The treasure of the Negev

WJC president Ronald S. Lauder marks the fifth anniversary of the Lauder Center for the Advancement of Employment in the Negev

President of the World Jewish Congress Ronald Lauder (photo credit: Courtesy)
President of the World Jewish Congress Ronald Lauder
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Six years ago, I visited Ben-Gurion University and learned that over the years, just 1% of the school’s graduates stayed on to live and work in the Negev,” says businessman and philanthropist Ron Lauder, who met with The Jerusalem Post for a special interview in honor of Sukkot.
“I realized that one main reason why young people were leaving was because they were unable to find suitable jobs in the Negev – and this had to change. On the other hand, I saw 400 medium and large-sized companies operating in the area, and I asked myself, how is it possible that young people still can’t find their future there? We realized that the best way to deal with the problem was to set up an employment center where each of these companies could find the right people and where each of the students could receive advice and direction regarding employment.
“From this idea, I established the Lauder Center for the Advancement of Employment in the Negev, which was promoted in cooperation with Ben-Gurion University and JNF-USA. In recent years, the Center has served as a beacon of hope and opportunity for students from Ben-Gurion University in particular, and from Beersheba and the surrounding area, in general, to help them find employment near their homes.
“The opening of the Center is an important milestone in the development of the Negev. Its role is to provide professional guidance, employment solutions, and job creation to keep young people who are looking for challenging jobs and opportunities to remain in the Negev. I want them to be able to build their future there. JNF-USA, headed by Russell Robinson (Ronald Lauder is emeritus chairman of the board), is one of the largest Jewish foundations in the United States and invests hundreds of millions of dollars in a variety of fields in Israel to improve the quality of life and bring more settlement to the Negev and Galilee.
“In the past five years, we’ve caused the employment of many students who would otherwise never have considered remaining in the area,” adds Lauder. “I understand they are pleased, working, raising their families and contributing to the vision of building the Negev.” Soon you’ll be completing your new home in Beersheba. Why there?
“I read several biographies about David Ben-Gurion and was fascinated by what he said about the Negev, and every time I was there, I thought about Ben-Gurion. This man had a dream and fulfilled it. I also had the opportunity to visit many of the various biblical places in the Negev with Arik Sharon and I learned a great deal about the area. During the construction of the employment center, I spent a lot of time in Beersheba, and one day during my wanderings, I saw a lovely house for sale. I realized that this was a place where I could live and organize meetings and lectures. I really like the city and especially the Old City. In my eyes, Beersheba is a major and vital meeting point for the State of Israel.” Apart from your significant investments and the new home in Beersheba, what other hopes and visions do you have for the future of the Negev?
“I hope that the Negev will become a center for young people who will come to live there. My goal is for families and young people who cannot afford to live in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv to understand that Beersheba is a great alternative for them. I look at the Negev as an area to advance technology and business. I can see the region evolving just as it did in Arizona, where I visited a while ago. I was amazed by the amount of industry, work and growth that is happening there.” In light of the successes you described above, do you intend to expand your investments to other parts of Israel as well?
“After the Negev success story, I traveled with my grandchildren northward, to the Galilee. As I traveled and looked around, I realized the great similarities between the Galilee and the Negev. I’m referring to the opportunities that people have to develop, flourish and move forward. I once had a small business, and I realize how hard it is to hire employees far from the center of the country. On the other hand, I realized that once people realized they had a chance to find work and move forward, they began to come there. That’s why we’re looking to open a second employment center in the North. I believe that it will be as successful as the Center for the Promotion of Employment in the Negev. I believe if we can find the right jobs for them, they will do very well.
As president of the World Jewish Congress, do you have any concern that the younger generation of Diaspora Jewry will not identify with Israel, visit it, or invest in philanthropy?
“There is no doubt that the younger generation, the third and fourth generation since the Holocaust, has a completely different attitude to Judaism than their grandparents and sometimes even their parents. Israel is no longer part of their focus. The younger generation was not familiar with the problems encountered by Israelis in the early years or by the Jews of the Soviet Union and the Jews of Eastern Europe. They never really knew what happened in the Holocaust because they did study the subject.
“Assimilation is, in a way, a problem, too. The number of young Jews marrying non-Jews is enormous. More and more young people are not raising their children according to Jewish tradition, and this worries me. I realized that we must teach our younger generation what it’s like to be Jewish, and for me, the only way to do that is through education. I founded and continue to set up schools, and now there are more than 100 new Jewish schools in the United States designed to teach the next generation what it means to be Jewish.” “There’s no doubt that it’s all a question of education. Jewish education is our future,” says Lauder.
Please share with us your agenda for the Jewish world in 2021. How do you get people to look after each other and preserve Jewish identity?
“We need to learn and understand that we’re one people. There’s no difference between secular and Orthodox. Hitler didn’t distinguish between a secular Jew and an Orthodox Jew, so one of the important things is to remember that whether we’re conservative or liberal, we’re all Jews, we’re all one people and we need to start acting like one people. There is no difference between Orthodox and Reform. We are alike, we all pray to the same God and we all have the same background within us. Once we realize that we are all cut from the same cloth and can help each other, this will be the beginning of renewed growth for all of us. It will be the salvation of the Jewish world that will once again become a strong and powerful group with strong people.” In the past, you have done a lot of work promoting peace in the Middle East. Did you give up?
“Not only have I not given up, but I’m more optimistic every day. What happened recently between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain is, in my opinion, very important and meaningful. I have spoken to people in many other countries who are looking at the peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain as a test, and they understand that if the UAE and Bahrain did so, they can, too. It still takes a lot of courage to do so in some countries. In part, it means going against old beliefs. I believe that slowly but surely, it will eventually happen, just as it happened with the UAE and Bahrain. I believe that at the time, Egypt helped Jordan achieve peace with Israel. I believe that the UAE and Bahrain will eventually spur other countries to make peace with Israel, and once Israel has peace with its neighbors, it will only be a matter of time before we reach the hoped-for peace with the Palestinians. Then Israel’s potential in the Middle East will be enormous.” Do you see parallels between the UAE- Bahrain peace agreements and the development of the Negev?
“I recently read that the United Arab Emirates wants to work with Israel on developing the Negev on water issues and turning barren fields into very fertile fields. I believe there are many other things in which Israel, the UAE and Bahrain can work together and turn their many parts of the desert into fertile fields. Israel has the water technology required for the Middle East, and the Middle East has great needs in this area. I believe that cooperation between Israel and the Middle East countries can be fruitful and effective for the entire region.” How do you see the Negev in 10 years?
A decade from now, I see the Negev as an essential part of the world. I predict that in the future, the new Silicon Valley will be built here. It certainly has all of that is needed to succeed.”
You’re approaching the final stages of building your home in Beersheba. Can you share your design secrets with us?
“It will have strong a strong Turkish influence in its design, in the spirit of the houses from the Arab Empire.”
Your work in the Negev is being noticed and appreciated. Allow me to share two recent quotes with you.
“Ronald Lauder is a visionary who sees the development of Beersheba and the Negev as a national mission of the highest priority,” says Beersheba Mayor Rubik Danilovich. “We view him as a loyal partner, who always sets a high bar and brings with him a spirit of hope and faith.” “Mr. Ronald Lauder recognized the importance of fostering future generations, connecting academic education to practical experience with an emphasis on keeping the university’s human capital in Beersheba and the Negev,” adds Prof. Daniel Haimovich, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “The Lauder Center for the Promotion of Employment in the Negev, which he established, has found employment solutions and practical experience for thousands of students and graduates of figures Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, thus effectively fulfilling an important part of the first prime minister’s vision.”
Translated by Alan Rosenbaum.
This article was written in cooperation with the Lauder Center for the Advancement of Employment in the Negev.