Gates of Hope

The city of Beersheba and its largest constituent, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, have a symbiotic relationship.

ben gurion students 88 (photo credit: )
ben gurion students 88
(photo credit: )
Beersheba harbors one of Israel's most impoverished urban neighborhoods. Neighborhood D perches on the northern end of the city and stands in jarring contrast to its sleek, modern, powerful next-door neighbor, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). BGU has been a compassionate neighbor, reaching out in many ways to ease the poverty that exists virtually on its front doorstep. The university is in the process of constructing a unique gateway that will connect the two diverse areas, allowing direct passage between the urban blight of Daled and BGU's new Spitzer Social Work and Deichmann Community Action buildings. The new entrance will be called The Gate of Hope. BGU's Gate of Hope represents more than just one entryway into prosperity - it's also the perfect metaphor for the university and the city of Beersheba, and the potential both represent for prosperity that might extend to the entire Negev. For the first time, the long hoped-for southern economic resurgence - the "miracle in the desert" that Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, himself advocated - is starting to look more like a possibility than a platitude. This month, the university and the south reach the end of an era: As of February 1, Prof. Avishay Braverman, BGU's tireless and visionary president since 1990, leaves office. Named to succeed Braverman is Prof. Rivka Carmi, a highly respected pediatrician and geneticist who is expected to continue Braverman's pro-Negev advocacy. Nonetheless, change is inevitable. Is Beersheba a "university town"? "Not really," says Beersheba's mayor Yaakov Terner. "We are a city of education, that's true - Beersheba has several colleges in addition to BGU. But is the city dependent on BGU for our own growth? No. We are a big city and are fortunate enough to have a great university in our midst. We cooperate with the university on any number of projects - most recently, the new train station. But the city has many obligations and priorities that don't have anything to do with BGU as such," he says. "Beersheba's uniqueness lies in its incredible diversity," says Terner. "Our residents hail from 60 countries and have any number of needs and priorities that don't affect BGU. So while we cooperate and work with the university whenever we can, we aren't a university town." Beersheba is Israel's fourth largest city, with about 200,000 residents, notes City Manager Avishag Avtori. "But it's a very young city - about 50 percent are under 35. Right now, 25,000 students at BGU have chosen to live in Beersheba - actually, it's more than that because many students have spouses and families. These students are important to us, and our primary goal is to find ways to keep them here after they finish their studies. These are highly trained, valuable citizens. Some 60% to 70% come from places other than Beersheba." This objective drives a number of city projects, says Terner. "Projects such as BGU's huge new Advanced Technologies Park are enormously attractive to us, so we're delighted to participate. The park project means jobs, and jobs are key to any city's overall growth and prosperity." says the mayor. The Advanced Technology Park will occupy 600 dunams (about 150 acres) near the city's new train station. For now, the area lies bare and brown across the horizon. The park is an incremental project: the railway station and the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev (NIBN) were the cornerstones. The rest will follow. The NIBN is an intellectual powerhouse. Inaugurated on Ben-Gurion Day in 2004, the institute is to applied research as a carburetor is to an automobile: it creates and nurtures the spark that will move the whole unit forward. Their purpose is to generate ideas, and then educate and train scientists who will serve in both academia and industry. As an idea factory, NIBN is structured to cross-fertilize scientists of many disciplines with medical professionals and business consultants. The synergy these diverse specialties produce when combined will, in turn, spur additional creativity. Although NIBN is new, it has already assembled an impressive list of achievements. A number of potentially lifesaving and profitable products are in the pipeline. An agreement has been signed with the Israeli company BioLineRx, Ltd. to develop an injectable platform to promote muscle regeneration after a heart attack, thus eliminating the need for surgery. A second agreement with an American company has also been finalized, and millions of dollars have been committed. NIBN scientists have already registered 20 patents, published 50 scientific peer-reviewed articles, and garnered millions of additional dollars in research grants. What does scientific and academic success mean to the city? Most immediately, jobs. "Every student who lives here during his education faces one question," Terner says. "Will he or she stay in Beersheba or leave? The first consideration for most graduates is finding a job. Having this kind of research center in the city is a tremendous asset," he explains. But jobs aren't the only thing a graduate considers, the mayor adds. "They must also think about education for their children, cultural opportunities, things to do. The city is required to work toward providing those things, too. The new train station is the perfect example of the kind of joint project that benefits the city and BGU." The Beersheba-North, University Station, dedicated on December 7, 2005, is an 800 sq. meter state-of-the-art facility designed for the future. In two years, two-track trains will make the trip to Tel Aviv in about 45 minutes. As growth occurs, the station will host additional commuter lines. It features park-and-ride facilities, commercial space and access to city transportation, plus the dramatic 160-meter Mexican Bridge, a soaring covered walkway that shelters pedestrians going to the city or the university. "The station serves the whole city," Terner points out. "Everyone benefits when they can travel quickly and easily to and from other parts of the country. Quick, inexpensive travel enhances life for everyone," he says. "Family education is also important," says Avtori. "The latest bagrut [matriculation] exam results show that Beersheba ranks considerably above average. For families thinking about making Beersheba their home, that's an important factor." Ishay Avital, executive director of the Beersheba Foundation, the city's prime fundraising organization, offers a long list of city assets that enhance the quality of life. "Soroka Medical Center is among the nation's best. For young people, we have a beautiful new youth center. We have the acting school, the Sinfonietta, theater, several dance troupes, and an upcoming sports complex. Our new River project is underway and Child World, an interactive museum, is coming. The Negev Museum - in a renovated Turkish building - is a $25 million project underway. There's also the Air Force Museum, and more," Avtori says. The museums, sports center and, specialty schools undoubtedly enhance life in Beersheba, but what does that mean for Neighborhood D? Beersheba is also home to many immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, elderly refugees from Arab lands, Beduin and the poor. Will museums and symphonies benefit them? That what-about-the-poor question was a topic Prof. Braverman enjoyed addressing. He came from a cultured but working-class family, the son of a Polish carpenter. "This is where it starts," Braverman would say, referring to the university. "This is the heart, the engine. Progress starts here, moves out to Daled and Gimmel, across the city, to the development towns and beyond." Indeed, a walk through the university's surrounding neighborhoods seems to indicate something is afoot. On one street, a typically drab, run-down four-storey rectangular apartment building with cracked stucco and graffiti stands aside similar building where the renovation is obvious. The paint or plaster is fresh, windows and doors are embellished by shutters and flower boxes, and young landscaping sprouts. There's no graffiti, and an effort to keep the street clean is apparent. Unlike the untouched structures that look as though a desert breeze might do them in, the renovated buildings stand firm, straight and square-edged. The hovel quotient in the area is still high and much remains to be done, but the occasional unmistakable signs of urban renewal cannot be ignored. Is this Braverman's "engine" in action? The university as agent of renewal? It might very well be, in two ways. First, the university's direct action helps. BGU has a popular Community Action Unit that encourages student involvement and actually performs some of the renovation itself. But another segment appears to be self-generating the kind of independent spontaneous renewal that might eventually conquer urban blight. Much of BGU's direct aid comes through its Community Action Unit, created in 1976, via channels such as hundreds of scholarships to impoverished students; a program welcoming adults on campus to complete their matriculation studies; and open apartments that house students in the middle of blighted neighborhoods to live and study and requires them to provide 10 hours of community service every week. Even more inspiring are the self-generated improvements that have come about without direct university help. These represent investment by individuals who see the potential and want to be part of a new and prosperous neighborhood. These home and business owners have voted with their shekels, pouring their own time and money into the neighborhood - not because they have to but because they see a good opportunity. Student's Row, a line of small businesses along Rehov Ben-Mattithau, is one example. These service businesses were started mostly by students or recent graduates, without direct university involvement. Most seem to be thriving. Hamsa Humous is clearly a neighborhood favorite. Owner Tidhar Novik - a "frustrated artist and an occasional student" at BGU - opened the shop 18 months ago. Now it's famous: In a recent nationwide poll, Hamsa Humous ranked as one of the five best places for humous in Israel. "My mother's a great cook," says Novik. "She always encouraged me in the kitchen, and humous is my favorite food, so it all came together. I traveled all over to taste, and I found some good humous places, but not a single one in Beersheba - and this is where I grew up! So I decided to open one myself. I looked all over the city for the right place to locate, and this neighborhood appealed to me," he says. "When I first saw this building, it was horrible, really ugly. It had been a vegetable market, but not nice. People warned me against locating here - they said it was a high-crime area, filthy and dangerous. But I could see the potential. At first, we served mostly students. Now our customers come from even Tel Aviv and Haifa. Just wait - this whole area will be just like Sheinkin!" says Novik, referring to the once working class thoroughfare in Tel Aviv that has become Israel's trendiest street. Novik employs four waitresses and two kitchen workers, in addition to working full time himself. Some are BGU students, others live nearby. The area may feel like Sheinkin, but it doesn't cost like Sheinkin. "Something else Beersheba offers is the lower living cost," says Terner. "My apartment in Beersheba cost NIS 500,000. In Rishon Lezion, that same unit would cost NIS 850,000, and in Tel Aviv, NIS 1.2 million. It's possible to live here and commute to the center of the country by train. We'd rather they work here, of course, but until that happens they can still enjoy our quality of life." No one in Beersheba assumes that the endemic problems of the south will disappear overnight or that the urban renewal represented by Hamsa Humous will be universal. Residents recognize that much of the current success is due to the generosity of major investors and charitable contributors from around the world. They know that future progress depends on continued investment, and assets like the railway station work in two directions - an easy commute also means that people don't have to live in Beersheba to work there. No one is satisfied with the status quo on BGU's community involvement, either. BGU itself has new outreach efforts underway, something Terner plans to encourage. "We're very grateful for everything BGU students do to help," he says. "But at my first meeting with the new president, I intend to ask for more. We need it, and helping others benefits the students, too, not just the city." As Ben-Gurion once remarked, "In Israel, in order to be a realist you have to believe in miracles." The movers and shakers in the south believe that the Gates of Hope are swinging open, that the long-awaited miracle is finally underway. Beyond Braverman Prof. Avishay Braverman, term-limited out of the BGU presidency after his fourth four-year term, has moved into politics and now fills the number four slot in the Labor party. Prof. Rivka Carmi, the acting president, will take office on February 1, following approval by the university's board of governors. Carmi is the first woman to head an Israeli university. A senior faculty member of BGU's Faculty of Health Sciences and of Soroka Medical Center, she has expertise in pediatrics, neonatology and medical genetics, and recently served as acting director of the NIBN and was instrumental in its founding. Braverman may have left BGU, but no one expects he will lessen his advocacy on behalf of the Negev and the south. As one source put it, "Avishay hasn't left. He's just moved to a new platform. We'll be able to count on him for help, just as we always have."