The dry and dusty Arava Valley, situated just south of the Dead Sea, and the verdant greenery of Kiryat Shmona, located in the Upper Eastern Galilee on the western slopes of the Hula Valley, are worlds apart.
The Arava is sparsely populated, far from Israel’s urban centers, and straddles the Jordanian border.
Kiryat Shmona, by contrast, has a population of 23,000, is adjacent to numerous towns and villages, and is just minutes from the Lebanese border.
Despite their geographical, numerical, and territorial differences, Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA), which maintains an active presence supporting and building communities in Israel’s North and South, understands that there are numerous similarities between these two areas of Israel’s periphery.
While the types of industry and business that JNF-USA is helping to bring to both areas are unique to each location, the methods and principles the organization practices are remarkably similar.
These concepts were brought to the fore during JNF-USA’s recent JNF Mega Mission to Israel, in which 150 lay leaders from the United States, all of whom are active members of some 19 task forces that provide assistance to specific areas of the country, visited areas of JNF-USA development throughout Israel.
In the town of Sapir, members of the Central Arava Task Force got a first-hand glimpse at what they have accomplished in recent years, ranging from the sparkling campus renovations at the Arava International Center for Agriculture Training (AICAT), to the modern, state-of-the-art Danielle A. & Irvine J. Grossman JNF-Arava Medical Center.
Next door is the Nancy Simches JNF-Arava Emergency Response Center, which is in its final stages of construction. While the buildings and sites lend 21st-century luster to the region, it’s the overarching sense of creating and encouraging community and growth that has been the driving force behind JNF-USA’s donors.
Marcy Needle, from Morristown, New Jersey, emphasizes that JNF-USA works cooperatively with the communities in order to meet their needs.
“I think that the experience that we’ve had here taught us how best to work with the communities in partnership. We’re not coming down here and telling them what they need to do, which is incredibly important.”
Lauren Mescon, who has been working with the Central Arava Task Force for 10 years, marveled at the development the region has undergone in the last decade.
“To see all the growth and development that’s occurred in 10 short years, from when there was literally nothing here, is amazing.
There was a medical center in total disrepair, and there was no rescue center. AICAT was in an industrial-type building, and the students had to take their lunch breaks outside in the boiling sun.
For years we talked about the campus renovations and new center and expanding to 250 students. Now there are 1,500 students. It’s mind-boggling.”
Established in 1994, AICAT teaches agricultural skills to students from developing countries.
Since its inception, the center has educated more than 20,000 students from countries including Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, East Timor, Indonesia, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, and Nigeria.
More than 1,200 students complete the training course and become “mini-ambassadors” for Israel annually. That number is not to be taken lightly.
These are people who take the best of Israeli innovation back home to deliver results that are truly needed.
Noa Zer, resource development director for the Central Arava Regional Council, explains how JNF-USA worked with local residents to develop creative solutions tailored for the region.
“Years ago, when we realized that we were in need of increasing our population, we understood that we couldn’t rely on farming alone. The managers of the regional councils realized that in order to attract hundreds of families, we needed to offer people real opportunities. The geographic isolation of the Arava means that you can’t rely on plans in Be’er Sheva or Eilat – you have to rely on yourself. We created a master plan that would improve infrastructure, offer more employment opportunities, and increase the quality of life, including improved medical services, culture, and education.”
Zer said that after the regional council expressed their needs and plans to JNF-USA, that’s when things took off. “We brought our needs, and JNF-USA gave us their feedback, and next thing their lay leaders came up with the idea to build a new medical center.”
And, she continues, when AICAT expanded, the number of associated jobs in the region increased. More teachers, drivers, and other associated staff were required.
“Our vision,” Zer says, “is to double the number of families living here from 900 to 1,800 within a decade. We couldn’t have achieved this without the help of JNF-USA. They understand the bigger picture.”
Several days later, on a rainy Wednesday, members of JNF-USA’s Go North Task Force visited Kiryat Shmona, the centerpiece of their master plan for the region, which has a goal of bringing 300,000 new residents to the region, and increasing housing, business, and employment opportunities to the area.
JNF-USA Chief Executive Officer Russell F. Robinson announced two major projects to spur regional development: The Beit Asher Food-Tech Quarter (with the support of the Greenbaum Family), a food start-up and innovation center, and the International Institute of Culinary Arts.
The food tech initiative was introduced by Erel Margalit, renowned business and social entrepreneur and founder and chairman of Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP).
“We chose Kiryat Shmona to be the anchor for the North,” said Margalit. He explained that the Galilee, with its leading academic institutions, such as Tel Hai College, and a diverse climate suitable for different types of agriculture, is uniquely suited to become the food tech capital of the world.
“The enormous amount of research that exists in Israel in agriculture and food needs a ‘Jerusalem’ – a center. And the center is going to be the Galilee,” said Margalit.
The International Institute of Culinary Arts is being created to provide students with the tools they need to innovate in the kitchen, as well as the hospitality and business skills needed to run a restaurant, and will open in the winter of 2019 at Tel Hai College.
JNF-USA is partnering with renowned chef and master spice blender Lior Lev Sercarz. The Culinary Institute is expected to attract many students to the region and be the first of its kind in the nation.
As was done in the Central Arava, JNF-USA is helping the residents of the Eastern Galilee utilize the tools and capabilities at their disposal to maximize the business potential of their region.
Task Force members are equally enthusiastic about participating in the revitalization of the Galilee.
“It is exciting to be part of a JNF-USA task force raising money for education, jobs, housing, and schools.
The food and the Agra industry that they are creating here is very exciting,” said Sheryl Buchholtz of Brooklyn, NY. “It’s easy to write a check but to be part of the vision and to talk to people very involved here has been both enlightening and exciting.”
JNF-USA is also applying the lessons learned from their Arava development in the proposed construction of a new medical center for Kiryat Shmona, which will meet the needs of both current and future residents.
Dr. Vivien Wong, of Oahu, Hawaii, and a member of the task force, has visited Israel numerous times, and, together with her husband, Don, has volunteered at the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya. She explains that the nearest hospital to Kiryat Shmona is Ziv Hospital in Safed, an hour’s drive.
“The dream is to develop a regional medical center that really services the people here in this part of the country, because the people here are discouraged. We want to improve the lives of the people who are living here.”
Whether it’s dry and dusty, or green and growing, JNF-USA is providing new opportunities for the peripheral areas of Northern and Southern Israel to grow and flourish.This article was written in cooperation with Jewish National Fund-USA.
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