'The Rolls Royce of Zionism'

The Ayalim Association tries to bring Zionism into the 21st century by creating bonds between man and land and between the individual and society.

Ayalim program (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ayalim program
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the beginning of 1955, former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion took some time off from politics. He spent it in Sde Boker in the Negev.
He then gave a speech exemplifying the importance of the Negev and its population to the young Israeli state: “It is in the Negev that the Israeli people and their country will be tested…Because only with a joint effort can we make the wilderness blossom…This effort will determine the fate of the state of Israel and its people in the history of the human race.”
“Making the wilderness blossom” has become a coined phrase among many politicians who repeatedly mention the importance of populating the Negev and the Galilee in order to divert the public’s eye from other, less favorable, issues. While miniature and non-comprehensive initiatives are name-dropped here and there, the vast Negev – which covers 60 percent of Israel’s territory – only offers eight percent of the total amount of work places in the Israeli economy.
But where politicians fail in Israel, or just refrain from acting, civilians step in. In 2002, a group of young 21 year olds who were recently discharged from the army decided to revive Zionism and welcome it to the 21st century. Matan Dahan, one of Ayalim’s founders, recalls: “I had just finished my army service and my uncle had asked me whether I had any plans. I told him I thought about travelling to South America, like most people my age. My uncle replied that if they (Israel’s founding generation – A.S) were behaving the way we do then there wouldn’t have been an Israeli state.”
Instead of travelling around the world, Matan and his friends started the Ayalim Association. Their goal was to strengthen the communities in the Negev and Galilee regions and to revive the Zionist model of community building in Israel by young men and women. Other prominent values of the association are entrepreneurship and creating bonds between man and land and between the individual and society.
The young founders spent their discharge grants, which are usually used to pay tuition fees or buy houses, on a couple of caravans to start their first village.
They also naively called the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to tell 'The Rolls Royce of Zionism' (Photos: courtesy) The Ayalim Association tries to bring Zionism into the 21st century him all about their idea. He gave them the thumbs up, happy with their Zionist approach, and was even present in the christening of the first village. Co-founder Dani Gliksberg adds, “People think that we built this country in 1948.
It’s not true. We are still building it to this very day.” The Ayalim Association is all about students. They come to settle the Negev and the Galilee in a, “National undertaking of supreme importance,” as stated on the association’s website. They are given incentives like scholarships and subsidized housing in order to come and settle in the areas.
The founders’ belief is that once these students spend a period of time living there, they will become attached to the area and its people and will continue to live there after finishing their studies.
The concept that Ayalim is based on is simple. Young students come and build student villages situated in the periphery. The villages are erected next to preexisting communities that are usually lacking of livelihood, infrastructure and social services.
These villages are the basis of the young people’s introduction with their surroundings and its potential. Living in these villages incorporates the hard physical labor of building (They have once erected a complete village in 80 hours!) as well as social activities that benefit the struggling communities.
The Ayalim founders see this work as a meaningful way for students to, “Connect with their surroundings and with their neighbors.”
There are around 500 students currently enlisted in the association. They are spread over 11 student villages in the Negev and the Galilee. Among them are villages near Ashalim, Dimona and Yeruham in the south and ancient Acres and Kiryat Shmona up north. Each student is required to facilitate a minimum number of hours of social activity within the community. There are different programs which offer different scholarships as well as different types and amounts of volunteer work.
The students of Ayalim work with more then 20,000 children around the country, offering them help with their homework and tutorials as well as hosting other extra curricular activities. Several projects that the association has decided to focus on include the Ofarim Family Center, which is a unique community center that’s been built in all the nearby communities and offers a variety of activities for all ages.
Other than that there is School Adoption, where students operate educational programs in nine different schools in the Negev and the Galilee. The students organize enrichment activities revolving around social involvement and volunteer work, Israeli culture and history, and Zionism. Students are also encouraged to initiate their own projects based on the needs of their communities.
So can we say that Zionism is back? Are the 500 students taking part in the Ayalim program enough to revive the Negev and the Galilee and save them from their grim, pre-made destinies? I guess not. The work the association does is without question very significant and it enriches the students themselves as well as the communities within which they operate. It’s not a substitute for state-run action and initiatives but it is an important statement made by young people today who want to be more in touch with their land, their friends and their communities.
As Ze’ev Bielski, former chairman of the Jewish Agency of the World Zionist Organization puts it, “They are the Rolls Royce of Zionism.” Check them out at: http://ayalim.org.il
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