Nobody's suburb

After numerous failed settlement attempts, Omer, an off-shoot of Beersheba, is proudly thriving.

omer 88 (photo credit: )
omer 88
(photo credit: )
Ask Omer's long-time mayor, Pini Badash, what the best thing about his town is, and he'll tell you its versatility. "Omer is a city, a kibbutz, a village, a farm, a yishuv," he says. "It's everything you want it to be, all at once." In fact, according to locals, there's only one thing Omer is not: it's most emphatically not a suburb of Beersheba. "God forbid that anyone thinks of Omer as a suburb," laughs longtime resident Martha Lev-Zion, her vehemence only partly in jest. "Omer is not now and never has been connected to Beersheba. We are a very successful little village all our own. We have our own history, our own quality of life. We have our own water supply and our own tax base. We're not anybody's suburb." It's easy to see why a connection between the two communities might be assumed. On a map, it's clear that Omer's 14,000 dunams and 6,000 residents are several kilometers northeast of Beersheba. But drive it - or walk it - and at least at some points, urban sprawl nearly blurs the boundary. That said, when you drive into Omer on the wide, divided main street, flowers and trees are blooming everywhere, even though it's well within the Negev. The town's architecture is not typical of Israel. Put a US resident on any street in Omer, tell him he's in San Diego or Palm Springs, California, or Scottsdale, Arizona, and - apart from a robed and keffiyehed Beduin sitting at a deli table, or the rifle-toting soldiers waiting at bus stops - there wouldn't be any reason to doubt it. Part of the distinction is the fact that there are no apartment buildings, and only a few homes have a common wall. Then there's the quiet: Even at midday, the streets and sidewalks are nearly empty. In all, Omer could serve as a movie set for Anywhere, USA - which may be one reason it appeals to Anglo immigrants. Although the village is built on the site of an ancient Byzantine settlement, it came into its own in the early 1960s, after several previous settlement attempts were doomed by the lack of water. In 1948, a group of Negev Brigade soldiers was the first to try. They established Kibbutz Hevrona, near a small hill the Beduin call El-Omri - the source of the name Omer - but a short time later, the kibbutz was abandoned, with the shortage of water being a major factor. In 1950, 23 families from Hungary and Romania moved in. They shifted the residential site slightly to the south, but that didn't help. That settlement also failed. A group of North African settlers tried again in 1957. Instead of planting thirsty field crops, they tried raising cattle and chickens. After two years, they too gave up. Electricity made the difference. In 1961, a group of Beersheba residents moved to the area. Because they viewed it as a place to live, not as an agricultural enterprise, they became the forefathers of present day Omer. A new well was dug in 1963, and once supplied with both electricity and running water, the town began to thrive. Between 1964 and 1967 more than 100 new families arrived, and in 1976 a cornerstone for the commercial center was laid. "We have our own wells, with water quality comparable to mineral water," says Lev-Zion. "We tap into Mekorot only occasionally, if there's been a long hot summer. We also developed a great water recycling project. All our landscaping is watered with recycled water." IN MANY WAYS, Lev-Zion is typical of the large Anglo population. Born in California, she made aliya in 1977, having studied medicine and receiving a PhD in history. A year ago, her book, Taking Tamar: Adopting and Bringing up a Child with Down's Syndrome, was published, telling the story of how she, as a single mother, adopted and raised her daughter Tamar. Like many residents, Lev-Zion is a community activist. For seven years, she served as a uniformed volunteer policewoman, performing all kinds of crime-stopping duties including catching burglars and handing out traffic tickets. "Many of my fellow police volunteers didn't want traffic duty," she says. "They didn't want to give out tickets to their friends and neighbors. But the way I see it, I wrote tickets because I care about my friends and neighbors. If they violated traffic laws, they were compromising their own safety. I saw myself as helping them, not hurting them." Lev-Zion originally resisted moving to Omer. "Back in the 1960s, people had to be enticed to move to Omer. It was thought of as a remote, dusty settlement that had already failed several times. Then someone decided a good way to get new residents was to offer blocks of land to several big organizations. The companies held employee lotteries for quarter-dunam lots, with the winners permitted to build their own homes. Bezeq was one of the big organizations that brought in, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev was another. I was working for BGU at the time, and they constantly urged me to enter the Omer land lottery, but I kept refusing. To me, living in Omer violated my Zionist principles. "The way I saw it then, David Ben-Gurion wanted a university in Beersheba to help Beersheba as a city, to pull it up by the bootstraps. What good was it, if BGU was located in Beersheba, but all the professors lived in Omer? I held out until Tamar was two, still living in a fourth-floor walkup in Beersheba. But then, with two dogs and a child who wasn't walking yet, all those stairs were too much." The land lotteries fueled the Anglo influx. "Omer used to be called 'Angloville,'" she recalls. "At one point, maybe 70 percent of the population came from English-speaking countries. Now? Omer has grown, so maybe only 30% are Anglos - maybe even less, especially with the addition of new people in New Omer." New Omer is the most recent addition, appended to the old village's south end, adding about 20% to the village's size. "It's already built out," Lev-Zion says. "We can't expand any farther until some solution to the Arab problem is found." In Omer, the "Arab problem" has more to do with squatters than it does with terrorism. A sizable population of Beduin has established itself in illegal camps on the town's doorstep, blocking any further residential expansion. Although a solution was attempted - the state built homes for them elsewhere - the squatters remain where they were. The problem isn't just a limitation on expansion. It also represents a significant crime problem, in that many of the squatters have come to view Omer as their own private burglary preserve. "At one time, Omer was listed No. 1 in Israel in property crimes," Lev-Zion says. "For several years, there wasn't a house that hadn't been burglarized, there wasn't a car that hadn't been stolen. That's not true now, because we've organized good neighborhood watch programs. But clearly, some overall solution will have to be found." Thievery also impacts the tax rate. "We pay a lot for guards," she says. "That's a fact of life here. If you want security, you pay for guards." OMER IS old enough to have returnees, too, including Ze'ev Turbovich, a naturopath who runs both a clinic and a natural health food shop, called Ze'ev, in the commercial center. "I was born in Omer, then moved to Tel Aviv," Turbovich says. "When it came time to open my business, I decided to come back - not because I was born here, but because of the demographics. I wanted to locate in a place that had a special kind of population, people who are educated, sophisticated, willing to try new things. Omer seemed to offer that, and it's working out well. Ze'ev is not just a place to buy something natural, but rather, a more professional kind of place. It's somewhere you can come to learn, to get information. Omer residents seem to appreciate that." It's a misconception, Turbovich says, to think of Omer as populated only by BGU employees or those from nearby Soroka Hospital. "Of course there are some," he says. "But today, most residents are either retired, self-employed or they work in just regular jobs. We have many new young families, people who come because of the peaceful way of life. The air is different here - I don't mean just the atmosphere, but the literal air. It's clean. It's quiet. It's calm. Of course, if you like action, cultural events and restaurants, we don't have that. But for pure quality of life, at a much cheaper rate than up north, Omer is the place." For the Negev, Omer is expensive. But compared to the center of the country, it's a bargain. While there are many luxury homes, an average home is priced in the $180,000-$200,000 range. With no apartment buildings, rentals aren't common, unless someone has added a "granny" unit in back. The high level of home ownership makes for a stable population without much change. Two factors looming in the near future might affect that, however. First, the planned move of the IDF base in Tzrifin to the Negev is finally under way. "That will increase the demand for homes," Lev-Zion believes. "Home prices will probably go up." Another factor - one welcomed by Turbovich - is the completion of a major new shopping center in Beersheba, very close to Omer. "Several restaurants have already acquired space there," he says. "That's good for Omer, and good for the whole area. After living in Tel Aviv for so long, I miss good restaurants. When you finish your work day, you want to be able to enjoy yourself. You need a variety of leisure activities. The new development will help." Omer's growing industrial park also has an impact on the local population. Focusing on a wide variety of clean, hi-tech industries, it offers the ability to walk to work. "It's also great for our tax base, too," Lev-Zion observes. "Because of the industrial park, we have the money to do things in Omer." Senior citizens and education are both priorities for residents. The hi-tech high school is highly regarded - so much so, that in 2004, the Beersheba Municipality sued the Omer Local Council, alleging the stealing of students by allowing 52 Beersheba residents to resister their children at the school. The respective mayors apparently settled their differences, but the popularity of the seven-year old, 800-student high school remains unchallenged. At the moment, Omer has only one elementary school. For Naomi Tel-Zur, who was born in Argentina, made aliya alone at 20 and is now a research scientist with the Albert Katz Department of Dryland Biotechnology in Sde Boker, the lack of school choice presents a problem. "We have three children," she says. "Our son is 12, and we have two daughters, five years and two and a half. My husband works in Dimona, so about 10 years ago we moved to Omer, thinking it would have good schools. I love our home, I love my friends. But I'm disappointed in the school system." Tel-Zur concedes that her frustrations with the school system might apply to Israeli education in general, not just the local school. "We had a taste of American schools when we spent two years in Madison, Wisconsin while I was doing post-doc work," she says. "I know you can't compare, but we were spoiled in Madison. There, classes had fewer than 20 kids, and the teacher was the teacher. She wasn't 'Susan,' she was 'Miss' or 'Mrs.' The children respected their teachers, they paid attention. There was discipline. Here, the children do what they want. There's no respect. My son is a calm, easygoing boy, so he was okay, but I'm worried about my daughter when she begins first grade. She's not as easygoing as my son. I don't know what we're going to do." Senior citizens fare well, thanks to the generous tax base. Walkers enjoy pedestrian tunnels that run under some of the major streets, minimizing the hazards of busy roads. In some neighborhoods, curving, tiled streets make you think you're in a park, not a residential neighborhood. And parks abound. Every neighborhood has its own, but there's also a huge central park where civic events and holidays are celebrated. There's Daphna's House, a daily meeting and education center, while the green oasis of the country club is a popular place to be in summer. With two huge swimming pools - one enclosed, one outdoors with a big water slide - it's a common gathering place, as is a professional-quality gym, together with rooms for every kind of sport or recreational endeavor. There's no home mail delivery. Everyone has a post office box, which is exactly how the residents want it. "It's a good way to keep in touch," Lev-Zion says. "If someone doesn't come to pick up mail for a couple of days, we notice, and someone will go check." Religiously, Omer spans the gamut. Several smaller synagogues serve the Orthodox, while there is also a Conservative alternative. In the commercial center, the newest storefront belongs to Chabad. It's a combination outreach center and religious book and gift store. The graceful, flower-bedecked center isn't large, but it offers most essentials: a grocery, a supermarket, a bank, two bakeries. One of two gift shops offers innovative children's toys and clothing, the other luxurious items for the home. Beyond that, there's a deli-café with outdoor seating that sports a certificate of achievement from the Parisian Institute Le Cordon Bleu right next to its kashrut certificate. Two floral shops spill fresh flowers and blooming plants out into the walkway. Amsterdam-born Marion Attias opened the larger of the two, Mimoza, 10 years ago. "I live in a moshav close to the Egyptian border," she says. "A friend and I were tired of staying around the moshav all the time, so we were looking for something to do. We grow flowers in the moshav, so we were thinking of a flower shop. We noticed there wasn't one in Omer, so we stopped at one of the other stores and asked a lady about available space. There wasn't any, she told us, but a couple of days later, she called us back. This space had become available, and it was free. We've been here ever since." Doing business in a very small community has its advantages. "I know most of my local customers," Attias says. "They're more like friends than clients. I know about their lives, they know about mine. But I do a lot of phone work, too, and without the customers that come to me through my Web site, it wouldn't work. I couldn't survive on just walk-in trade." Mimoza serves not just Omer, but Metar, Lehavim, Beersheba and surrounding communities. "I drive an hour to work four days a week," Attias says. "So on the way home, I deliver flowers all along the route. Not all our flowers come from our moshav - I go to Tel Aviv once a week to buy, plus more are delivered here, in addition to those from our moshav." As much as Attias loves her Omer location and customers, she wouldn't think of moving there. "Omer is very busy," she says. "I couldn't give up the peace and quiet of our moshav."