Moving to the periphery

Young families are leaving busy city life for a quieter escape at the edge of the country.

Periphery home 521 (photo credit: Or Movement)
Periphery home 521
(photo credit: Or Movement)
The ill-maintained Road 316, with deep potholes and narrow margins, winds its way through the Negev, beginning in the Beduin village of Hura, whose mosques tower over the squat homes. But on a positive note, the vistas from this road are beautiful and constantly change from kilometer to kilometer. It then passes through rocky desert, the dense Yatir Forest south of the Hebron Hills, and ends near Sussiya.
But then all of a sudden there is a loud boom, and my companion and I realize that one of the tires didn’t survive the rough road, and it’s almost completely torn. We jack up the car to put on the spare tire, and for the fourth time, someone pulls over and asks if we need help.
“Where in the world are these people from?” my companion says to me. “No one in Tel Aviv would ever stop and offer to help.”
The wide open space of the Negev makes my head spin. With our replacement tire in place, we continue on our way to the community of Har Amasa, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Something amazing has been going on here recently. Loud noises have replaced the usual quiet that has prevailed in this community for years. Drilling, digging and banging sounds come from tractors and machinery that are being used to dig out the earth.
“All of these sounds are from the construction and building,” says Liel Hacohen, who has been living in Har Amasa for two years now. “When we moved here, it was deathly silent. There were only six families living here and we felt so isolated. Now there is so much tumult, and we are so happy that the community is growing.”
With the encouragement and assistance of the Or movement, whose aim is to encourage and assist families that wish to relocate to the Negev and the Galilee, a group of young families were able to build a new community in Har Amasa. These families were specifically looking for a community outside central Israel where they could shape their own future and have plenty of space to raise their children.
Although there are only three families from the original group that still live in Har Amasa, more and more families have moved here over the years – and now there are 26 families living here, and another 15 who are actively building their dream houses in the community’s expansion project. The community has the space and building permits to build up to 90 single family homes in this desert hamlet.
Families who’ve chosen to make Har Amasa their home first had to receive approval from the absorption community and pass an exam given at a diagnostic center. These two processes determine whether prospective families and the community are a good fit for each other.
“We are looking for young families, with parents who work and can afford to build a home here,” says Hacohen, who is on the absorption committee. For a family to fulfill its dream of owning a house on a half-dunam (.05-hectare) plot, it will need to pay NIS 150,000 for the plot and another NIS 50,000 to join the cooperative association that manages the community. Until their houses are ready to move into, families have the option of living in a caravan on community property – as Omer and Dvora Weisbein, formerly of Ramat Gan, did.
“We looked for a community outside central Israel for over two years,” Omer says. “Dvora and I couldn’t stand the stress, the mess and the noisy neighbors in the city, and we wanted to raise our children in a calm, quiet place with wide open spaces. After searching high and low for a community that suited us, we got in touch with the Or Movement and they suggested we go look at Har Amasa.”
After consulting with a good friend who lived in the community 20 years ago, they put their two children in the car and went to take a look.
“All of the new expansions in the North look the same: cookie-cutter houses with a little square of grass, with a high wall all around. This is not exactly what we had in mind,” Dvora says. “But while we were driving down to Har Amasa, we realized that what we really loved was the wide-open landscape of the Negev. We fell in love with the community the moment we got there. So when our son asked us if we were home, we realized that yes, we were.”
Situated in the heart of a nature reserve, with evergreen trees marking the entrance of the community and desertscape that stretches out to the horizon, with no other communities in view, Har Amasa is like an ode to nature. The hill is 700 meters high, so the summer evenings are cool, the air is dry and crisp and the winters sometimes bring snow. The Israel National Trail, which stretches from Kibbutz Dan to Eilat, passes close to Har Amasa, so the community decided to designate a room for hikers who are passing through to have a place to sleep on cold nights.
It seems like all this open space makes the families living in Har Amasa want to create homes that are an extension of their personalities. Outside Tom and Moriah Grunwald’s house, one of their good friends is building a wooden porch that looks out to the open view. They painted all the interior walls themselves, Tom built the kitchen and installed a fireplace, and the living-room wall pays homage to the family members living there.
“We were looking for a quality community, a nice place to raise our kids and to space to grow our own vegetables,” Moriah says, as she cradles her baby in her arms. She is a special-education teacher and she and Tom are also a foster family for two older children, who spend their morning hours in the neighborhood kindergarten. The kids can’t help but be happy with all of this open space.
“When you live in an apartment in the city, you have to entertain your kids all day,” Omer says. “You drive them to extracurricular activities, to friends’ houses and to the park. They have no independence whatsoever. Here it’s different. My son got on his bicycle and went exploring by himself on our first day here.”
“The kindergarten wasn’t set up yet when we moved in, so a friend of mine took care of my kids at her house,” Hacohen says. “Shortly thereafter, one of the mothers who had experience running a kindergarten ran one for the whole community. Now that there are so many children, we have an official kindergarten that is recognized by the Education Ministry and is staffed by teachers with the proper credentials. The parents get together to decide what the kindergarten’s guiding principles should be.”
Each family has its own needs and expectations, so despite the fact that most of the families came to live here for similar reasons, everyone has different ideas. Most of the homes are still in various stages of construction. They feel like they have all the time in the world to make sure every detail is perfect, from what the doorbell should sound like to how each window should look. All of the rooms that were used to house soldiers who were stationed in the community to help get it off the ground, now house families waiting for their homes to be built.
One of the houses being built at Har Amasa is a huge, three-story structure that belongs to a retired couple. Their hope is that their grandchildren will love it so much that they’ll often want to sleep over. Liel and Yair Hacohen, on the other hand, decided to build their house out of mud.
“This is how life should be lived,” Yair says, as he mixes the sand and water while his daughter peeks her head out from the baby carrier strapped to his back. “It doesn’t make sense that people let others build their house for them.”
Yair makes a living by giving a Pilates course in Lehavim, a neighboring community, and Liel works as a midwife at Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba. Most of the residents are in their 30s and 40s, have children and work either full- or part-time outside the community. There’s a lawyer, a social worker, a naturopath therapist, a business owner and a production and music manager. Both Omer and Dvora Weisbein work in computers. Omer owns a communications marketing company and Dvora is an IT manager. She reached an agreement with her boss whereby she works out of the office in Tel Aviv two days a week, and the rest of the week from home.
Nitzan Stern-Sa’ad greets us at the entrance of the community. She owns a ceramic studio here and her husband, Meir, works with wood. “When we lived in Motza Illit, I used to work out of a small storage room behind the house,” she tells us as she molds something on her potter’s wheel.
The room she is currently working in used to be a storage room for scrap metal, but she put a lot of time and effort into refurbishing it and now in addition to her workroom, she has a little store in the front where she sells her artwork and locally grown produce. Nitzan also runs a local food co-op that purchases basic raw food materials in bulk for the whole community, in order to keep food expenditure low.
“When we were looking for a place to live, one of our main criteria was finding a place that was economical,” Nitzan says with a smile. “It was important to us that there be a community, but that we could also have a certain amount of privacy. A place that is not completely autonomous, but that would allow us to build and shape our lives exactly how we wanted.”
Surrounding Har Amasa are vineyards that belong to the Yatir Winery, whose wines have received international acclaim. Land that belongs to Har Amasa is also being used for Gush Katif evacuees, and Har Amasa residents are also trying to acquire additional land to be used for agricultural development. The community faces many challenges, though. “We would love for entrepreneurs to move to our community – people who are interested in opening small businesses here,” Eyal Brandeis says. He points to an old Dan bus that one of the residents is planning on turning into a café. “You can’t really live here if you don’t own a car. Families that move to Har Amasa need to realize that the nearest city – Arad – is a 20-minute drive from here. So we’d really love to have small businesses here that would employ other residents.”
The newest residents of Har Amasa are visionaries, but they are not immune to the slew of problems involved in the community from the early days when it was a member of the United Kibbutz Movement. In 2009, the government decided to dissolve the kibbutz, which for years had been “a kibbutz in formation,” and turn it into a communal village; its finances are still being controlled by an official liquidator. As a result, there are a number of legal decisions and accusations among residents which still have not be resolved.
Because the community is so small and isolated, any small disagreement can snowball and involve all of the families in a huge brawl. If the trees surrounding the community could speak, they would probably shake their branches high in the air as they described the conflicts and quarrels. Some families have left as a result, and Har Amasa has had a hard time trying to find new ones to take their place – and sometimes hopes have been shattered.
“There are lots of different kinds of people living here,” Nitzan says. “This makes it much more interesting, but sometimes life gets very complicated as a result. We would be able to get things done a lot quicker if we could all agree on issues.” Maybe now that new families will be moving into the community, it will be a more peaceful place.
“Har Amasa needed more people, it was yearning for new bodies,” says Dede Luski, one of the more veteran residents. “It’s been tough. Some of the residents left as a result of the social problems. But when the community comes together, it can be very powerful and exciting.”
“Har Amasa residents are once again becoming optimistic,” Omer says. “We were told a little bit about the fractious history of the community, so before we made our final decision to move here, we called dozens of people and tried to understand where the community was headed. I even spoke with Uri Seligman, the registrar of Cooperative Societies, who knows the inside story. I asked him if he would even tell his son to come live here, and he said yes without hesitating.
He said he would warmly recommend doing so. This helped us make up our minds.”
In an effort to make all the residents feel welcome and part of the community, Har Amasa residents decided to hire a community manager.
Brandeis, who lives in Sapir, comes to Har Amasa twice a week to try to connect the residents, come up with and carry out new ventures, and try to create a close-knit community.
“Every frontier community, especially a small one, needs to actively organize interaction between residents – otherwise it will not survive,” says Brandeis. “The families who come here to settle down are looking for this type of interaction.
“But they still have a lot of work to do; they still haven’t set the physical borders of the community, and they still haven’t decided what exact form and structure they want their community to be. The very fact that they’re living here means they are interested in mutual interaction. Being involved in their neighbors’ lives and the disagreements that arise as a result are all part of this renewal and creation.”
And while we’re standing outside talking about the various issues that Har Amasa residents are currently facing, a group of dogs zips past us; they seem as happy as could be to be living in the wide-open space after growing up in the city. Nitzan smiles as she watches them go by, and says, “For example, we haven’t reached a conclusion yet regarding dogs. Do we keep them on leashes or do we let them run around freely?” Since the community is still in its infancy, many questions have yet to be answered. Even the question of whether Har Amasa should be considered a Zionist enterprise has received conflicting responses. It’s not clear whether the new residents thought about this question before deciding to make this desert community their home.
“I think this is about the most Zionist move that I could have ever made,” says Devora. “Not only did I make aliya from France, but I live in a frontier settlement.
If this isn’t Zionism, then I don’t know what is.”
“I also have European citizenship,” Liel says. “When I was recently hiking in the Swiss Alps, all of a sudden I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing out there in the middle of the desert?’ But I live here because I feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself.”
Nitzan adds, “Our grandparents built this country with their own two hands.
And now we’ve found a place that we can finally call home, and we feel like we’re the new pioneers of our generation.
This makes us feel very happy.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.