The pioneers of Halutza

When terrorists throw rockets, we build communities. We plant a tree and build a park and bring new families to the area. This is our answer to terror’ – Yedidya Harush, Jewish National Fund-USA

The pioneers Halutza (photo credit: JNF)
The pioneers Halutza
(photo credit: JNF)
Everyone saw a desert,” says Yedidya Harush, “but when we stood on the sand dunes, we saw a future with prosperous, thriving communities.” Fourteen years after the dismantling of the Gaza settlements in 2005, a new community, founded by former residents of the Gaza settlements, has sprung from the barren desert, and has become a flourishing, thriving home to thousands. Its name is Halutza, and just 10 years ago, it was an uninhabited, sandy strip of land near the Egyptian border.
“Halutza was a place where no one wanted to go,” recalls Harush, Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA) liaison to the community. Yet, the pioneers who started it were determined to make it succeed. Rabbi Eli Adler, rabbi of Naveh, one of the three communities in Halutza, and a former resident of Gush Katif, says, “After the disengagement in 2005, we decided that we would not be angry, but would make a breakthrough and a contribution, turn the page and continue.” 
Today, Halutza, which in addition to Naveh, includes the towns of B’nei Netzarim and Shlomit, is home to 2,000 people. It is projected that within the decade, the population will increase to 15,000 residents. Young families are flocking to Halutza, and 70% of Halutza’s population is between the ages of one and 18, the highest percentage of any area in Israel. The youth of Halutza excels not only in quantity, but in quality as well. Recently, two of Halutza’s high schools were numbered among the top 50 schools in Israel, in which 100% of the graduating students passed the matriculation (bagrut) exams.
The pioneers of Halutza (Credit: JNF-USA)The pioneers of Halutza (Credit: JNF-USA)
With great determination and a pioneering spirit, Halutza’s infrastructure and facilities have been planned and assisted by the efforts of JNF-USA. Harush explains that the vision of Halutza dovetails with JNF-USA’s ambitious Blueprint Negev plan to build and expand the Negev. “JNF has a big vision to develop the Negev and bring half a million Israelis to the Negev. Halutza fits that vision, because we are going to play a critical role to bring 15,000 residents to our area …a place that no one ever thought could succeed.”
Among JNF-USA’s prominent projects in Halutza are the Helmsley Charitable Trust Halutza Medical Center, a dental clinic, three synagogues, parks, playgrounds, and a spacious, modern community center that is under construction. The Helmsley Charitable Trust Halutza Medical Center has been a major addition to the community, with its young, growing population. Until its opening in August 2017, residents requiring medical care had to travel to Beersheba, an hour and 20-minute drive away. The center is fully staffed with three family doctors, an ob-gyn department that has one of Israel’s most advanced ultrasound machines, a first aid station with three nurses, and labs for conducting blood tests. The dental clinic, which is scheduled to open next month, will offer a full complement of dental services for Halutza residents. Previously, the closest dental clinic was 45 minutes away. JNF-USA’s lay leaders, many of whom are doctors with experience in the medical field, were extremely helpful in developing the medical center and dental clinic. “We used their knowledge and experience to come up with the best plan,” explains Harush. “We work in full partnership.”
JNF-USA has been instrumental in developing agricultural projects in Halutza. More than 75 different species of vegetables and fruits are grown in Halutza, including bug-free lettuce. Halutza’s potatoes and organic carrots are exported throughout the world. In addition, plans are underway for construction of a dairy farm in the area that will be the largest in the country.
Halutza’s Young Farmers Incubator project trains young people to become farmers and provides them with greenhouses for planting, as well as with expert advice from leading agronomists and farmers in the area. Harush explains that “today more and more people walk away from the farming business, because it’s difficult to be a farmer if you don’t come from a farming family, and the farming business is expensive.” More than 95% of those who have enrolled in the incubator program have successfully transitioned to become full-time farmers in the community.
The pioneers of Halutza ( Credit: JNF-USA)The pioneers of Halutza ( Credit: JNF-USA)
Hi-tech is also in Halutza’s future. A medical startup in the community is in advanced stages of product development, and it is expected that the academic program that was created with JNF-USA that brings students to the community to live in Halutza while studying in nearby universities, will eventually bring hi-tech startups to the area.
“We set up a scholarship fund, so that students can live here. We assist them with transportation and living expenses, and ultimately, after completing their studies, they will remain as permanent residents of Halutza,” explains Rabbi Adler.
One of the great successes of Halutza has been its ability to attract families throughout the country. Hila Halevi, who moved to Shlomit with her husband and their children eight years ago from Givat Shmuel, a town in central Israel, typifies the new wave of settlement. “We wanted to move out of the center, and do something different – something idealistic and Zionistic,” she says. Halevi is a social worker for the regional council and also works as a project manager with JNF-USA for the community center. “JNF-USA pushes us forward, make us dream bigger and helps us achieve these dreams. People don’t believe that Shlomit has been in existence for just eight years. The kindergartens, day care center, community center, health clinic – there are so many big things that without JNF-USA’s help we could have never had in such a short time.”
Halevi says that the residents of Halutza are unique. “It takes a special type of person to live here, because this is a place that is surrounded by many threats and is far from anywhere else. The community here is unbelievable.” When seven new families recently moved to Shlomit, Halevi baked bread for the new arrivals, and personally visited each family. “I am not special – everyone did it. We always think of our neighbors and how to make them comfortable.”
While the dangers from nearby Gaza and Egypt are always present, Halutza residents focus on building their community in partnership with JNF-USA.
“This summer, we are absorbing 50 new families to Halutza,” says Harush. “When terrorists throw rockets, we build communities. We plant a tree and build a park and bring new families to the area. This is our answer to terror, and it is much more powerful than any F16 plane or Merkava tank.”
Rabbi Adler points out that they could not have done it alone. “We needed the tools, and JNF-USA gave us the momentum and impetus to help us grow – not just from an economic point of view, but from a strategic one as well.” He adds, “JNF-USA is not just donations – they have a vision and a long-term strategy.”
The goals and hopes of Halutza are to create a sustainable area with thousands of people, to fulfill David Ben-Gurion’s dream of building the Negev and to create a community that will be an attractive place for people to live. Halutza, with the help of JNF-USA, is well on its way to achieving these goals, and turning the dreams of its founders into reality.
This article was written in cooperation with Jewish National Fund-USA.