O, pioneers

A new Zionism is being forged in the Negev and the Galilee by students who relinquish the benefits of big city life.

negev rocks 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
negev rocks 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a rapidly changing reality, the young keep looking for something else, something meaningful to fill the emptiness that big city life has created. Otherwise, it is almost impossible to explain why hundreds of the finest young adults renounced the comforts of urban life for the exhausting mission of building the Negev. They did not skip higher education or give up their cellphones and laptops. Just the opposite, they packed them and moved south to start their lives helping weakened communities, endangered youth, new immigrants, the handicapped and bereaved families. These young people belong to Ayalim, a non-profit-organization that was established in 2002 by a group of students. Its declared goals are expanding the settlements in the Negev and the Galilee, educating the local youth for Zionist values and promoting outlying areas. To achieve these goals, Ayalim offers scholarships to students who are studying in institutions like Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, Sapir College in Sderot, Tel Hai Academic College near Kiryat Shmona, Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee or ORT Brauda College in Karmiel. Those who choose to live in one of the student villages get a higher scholarship and pay very low rent. In return, the students have to run a voluntary program of 150 hours every year, give another 100 yearly hours for special projects and work in their village. Several hundred students are active in Ayalim and each year more than 5,000 apply. "Ninety-two percent of us were called up for reserve duty during the Lebanon war," says Matan Dahan, 26, founder and director-general of Ayalim, at the group's caravan site in Yachini, a moshav just south of Sderot. "When we came back here, we experienced such an explosion of energy that we started and finished building this site in three weeks." "I can't even start explaining how it feels to build your own house," says Neta Agie in a short movie that was shown to top ranking employees of the Jewish Agency, Ayalim's main sponsor, during their visit to the site. "This is not just a vision and some cheap talk; these are real actions," adds Itzik Yarkoni, also featured in the promotional film. "Good morning everyone. The first Kassam of the day has landed and we can start working," announces another Ayalim member in a different scene. "I am worried about the next two months, until the people in Yachini get to know us and trust our intentions. I am sure they will accept us after they realize we are okay people." Six months after the movie was completed, the people of Yachini, most of whom are of Yemenite extraction, have already embraced the neo-Zionists who woke up their drowsy community and resuscitated the whole area. "My heart is full of love. If there were only 40 more young men like these, there wouldn't be crime in Israel," says Yachini resident Ziona Madmoni. Ayalim's work started long before the young people moved to Yachini, Beersheba, Ashalim, Dimona and Kiryat Shmona. It started four years ago, when Dahan and four other students from Jerusalem decided to breathe life into a dream they had during their post-army service trip abroad. Equipped with charm, resourcefulness and an understanding of Israeli politics, they enlisted the support of the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, the Sakta Rashi Fund and other sources of funding, as Ayalim needs $500,000 a year for the students' scholarships, cellphones, gas and food. They presented a detailed plan to recruit more students who had expressed an interest in joining them. "I won't beat around the bush," Dahan told the Jewish Agency staffers an hour after they arrived in Yachini. "The organization revolves around the people who established it. It's not mature enough to walk by itself. We want the Jewish Agency to give us a three-year breathing space so we can devote our efforts to ensure this movement lasts for years." Dahan turned to Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski and Lea Golan, head of its Israel Department, and without batting an eyelid asked them for $400,000 a year. They did not react immediately and decided to let Dahan and his colleagues continue their efforts to convince them. But on the way to see Ayalim's progress in Beersheba's Dalet neighborhood, a local synonym for a slum, Bielski said he was going to approve their request. "These young people are the Rolls Royce of today's Zionism. They give up their private pleasures. Instead of lying on a beach in Goa or making money, they are willing to settle the Negev and the Galilee, to help others and to sit for hours with senior citizens. They deserve the help. The Jewish Agency prefers to finance their not so sexy expenses, like gas and phones, and leave the 'better causes' to private donors." IN THE DALET neighborhood, 10 students opened their homes to local youths longing for attention and guidance. "I started tutoring several 12-year-old girls who are anxious to get out of their houses, where sometimes their fathers are busy getting drunk, and be around people who can help and direct them," says Shiri Yakobovitz, who is working for her master's in chemistry and has been involved in Ayalim's program for four years. In the Dimona branch of Tipat Halav, the well-baby and family health center, Miriam Lasri, 25, an industrial management student, is busy orchestrating renovations with 10th graders from a local Beduin tribe. "Most of the clients here are Beduin. We thought we should renovate it together and make them feel a part of this place and start to instill a sense of social responsibility," she says. As the finale to their tour, the Ayalim members invite the Jewish agency staffers to a barbecue on the the isolated sand dune overlooking Dimona on which they built their village. "We realized that we couldn't recruit students without providing a high quality of life," Dahan says. "We want our volunteers to enjoy their time here and not just wait for it to be over. I can assure you that after three years in this place, no student will leave these beautiful dunes. They will stay here and build their homes, here in Dimona."