Blooming Beersheba

A look at how the once-sleepy town with little to offer has blossomed into a dynamic hotbed of diversity, technology and education, thanks to Jewish National Fund.

SPOTLIGHT Jewish National Fund’s Presidents Mission visit the Lauder Employment Center in Beersheba (photo credit: ERIC NARROW)
SPOTLIGHT Jewish National Fund’s Presidents Mission visit the Lauder Employment Center in Beersheba
(photo credit: ERIC NARROW)
Succulent lamb, chicken and, yes, even cow brains, are lovingly served in Moroccan tagine clay pots. The chef, a large man with an even larger smile, greets every customer as if they were a member of his family.
Such a scene can easily be found in Casablanca or Marrakesh, where the food is as genuine and authentic as the people serving it, but, in this instance, the impressive feast is enjoyed in Beersheba.
Established in 1965, Yakuta has served quality Moroccan cuisine ever since and it is just one example of the diversity found in the Negev.
While the recipes haven’t changed much over the years, the face of the city has.
“’Wow!” Yakuta owner Ben Moyal exclaimed when asked how the city has changed in his lifetime. “In one word: ‘Wow.’ It’s a different world. I think this will only continue. My kids have moved away, but I hope that my grandchildren will return!” And returning they are.
By 2030, demographers predict that the city will be home to 340,000 people – roughly 140,000 more than today.
“JNF is one of the most important organizations for the growth of Beersheba. Our partnership is fantastic and gives opportunities for various demographics that will improve the quality of life for its citizens,” the city’s mayor, Ruvik Danilovich, said. “These projects have dramatically changed the face of the city that was once a peripheral town and is now a booming city, not just for Israel, but the world.”
This is not surprising to Jewish National Fund-USA, which has invested in the area since the inception of its Blueprint Negev campaign in 2003. That revolutionary initiative hopes to bring 500,000 new residents to the Negev Desert, and as a result, JNF has played an integral role in transforming Beersheba into the bustling city we see today.
For a start, the city is poised to be the world’s next big hi-tech and cyber center: In 2021, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will transfer its technology and intelligence units to the South and bring roughly 20,000 soldiers along with it. Already companies like Lockheed Martin, Oracle, Cisco, and IBM have offices there.
Jewish National Fund has plans to take advantage of the plethora of hi-tech opportunities available in Beersheba by launching the new JNF Institute of Technology.
“For post-graduate students, they will have internship opportunities unavailable anywhere else in cyber technology, because the technology center will be right here,” JNF President Dr. Sol Lizerbram, explained.
“Our new Center will also serve to form partnerships and cooperate with the world’s leading tech companies like Google and Microsoft.”
And considering the majority of Ben-Gurion University students leave the city upon graduation, this will provide incentives for young people to stay in the city for the duration of their one-year internship and their time there may convince them to settle down permanently with a good job.
While the new internship program will become available in five years, Jewish National Fund-USA has already broken ground on the second campus for the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI-JNF).
The school, which offers high school students six, eight or 18-week study abroad programs, gives young people from the United States and across the globe an opportunity to experience Israel beyond the classroom.
Here, they meet academic requirements, gain invaluable experience that will help get them into top-tier colleges, all while touring the country and learning 4,000+ years of Jewish and Israeli history. Soon, they will be able to do so in the heart of the Negev, with the buzz of hi-tech all around them.
The new campus site, which joins its original Hod HaSharon location a mere 20 minutes from Tel Aviv, will host an additional 3,800 students, bringing AMHSI-JNF’s total annual enrollment to 5,000.
The internship program and AMHSI-JNF campus demonstrates JNF’s commitment to bring jobs and the next generation of Jews from around the world to Israel, and do so in a dynamic way that enriches the local community while also giving a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students and post-graduates who are carving out the next phase of their academic and professional career.
“The first stop in the Jewish world will be Beersheba, as it was with Abraham,” JNF-USA CEO Russell F. Robinson said proudly. “This is a way of perpetuating Jewish life in a practical way.”
Moreover, JNF-USA sees young people as the gateway to reviving the city. “If you don’t bring young people to change the mindset, you can’t change the face of the city,” Robinson added.
JNF-USA, understands the key to building long-lasting communities is employment. Which is why it teamed up with the Lauder Center for the Advancement of Employment in the Negev, which helps university and college graduates of Beersheba find jobs in the area.
According to Lauder Employment Center Chairman, Avi Balashnikov, Beersheba life is not a hard sell to those who have tried it.
“If you have people stay for a month, a year, they ill fall in love with the place,” he said.
And why not? Along with the hi-tech boom, the city is expanding culturally as well.
Arguably, Beersheba’s biggest work in progress is its River Park complex. Measuring three times the size of Central Park, the site is already home to an amphitheater (which seats 12,000) and will feature the dorms for the aforementioned AMHSI-JNF campus and JNF’s internship program, a restaurant overlooking the lake, an eight-kilometer (five-mile) promenade, restaurants, kiosks, and 20,000 housing units surrounding it.
“Every time I come here, I can’t believe the tremendous progress taking place,” said Deborah Riegel, of NYC, a JNFUSA major donor who recently led the organization’s President’s trip to Israel.
“Beersheba is today a more attractive place, and its development has been remarkable.”
These developments are also important for the very practical reason that young people are being priced out of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“I live in an expensive city, too; I get it. I have friends who had to move out of Manhattan because they can’t afford it,” she lamented. “When you look at what it costs to live in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, this is a great alternative.”
And then there’s the people who exude a sense of warmth, humility and are proud of their ever-growing home.
Take Naftali Aklum, who came to Israel from Ethiopia when he was just six months old. After spending two years in an absorption center in Ofakim, in 1982 he moved with his family to Beersheba – the town which was among the first in Israel to accept Ethiopian immigrants.
“Beersheba today, doesn’t resemble the Beersheba of 1982.
When you put a lot of people of a low economic status in one neighborhood, you create a situation that results in violence, crime and drugs and I grew up in that environment,” he said.
“In the army, people usually asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ The people from Beersheba were embarrassed to say they were from there. So they’d say, ‘Oh, we’re from Ashkelon,’ ‘We’re from Ashdod.’ There was nothing here to be proud of. Today, I can tell you everyone here is very proud to say they are from Beersheba. It’s a great city,” he smiled.
“In fact, not only are people staying here, young people from around the country are moving here. And this has a lot to do with Jewish National Fund’s work and we’re grateful for it,” he said.
This article was written in cooperation with Jewish National Fund-USA.