to the Negev. I know that we are in the midst of a global financial crisis, but I want to tell you that I am not intimidated. The money will follow the vision. The crisis will pass like a dark cloud, but at the present time, it is the job of leaders to think about the future. Welcome to the whole KKL-JNF family!"
Mr. Ike Blachor, Vice President of JNF America and head of the mission, mentioned that besides the major park projects that KKL-JNF was helping to finance, it was important not to overlook the educational aspect and involving the local populace in park development. "I heard from Itai that three schools with 500 children have been involved with the park, doing things like painting bricks by hand to mark the Bell Park promenade - Montreal Oasis Park. It is very important for us that the children be involved, even though it might seem minor in terms of cost. JNF America is committed to support this program."
The meeting at the mayor's office discussed the timetable for the various parts of Park development and how to get funding to cover the enormous costs. Along with JNF America, the Nahal Beersheva Park is also supported by JNF Canada, Australia and Germany. Russell Robinson reiterated JNF America's commitment: "We're in this with you, we're totally committed. One day, after Nahal Beersheva Park has changed the history of Beersheva, people will look at pictures of our meeting here today and say, wow, that's where it all started."
Eyal of the Environmental Ministry made a point of addressing the KKL-JNF representatives: "I have been involved with this project since it began, and I want to thank the people from the USA. Working with them serves as a model of an extraordinary partnership."
We spoke with Russell Robinson about why he was so passionate about developing the Negev: "If we don't get 500,000 people to move to the Negev in the next five years, we're going to lose it. Ben Gurion said that the Negev is the place where God lets you be part of making this the Promised Land. Israel in the 21st century is no longer a land of refugees, people who are immigrating now are doing so out of choice, and that presents us with a different kind of challenge - the challenge of working together to make the Negev attractive and prosperous."
The next stop of the day was at Shomeria, a village in the eastern Negev populated by Gaza Strip evacuees. The occasion was a cornerstone laying ceremony for a new playground being built with the assistance of JNF America. We spoke with KKL-JNF Co-Chairman Mr. Avraham Duvdevani about KKL-JNF's commitment to helping Shomeria residents relocate after their traumatic evacuation from the Gaza Strip: "KKL-JNF bureaus throughout the world are involved in every aspect of life here. We are talking about JNF America, Italy, England, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Canada and Australia. Where we are standing now will be a playground for the local children. We will also be building a new reservoir for recycled effluents, since the current pool is too close to the new school."
The American guests joined a choir comprised of local schoolchildren in singing familiar songs, and Avraham Duvdevani addressed the audience: ""Welcome to the Negev and to Shomeria. Today is Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the new month of Shevat. It is a semi-holiday, because we are very aware of cycles, whether they are of days, months or years. The lives of the people who settled Shomeria have also been characterized by cycles. They first settled Atzmona in the Sinai Desert in 1979, from where they were evacuated by the government in 1982 to Gush Katif, where they rebuilt Atzmona, and were evacuated again as part of the disengagement in 2005. It is our hope and prayer that this will be their permanent home. On behalf of KKL-JNF, I welcome you to the Negev, and would like to thank you for supporting our projects here."
After the cornerstone laying ceremony, in which Joseph Hess of JNF America participated, Mr. David Raisch, the local CEO, said that he was very excited to see the guests from the USA: "When we were evacuated from Gush Katif, we insisted on staying together as a community. We asked the government for a national mission, we told them we wanted a place no one else wanted to live in, and that's how we ended up in Shomeria. It's exciting for me to see you here today, because it makes me realize that building the eastern Negev is not just our personal goal, you are our partners to this task. There has been almost no rain this year. In the future, thanks to the reservoir KKL-JNF is helping us to build we will be able to transform the fields around us from yellow and brown to green. The playground KKL-JNF is building here is so important for our children. I think a ball and playgrounds are better therapy for them than dozens of psychologists. So we might be the pen writing history, but you are the refill that gives us the ink to keep writing."
Ike Blachor summed things up quite succinctly: "The people living in Shomeria are a model of resilience, and their example gives us hope for the future. There are 700 residents here building homes, schools, fields and greenhouses. It is a privilege for us to be a small part of this story."
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