There was lots of crime here, and lots of children with no after-school
activities,” says Ziv Shalev, as he parks on a gritty street in a Muslim
neighborhood in the Old City of Acre.
Shalev is showing off the newest
student village started by the Ayalim Association, a grassroots movement to
build up the Negev and the Galilee by establishing communities of university
student volunteers. He is the organization’s vice president for partnership
“Each village is a whole different story,” Shalev continues,
walking into a cobblestoned alley toward the formerly condemned apartment house
that Ayalim renovated for the two dozen student residents.
“This is the
only one where we’re the only Jewish people around.”
Ayalim’s strategy is
to get students physically and emotionally invested in needy communities in the
southern and northern peripheries. “These areas comprise 80 percent of Israel’s
territory but produce only 8% of its economy,” Shalev explains. “The students
receive [full] scholarships to university and discounted rent, and in return
they come to live in places like this and give eight hours a week, or 500 hours
a year, to the community.”
While ascending the old, uneven stairs, he
explains that the mayor of Acre requested that Ayalim establish a village here,
based on the success of its three other projects in disadvantaged neighborhoods
in northern Israel.
Ten Ayalim villages are thriving in the Negev. The
organization started there, in a fading kibbutz called Ashalim. That was in
2002. At the time, Ashalim had just 15 families left. Now there are 150, as the
students’ community-building efforts made Ashalim attractive to young
Up in Kiryat Shmona, Ayalim has a village of 80 students in a
neighborhood formerly plagued by crime and drug dealers.
“We got about 25
apartments and hundreds of us came to renovate, build gardens, clean the street
from garbage,” says Shalev.
They also opened an Ofarim Center, the
after-school clubhouses that are a staple of Ayalim villages. Children can come
for free to get help with homework, learn value-based lessons and participate in
activities run by Ayalim students and other Israeli national service
“At first, only a few children came.
With time, the
word spread that kids were having a good time and parents started volunteering
too, something we try to encourage everywhere,” says Shalev. “We want to
persuade any young Israeli family to come to the communities we work in, and
having a free after-school center is a big incentive.”
Today, the Kiryat
Shmona neighborhood is still poor, he says, but the mayor tells them it is safe
and clean for the first time.
This is the goal for the Ayalim village in
Acre as well, once the students gain the trust of their Arab
“Everyone at first was more or less hostile to the students,”
Shalev says. “They have lots of issues here and we made it all worse at first.
But after a couple of years, they gave us a better place for our Ofarim Center,
in a mosque. In the afternoon you’ll see lots of kids there, all
“Parents tell us their kids wait eagerly to come,” says site
manager Eyal Maccabi.
Neta, 24, an Ayalim student majoring in criminology
at nearby Western Galilee College, supervises the Acre Ofarim Center four
afternoons a week. She says it’s a slow but steady process to change ingrained
“It has to happen slowly. We paint with them, clean with them,
work together to make their place nice. I think in five years people will
appreciate us more,” says Neta.
Recently they raised donations to buy
kites for the local children and staged a kite festival for which they charged
“We are apolitical, but we believe the only hope for coexistence
is by communicating together on the very basic, personal level,” Shalev
Ayalim was founded by former army buddies Matan Dahan and Dany
Gliksberg, along with Dahan’s sister, Naama. They used their military discharge
grants as seed money. Today, Ayalim is supported by United Israel Appeal, the
Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish National Fund, private donors
and the government.
Each village runs a for-profit enterprise, such as a
pub. In Acre, the seaside location had obvious tourism potential, and the
students converted several apartments into a youth hostel.
More than a
decade into the project, some 5,000 students have “graduated” from Ayalim
villages, says Shalev.
Nearly 1,000 new participants were accepted this
year from a field of 5,000 applicants.
Possibly the best barometer of
success is the fact that 85% of Ayalim graduates have chosen to settle in the
areas they served. Many want to remain a cohesive group, so Ayalim builds them
The 19th such alumni site was recently completed at Kibbutz Sde
Boker in the Negev.
“After people finish Ayalim, they become social
entrepreneurs with a different point of view,” says Shalev.
this process in which they work hard physically and socially, they have no other
choice but to fall in love with the Negev and Galilee. Every time you put people
in a difficult situation, they have the potential to become better.”
process begins with building the villages themselves.
“Twice a year, we
gather all Ayalim students and [pre-army volunteers] and employees to build or
renovate a new village. You work and sweat together, and you also build a
connection to the place, to yourself and to others.”