Restoring Sderot’s youth

The southern city is getting an infusion of new energy through its student population, who are volunteering to build their own accommodations.

containers are recycled and renovated as living quarters in Sderot (photo credit: DEBORAH DANAN)
containers are recycled and renovated as living quarters in Sderot
(photo credit: DEBORAH DANAN)
‘There is nothing greater in the world than doing,” read the Hebrew letters painted on a wall inside a converted old elementary school in Sderot. Part of a construction site full of 18-year-olds creating a student village out of abandoned buildings and recycled shipping containers in the rocket-battered town, these words ring particularly true.
The two-and-a-half-month project is the fruit of an initiative led by Ayalim – the largest Zionist movement for young people in Israel – which the Prime Minister’s Office approved on August 10.
By the start of the college year, there will be 36 units in the village – 150 by the end of the year – for some 300 students attending the nearby Sapir Academic College. The final product will be three floors of student dorms consisting of shipping containers stacked on top of each other, each unit housing two students. Each two apartments share a bomb shelter, meeting the security needs of the volatile area, which has been subject to intermittent rocket rain from Gaza for 13 years.
Sderot’s population is getting increasingly older, as youngsters flee to the country’s Center seeking better job opportunities and economic stability away from the Gaza border. But Ayalim is fighting to turn this situation around, under the campaign slogans: “We will not break, we will build,” and “No rocket will stop us building in Sderot.”
Indeed, this encapsulates the entire ethos of the organization, named after its founders’ friends Yael and Eyal, who were killed in a terror attack during the second intifada. The couple had intended to raise a family in the Negev, and now Ayalim is working to immortalize their pioneering vision.
The Sderot building project follows numerous Ayalim initiatives of this kind in the Negev and Galilee. Most recently they completed a student village in Lod – a city whose reputation is mostly associated with drugs and crime – utilizing the recycled shipping containers.
Ayalim’s goal is to build up the peripheral areas that lack social, educational, cultural and financial resources. An important aspect of these projects is that it’s the young people who are putting the infrastructure in place to draw other youngsters to these floundering areas.
It is impressive to see the 18-year-old pre-army national service volunteers bricklaying, spackling, painting, lifting, and driving tractors to build a community setting for students – most of whom will be a few years their senior.
Aside from developing the Negev and the Galilee, Ayalim’s mission is to give the youth a cause, which group cofounder Dany Gliksberg says many of them don’t have in this day and age.
“We saw the Negev as a tool to create a national mission,” he explains, pointing to the Zionist concept of “making the desert bloom.”
According to Gliksberg, “young people are willing to do whatever is necessary, as long as they’re convinced it’s important” – which in this case means “bringing people to the heart of war,” building it up and bringing young students to live there.
“We want to make them live in the Negev permanently,” he says.
The project began in the midst of Operation Protective Edge, but the volunteers were unfazed by the potential danger of rocket attacks interrupting their work, or by the 15-second time frame they had to reach a bomb shelter should a siren sound.
Talking with the youths involved in the project, it is immediately apparent that they share deep-rooted Zionist ideals.
It’s a Ben Gurion-esque Zionism, the kind whose loss one can often hear the older generation lamenting.
Ido, 19, from the Golan Heights, says he decided to do national service because it was in line with his values; he wanted to give to the state and to Zionism.
He says that the Ayalim program allows participants to express themselves creatively. He previously helped refurbish an abandoned Acre bomb shelter at a school for at-risk youth.
Along with several other former volunteers, he received professional training and was hired for the summer to help manage and supervise the Sderot construction project. When he begins his army service soon, he will join the Paratroop Brigade.
I spot another supervisor, Nimrod, 19, from Moshav Sitriya, commanding a tractor around the site. He explains that the combination of volunteering and physical work attracted him to the program.
After volunteering for a year with Ayalim and Perah – a tutoring project for underprivileged children – he plans to serve in the army’s Maglan unit later this year.
Neta of Mevaseret Zion comes from a strong Zionist background and what she describes as an “army family”; her father made his career in the IDF, and her brother has served in the military for seven years. She says she does not take Israel for granted and feels that one of the best things she can do for the country is help develop it.
“We need to develop both the North and the South,” she says.
She and fellow volunteer Yael, from Netafim, began the program this summer, fresh out of high school. The latter says she opted for national service in order to contribute to the country, to break out of her bubble and to get to know other parts of society.
Deeply ingrained in Ayalim are values of social activism. In the completed student village, there will be a club for students to work with children from the neighborhood, as well as use it for their own social activities. In return for subsidized housing, the students must volunteer 500 hours annually in the Sderot community.
Accommodation costs NIS 420 a month per student, and the transformed shipping containers will be kitted out with beds, sofas, tables, work desks and air conditioning.
“If you want to change [people’s] perspectives [about life in Sderot], you have to give [the students] a good quality of life [while they’re there],” asserts Gliksberg.
The project has even gained the attention of some in the international Jewish community. A group of Reform rabbis from around America decided to put on their overalls and join the group of young activists at the building site during the height of the Gaza operation. Rabbi Aryeh Scheinenberg of San Antonio, Texas, who visited the project last month, was particularly struck by the young adults’ passion for the cause.
“Today people are only interested in themselves, in computers, in someone miles away from them, but not in their neighbors,” Scheinenberg says regretfully.
He praises Ayalim for inspiring youth with a sense of direction, purpose and community-building. The rabbi was visiting Sderot during his annual trip to Israel, this time with a group of 500 Christians. This project, he says, brings together people from different walks of life and realizes the concept of “Am Yisrael becoming klal Yisrael” – the nation of Israel becoming a unified whole.
He says that back in San Antonio, there is a tremendous appreciation for each Jew – something he feels here as well, with people coming together from different backgrounds and learning to love each other.
This week, ahead of the academic year, the organization scheduled a “work week,” with 1,000 Ayalim volunteers gathering at the grounds to assist in developing the compound.
It will be a few years before Ayalim’s organizers can see whether their ambitious project succeeds in infusing the city with a new energy, but at the very least, it will help ensure that a good portion of the rising generation of young adults become active, socially-minded members of society.