Hevel Shalom, founded as an agricultural area, has recreated itself as an eclectic mix of new-age tourist enterprises, spas, ethnic restaurants and highly unusual bed and breakfasts
In the Negev, unexpected vistas are the norm. Round a corner or look behind you, and something unique and interesting will pop out, something you didn't expect to see.
Even so, in terms of surprises, Hevel Shalom exceeds expectations. Where else on the Israeli horizon would you see a string of Native American teepees? Or just beyond, magical domed yurts (Mongolian tents) that rise out of the ground like giant mushrooms? That's because a fundamental rural renewal is under way here, a transformation from a dying agricultural community to a place alive with new ideas. In Hevel Shalom, everyone follows his dream.
A few years ago, that wouldn't have seemed possible.
Hevel Shalom was born out of destruction. When Israel and Egypt signed their historic peace treaty in 1979, Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, which meant that some 600 families - 2,500 people - needed to be removed from Yamit and its agricultural satellites. Given a two-year deadline, the majority of the residents accepted the inevitable, packed their belongings and left. When the IDF arrived on the afternoon of April 23, 1982, to physically remove the remaining settlers, the evacuation proceeded quickly, if not painlessly. A last-minute political decision to bulldoze the structures was implemented, and Yamit was history.
Most Yamit evacuees dispersed across the country. But about a third chose to remain as close as possible to their former homes and farms. To accommodate them, six moshavim were established just across the new border, a 10-minute drive from their old homes. While the new moshavim - Talmei Yosef, Yevul, Sde Avraham, Prigan, Yated and Dekel - were topographically similar to Yamit, the virgin, arid and barren dunams presented enormous challenges to the evacuees, many of whom were already worn out with defeat.
For two decades, the displaced farmers struggled, battling not only the vicissitudes of farming but also the hyperinflation of the 1980s. Each moshav started with 30-40 families, but within a few years, half had left. A small infusion of new immigrants from South Africa and the US slightly bolstered the population, but as time passed, many of them also packed up and headed for greener pastures. For a time, it looked as though Hevel Shalom, the "peace district," would disappear into the sands.
Then, about four or five years ago, something began to happen. A small but undeniable surge in new residents and new businesses took place. For the first time in years, the fresh air of renewal wafted through the moribund moshavim. New ideas were being discussed, new people were moving in. Opinions differ on what, precisely, triggered the revival. Perhaps it wasn't any single factor, but rather several small elements which combined to produce momentum, which in turn inspired others.
Today, the six moshavim of Hevel Shalom have recreated themselves into an eclectic mix of new-age tourist enterprises, spas, ethnic restaurants and highly unusual bed and breakfasts. What makes their success even more unusual is that their original agricultural roots have remained firmly in place. Several large commercial agricultural producers thrive, growing tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant. But literally right alongside those commercial ventures, new, niche organic farming operations have sprung up, producing a wide variety of specialty crops - organic herbs, exotic fruits and organic vegetables, many of which are finding export markets.
THE UNIQUE blend of production agriculture and tourism serves the area well, says Chava Dagan, of Moshav Dekel (see Arrivals, page 46), one of the leaders in the resurgence. During Hanukka, Dagan's new health food store Tevet opened, an event designed to enhance the whole community. "Before, people who wanted to buy organic, alternative or health food items had to shop in Beersheba, almost an hour away. Now they can buy locally. That's a big benefit for those locals who want natural products, because our local farms already produce such a huge variety of organic fruits and vegetables. All of this makes Hevel Shalom a very attractive place to live for people who want a more natural lifestyle."
"The resurgence was just beginning when we came three years ago," Dagan says, pointing out another unusual element. "In Israel's rural communities, whether it's a kibbutz or a moshav, there's usually some single ideal that unites the population. Maybe they're all from Morocco, or they emphasize the arts, or they're all religious or all secular. But here in Hevel Shalom, it's tough to find any two people who think alike. Everyone is an individual. Everybody does his own thing."
The demographics have shifted, too. "The first residents were from Yamit," Dagan notes. "But their children grew up, and many decided they didn't want to be commercial farmers. Some moved away, but others stayed and are doing something different - either growing organic produce for a smaller market, or they've opened up restaurants, tourist attractions, or they've become artists, painters or ceramicists. That diversity makes this a great tourist spot. When everyone follows his own dream, the community comes alive with all kinds of B&Bs, places to eat and things to do."
One of the pioneers in courting tourists was the San Pedro Cactus Farm, owned by Sheila and Ya'acov Gruber.
"We started six years ago, when tourism was unheard of here," says Detroit-born Sheila Gruber, who made aliya almost 30 years ago. "We had a cactus and succulent nursery right outside our home, and grew our stock right there, on three dunams. But many times, buyers would ask to see our garden, so we expanded a little. It kept growing. Soon we weren't entertaining just buyers, but tour groups who came for lectures. Two and a half years ago, we developed this whole area, 20 dunams, with thousands of varieties of cacti and succulents of all kinds. Plus we now have everything a tourist needs for an unusual and relaxing getaway."
It came about incrementally, Gruber says. "We have paths, tables and places to sit all through the grounds. We offer show-and-tell lectures to highlight some of the more interesting plants. But we found people wanted to linger, so first we built a Turkish 'khan, a traveler's lodge, furnished like a Beduin tent. When that was working well, we added the individual tents."
It's seeing those "tents" on the Negev horizon that make you wonder if you've ingested a little too much of the San Pedro cactus. The tents are actually Native American teepees, hardly a common sight in this part of the world.
The six teepees are hand made and completely authentic. "We had permission to cut down a specified number of eucalyptus branches to make the upright poles," Gruber says. "We sanded for days. The canvas coverings were custom cut and sewn, and we made sure the ventilation system worked exactly as the Native Americans designed it. Inside, they're large enough to accommodate even big families, with basic cooking equipment and an outdoor barbeque. Kids love it here - they can run and play anywhere they like."
IF SEEING teepees on the horizon isn't enough of a surprise, just a few kilometers away is another astonishing B&B, "36 Figs". Here, guests sleep in authentic yurts from Kazakhstan.
"36 Figs" is the brainchild of Rivka and Boris Moldavski, who got the idea several years ago when they were official envoys in Kazakhstan.
"We put up the first yurt a little over two years ago," Rivka Moldavski says. "We weren't sure people would like domed rooms instead of square ones, but it was a success right from the beginning. They're very luxurious, with soft rugs on both the floors and walls. Each has a Jacuzzi, a mini-kitchen, bar and a full bathroom."
In fact, being inside the soft dome conveys a sense of warmth, comfort and security that's hard to describe. Woven goat and sheep hair makes the wall mats, just like in Central Asia where yurts have long been in use. On the steppes, yurts were portable, designed to be taken apart and moved. Here, they're permanent - nestled into a garden of blooming flowers and bushes, right next to a working organic farm.
"We started with bigger plans," says Moldavski. "We're on the old Silk Road. With the peace treaty, that was supposed to become the main road between Tel Aviv and Cairo, but that didn't happen. We planned to offer camel rides, but didn't get the camels. Still, we're booked solid, and the organic farm is doing well."
Much of the breakfast at 36 Figs comes from the nearby farm, while the rest of the produce goes to market in this family business. "My brother runs the farm," Moldavski says. "My 83-year-old mother still loves doing most of the garden work, and my daughters take care of the yurts."
Up until now, the only people lucky enough to have experienced Hevel Shalom were those who heard about it from friends, or who stumbled on the community Web site, www.lanegev.co.il, the creation of Shmulik Atzmon, 36, one of the Yamit evacuees.
"I was 12 years old when we were evacuated," he says. "We moved around; I tried city life, but when Lillie and I married, we wanted to raise our family here. I looked for a job, couldn't find one, then became involved with a Tel Aviv company that was using the Internet to promote tourism. I could see the potential in something like that offered at a remote place like Hevel Shalom. That's the thing that will make this all work: the Internet."
Atzmon's Lanegev Web site now hosts 120 attractions in the Hevel Shalom area. "Not just places to stay," he says. "Everything - recreation, local products and restaurants. Some days I drive 700 kilometers, talking to people, taking pictures, explaining what we're doing, signing them up. Our next priority is to translate the whole Web site into English. Then we can market ourselves to our biggest potential customers, overseas."
SO WHAT is there to do in Hevel Shalom? "Just about everything," Atzmon says. "Lots of tours - by jeep, camel, bike or by foot, for as short or long as you want. Visit organic markets, all kinds of farms. You can paraglide, or parachute, ride horses, hike, bike, go to a planetarium or zoo, or browse among all kinds of arts and crafts. There are spas, health and beauty centers, the huge Pninat Hanegev swimming pool and we're close to Eshkol National Park. To eat? That's the beauty of having residents from all over the world. We have every kind of ethnic food you can think of."
Atzmon is realistic about the difficulty of bringing tourists to an end-of-the-line destination like Hevel Shalom. "The truth is, you can't convince anyone to come," he says. "But we're confident that if we make the information available, they'll decide to come on their own."
Several moshavim implemented this "if you build it, they will come" theory, with impressive results. They simply built a whole new road, then set about selling lots all along the full length - large lots, which sold in the $20,000-25,000 range, just about the cheapest land in the country. Most are now sold - people from all over the country bought in, and are now building their own homes, pleased to be able to do exactly what they want on their own little piece of paradise.
Which highlights one of the problems: employment. While some residents commute to Tel Aviv or Beersheba, and a few work at one of the larger farms, finding a job here is tough. For the most part, if you need an income, you'll have to think of a way to create it yourself.
Atzmon sees that as a positive factor. "That's why we have this great variety here," he says, adding that time is on their side. "We're in a good position. The north of the country has been pretty well toured. People have been there, done that. Here, we're new and really unique. But beyond that, there's a back-to-the-earth movement you can feel. People want to renew their connection to the earth. They want to camp, to stay in tents, to hike or bike, or just relax in a garden."
"Hevel Shalom is like a tree," Atzmon says. "Every year, it pushes out, and you see a new ring. We just have to be patient. Ring by ring we're growing, but it'll take a while." n