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"The ornamental gardens are forlorn on account of the wind that comes gusting in from the desert, lashing them with dust, despite which meager lawns subsist in the front of some buildings, along with a few oleanders and rose bushes. The buildings themselves are eroded by the heat and wind. Four- and six-story apartment blocs stand in rows, with front balconies closed in with cement blocks or aluminum-framed sliding windows. They were originally coated with white plaster, but their color now is a murky grey; year by year the plaster grows closer to the colors of the desert, as if by assimilating to the colors of the desert it can assuage the fury of the light and dust."
Amos Oz's description of Tel Keder from his novel Don't Call It Night is clearly recognizable as Arad, the small Negev town just east of Beersheba where the author has lived over the past two decades. It's also the only place in the country other than Jerusalem where I've lived, spending my first six months there during the mid-1980s in that town's immigrant absorption center.
I was there courtesy of the WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students) Institute-Arad, a program originally established by the Jewish Agency for young Diaspora Jews thinking about making aliya, but not quite ready to leap into it. WUJS offered its participants a transitional phase, providing them with an intensive Hebrew ulpan, classes in Jewish studies and Israeli history and a comfortable social environment with like-minded young Jews from around the world (although largely from English-speaking countries).
It also gave them the chance to spend a half-year in Arad, a spot well off the tourist map or the list of desired living locations of most Anglo-Israelis.
Although often grouped with such other Negev "development towns" as Dimona, Yeroham and Mitzpe Ramon, it has some significant differences. Arad was established in the 1960s not as a dumping ground for new immigrants, but by idealistic young Israelis looking to create a model town that would help fulfill David Ben-Gurion's dream of a Zionist conquest of the country's desert region.
Aided by its proximity to the Dead Sea Works, Arad boasted a higher employment rate than its Negev neighbors and had fewer of their social problems. When I arrived in 1985, it still had some of that original pioneering spirit, as well as excellent leadership provided by then-mayor (and future finance minister) Avraham "Beiga" Shochat.
Today, the town has undergone degrees of decline, showing the strain of absorbing numbers of impoverished Russian-speaking and Ethiopian immigrants; never quite recovering from the fatal riot in 1995 that tarnished the image of its popular annual song festival; and suffering from the general governmental failure to develop the Negev's infrastructure.
Still, Arad is surrounded by some of the most beautiful desert scenery in the country, and boasts some of its cleanest and freshest air, making it a lure for asthmatics and their families, including Oz, whose son suffered from that ailment. Its intimate small-town feel also made it a comfortable soft-landing spot for those, like myself and the thousands of other young people who passed through WUJS-Arad, looking to start life anew in Israel.
ALAS, THAT opportunity for others is now at an end, as it was announced this week that WUJS-Arad, which is now part of Hadassah's Young Judaea Israel program, is leaving the Negev town this summer and moving to the center of the country.
With the Arad absorption center set to close next December, the program would have needed to find a new local housing solution to remain in the town.
WUJS-Arad faced competition from similar programs and options (such as MASA) for young Diaspora Jews looking to spend time here, that didn't exist back in the days when I went there. What's more, most of these are located in the center of the country, which is likely a more appealing prospect nowadays for this target audience than a small Negev town.
For example, in recent years I've met many young people living in Jerusalem's Merkaz Hamagshimim Hadassah facility that would likely have once been WUJS-Arad participants.
"People used to come to the desert to build something there," a source involved with WUJS-Arad told The Jerusalem Post this week. "Now they're more egoistic, but not in a negative sense. People just want to know what they want, and they want to connect to the center [of the country]. The calm, the quiet, the distance of the desert, doesn't draw them anymore."
Well, I'm not really in any position to complain about that situation. As soon as my six months at WUJS-Arad ended, I hightailed it to Jerusalem - and to be honest, had the option existed back in my day, I might have started out here as well. It's also a little unfair to expect Diaspora Jews to share in a "conquer-the-desert" pioneering spirit that never caught on with the vast majority of Israelis, as Ben-Gurion once dreamed it would.
Still, if WUJS-Arad has become as anachronistic as the equally declining kibbutz volunteer program, I'm glad to be old enough to have done both, and can't help thinking that the current generation of young Jews spending time in Israel are missing out by not having the chance for these experiences.
As it is, my only visit back to Arad in the past 20 years came when I went there to take part in an interview with Amos Oz four years ago. The great writer, who still lives there in a modest, book-jammed house, spoke movingly of his early morning walks in the desert landscape just a short walk from his front door, and the opportunity this gave him to begin every day with a mind cleared of the racket and clutter that afflicts those of us who live in the overcrowded center.
Listening to him, I thought back to my own happy half-year in Arad, and briefly wondered if perhaps I had made a mistake in not staying on there when I had the chance. And while that thought evaporated in the dry desert air as quickly as it had come, my sincerest thanks to WUJS-Arad for at least giving me the chance to know firsthand exactly what Oz was talking about that day.