Standing Monday afternoon on a barren hill overlooking a scattering of mobile homes baking in the desert sun, executive members of the Jewish National Fund's US delegation surveyed the landscape surrounding the new Negev community of Givot Bar.
Having arrived in Israel for JNF's four-day World Leadership Conference, delegation members spent the day in the Negev visiting projects funded and supported by the organization.
According to Russell Robinson, the JNF's chief executive officer, over the past four years the Negev has become the focus of the JNF's activities in Israel.
"A lot of leadership development programs have spent millions of dollars in the Negev, but the result has been that more people have left the area," Russell told The Jerusalem Post.
The JNF's strategy, by contrast, centers on population growth - and on creating a physical infrastructure, jobs and housing that will lure both Israelis and new immigrants to the Negev, while encouraging young Israelis who grew up in the region to remain there.
One of 25 new communities planned thus far in the Negev with the support of JNF, Givot Bar is an example of the development model supported by the organization.
"The people who are coming here are young, vibrant Israelis who want a quality life - affordable housing, jobs, good schools," Robinson said. "If you ever have a question about Zionism, meet the people in Givot Bar and other communities in the Negev - these are the leaders of tomorrow."
Givot Bar was born of a collaboration between JNF and between Or - a non-profit, non-political organization devoted to populating the Negev. Founded by Ofir Fischer and Roni Flamer, two young natives of Petah Tikva, the organization's marketing strategies include convincing people throughout the country to relocate to the Negev - in part by matching up potential residents with potential jobs and providing guarantees for home loans.
In addition, the JNF has begun working closely with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to encourage a larger percentage of the university's student body to remain in the Negev after graduation. This summer, for instance, the JNF will offer a series of internships in the area in collaboration with the university, so that students can stay in the region during their summer vacation rather than seeking work in Tel Aviv.
Part of the JNF's mission in the Negev, Robinson said, was rebranding the region's image by investing in the creation of parks, recycled water lakes and streams - so-called "cosmetic" changes that will encourage people to move to the area in order to seek a better quality of life.
For this reason, he said, in some places the JNF was investing large sums of money in building parks and cultivating the landscape before building the new community's first houses.
One such future community is Karmit, whose target population is some 300 families of immigrants from North American and elsewhere in the English-speaking world.
"People move to Ra'anana and Jerusalem because of Anglo-Saxon communities in those cities," Robinson said. "If you bring 200 such families to a place like Karmit, people will move down here - not necessarily for idealism, but for quality of life."