Rocking Beersheba

Two new initiatives - one in business, the other in art – are making the most of the city’s potential.

Beersheba Art Experience 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Beersheba Art Experience)
Beersheba Art Experience 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Beersheba Art Experience)
New business owner Hannah Rendell grins, holding up an evaluation form submitted by a recent client, a teenager, who had recently toured Beersheba with Rendell’s Beersheba Art Experience group. “Beersheba rocks!” the teenager had written. “It’s true,” Rendell laughs. “Beersheba does rock! It’s just that I’m not used to hearing someone else put those two words together.”
She’d better get used to it. In recent months, at least a dozen interesting and innovative new businesses have opened in Beersheba, many of them started by creative young people who saw something the city needed and decided to fill the gap themselves.
Rendell, who’s a painter and sculptor and also the mother of two children born just 19 months apart, made aliya from England in 2008 and has been part of the local art scene virtually since the day she arrived. Her newest venture, The Beersheba Art Experience, evolved from her first business, The Art Room, an educational art studio in Beersheba’s Old City.
Debbie Iancu Hadad is another experienced but new business owner. Her newest venture, the Beersheba Business Club, offers shared workspaces for freelancers, business owners and entrepreneurs of all kinds. Hadad, also the mother of two, was born in Beersheba but spent the years between the ages of 10 months and eight with her parents in their native England, before they all returned to Beersheba in 1981. The Beersheba Business Club grew out of Debbie and her husband Yuval’s need for workshop space to host their parallel businesses, Debbie in Laugh Yoga and chocolate making and Yuval in many different kinds of cookery including Italian pasta and pastries.
“ Yu v a l and I have been together since I was 20,” Hadad notes.
“We’ve both had independent businesses for several years. I started my first business as a lecturer in 2006, when I was a PhD student looking for an occupation that would fit in with my studies. My thesis dealt with using humor as a communication tool, a psychological coping device and just for everyday fun, so I started offering lectures to groups and businesses on the effective use of humor. Then I learned Laugh Yoga, which treats laughter not only as a health benefit, but something that creates a peaceful and happier state of mind.”
As Hadad’s Laugh Yoga sessions caught on, she wanted to expand her business.
“I wanted to add something else, something a little different, so I started giving chocolate workshops, another topic that was fun. Then Yuval, who’s also a teacher and pastry chef, decided to give a course and was looking for a specialty. I suggested chocolate – so his business expanded and mine did too. Last Hanukka we taught chocolate- making techniques to groups of 200 people each. We also make all kinds of Italian foods, including pasta from scratch. When our son was just four years old, he was working the pasta machine! But the downside of all that expansion was that our house was completely taken over by our businesses. Chocolate making, especially, requires a lot of equipment. I set out to find an outside place to rent so we could get the businesses out of the house.”
Finding outside space wasn’t easy.
“We had a problem common to most family-owned businesses: moving the business out of the house is a huge step. It’s a big expenditure of money, a huge investment, so you have to be more committed than you were before. Your business changes, too – your clients have to adjust.
Before, we went to the clients. Now we needed to redefine the relationship so that they’d come to us. Moving a family business out of the house is a big deal, no matter what.”
Hadad also discovered a gaping hole in the business fabric of Beersheba.
“Many organizations and municipal agencies offer help to new businesses.
There’s a myriad of courses in how to open your own business and become your own boss. The problem is, after two years, a business is no longer eligible for this help. So once your business has been around for two years, you’re on your own – and coincidentally, a two-year-old business is at its most vulnerable.
“When you’re still employed somewhere, or have just left your job, you always have the option of quitting and going back. But after two years of owning your own business, you’re stuck. You’ve invested your own time and money, you’ve lost contact with what you did before, and you don’t have anything else. Besides, your business is growing and it’s time to put real money into it. You’re also starting to actually make a little money, and now everyone is coming around, wanting a little piece of your pie.
There are taxes, issues relating to employees, insurance, the need to advertise, all kinds of increased operating expenses. But now you’re out on a limb with no help available.”
Two years into a business is a scary time, Hadad says.
“Lots of businesses fail at that point, especially those owned by women.
Why? Because women are more reluctant to take that big step, moving away from a home-based business.
Women take much more time studying and learning than men – men are more likely to just roll the dice and go.
Women need much more confidence in themselves before they take that next step.”
In looking for space to move their businesses out of the house, Hadad wasn’t stymied so much by the lack of space as she was by the absence of the right space.
“In Beersheba, there are lots of places for new businesses, but all of them had two downsides. One is that most are set aside for start-ups in their first two years. I didn’t qualify. Some were available only for students, and I wasn’t that, either. Then again, some were too office-y. Yuval and I needed space for workshops, Laugh Yoga and cookery. We didn’t need a desk and chairs. We needed a warm and friendly atmosphere, different from a regular business. But the final problem was, for most spaces, we’d have to rent it by the month – not for just a few days a week, certainly not for just a few evening hours.”
Hadad started with the idea of creating a shared workspace just for women entrepreneurs.
“Lots of women were excited by the idea; combining work with friendship and sharing not just costs, but also contacts and business savvy. When people work in the same place they tend to support each other. There’s always a cross-fertilization of ideas and clients. You network. Everyone who comes in the door for any of the businesses learns about all the others.
When you need advice or services of some kind, someone in the group most likely knows exactly the right person to go to.”
However, the women-only idea fell by the wayside.
“Many of the women who had been enthusiastic decided they didn’t have the money and backed out. So Yuval and I took it on by ourselves. Since we already had a male owner, it didn’t seem right to restrict the clients – and besides, now our financial exposure was much greater. We wanted to welcome anyone who was interested.”
Today the Beersheba Business Club occupies a light, bright, color-filled two-story garden home in the Old City. The first level offers several open spaces for big workshops or classes, plus a kitchen that offers coffee, tea and cold drinks. The nicely landscaped garden out back welcomes smaller meetings or informal gettogethers.
On the second level are four workspaces, three of which are available.
“My office is mine alone,” Hadad says, “but three others plus an open space can be rented. One is furnished like a conference room, appropriate for therapists or counselors, with three comfortable chairs in a very quiet and extremely private setting. Another is furnished as a soft workshop area, mats on the floor, pillows – it’s very shanti [informal],” Hadad laughs.
“People have fun in this room. A third space is a real office, a combination boardroom or classroom with tables and chairs. Wireless Internet is available throughout, and we also offer tools – lectures, business coaching, workshops on how to develop your business. We rent space by the day – NIS 25 a day, plus taxes. Various businesses have taken different amounts of time – two days a month, four days, 10, or a whole month. For shorterterm rentals, more than one business will use a room. But that’s what makes it affordable.”
The concept of shared workspace is becoming popular all over the world, Hadad says.
“It’s quite common abroad – it’s just that this is the first time it’s happening in Beersheba, so people don’t know how it works. But I’ve been an independent businesswoman for seven years now, and for me, working here has been a huge improvement. There’s always someone around to share ideas, to talk with over coffee, to ask for advice – how to handle a difficult client, where to buy business cards, whatever. It’s a very pleasant space and a friendly atmosphere.
Just a nice place to come.”
FOR HANNAH Rendell and her Art Experience business, the entire city of Beersheba serves as her workspace, although much of her tourism-based business focuses on the Old City.
“I’m committed to Beersheba and the Negev,” Rendell says. “What was troubling me is that despite Beersheba’s rich history in both ancient and modern times, it was usually ignored by tour groups coming to Israel. But through the Beersheba Art Experience, we’re able to offer customdesigned interactive workshops to expose visitors to Israeli art and history.
Many of our programs take place in the building and courtyard of the city’s old mosque. It’s the perfect place for tourists to explore Israeli art, history, and culture.”
Like Hadad’s Business Club, the Beersheba Art Experience evolved from another business.
“The first business I started after making aliya was the Art Room,” Rendell recalls. “It’s a studio in the Old City where I teach art, all kinds of art. When I started that, I thought I’d be teaching Israeli kids English through art, but that didn’t work.
Most of my students were either English-speaking students at Ben- Gurion University of the Negev, or they were tourists or spouses of people who were working here. I was getting different people every week, so I couldn’t do projects. I realized that many people came because they didn’t have anything else to do. Englishspeaking tourists really needed something interesting and unique to do in Beersheba. That’s where the idea came from.”
In forming the Art Room, Rendell had inadvertently laid the groundwork for her new business.
“When I first came, I spent a year going around, meeting with everyone in the city who’d talk to me. ‘I’m thinking of starting a business,’ I’d say. ‘Could I meet with you and ask you what you think?’ It was fascinating; if nothing else, it showed me the difference between Israel and England: in England, no one would agree to that, to sit and talk with a nobody. But here? Everyone agreed.
No one in Beersheba wanted to miss an opportunity to meet with someone who just might have something to offer. By the time I created the Art Experience, I already had an amazing treasure in terms of contacts and resources.”
Rendell began by working with established organizations that regularly bring tourists to Israel, Taglit Birthright, Young Judaea and others.
“Some of them have tourists in Israel for only 10 days, so I’d get them for an hour. Others offer a whole-year program, so I have much more time. For the Young Judaea group that was just here, they came to Beersheba overnight. I organized private accommodations, and did three or four workshops and several programs with them. Their evaluations were wonderful – ‘Beersheba is so cool!’ ‘Beersheba rocks!’ We did many things: we had a photography session, starting with teaching them to use their cameras, then we took a walking tour through the Old City and they took photographs. It put them in the mood to look at things in a certain way. Windows were popular – Beersheba has so many incredible windows!... We went to Yudit Meyer’s ceramics studio, which is one of the most incredible places in the Old City. Her studio is in an Ottoman building with an enchanting garden....
Yudit did a presentation, a real highlight for the kids. Most of them were art students, planning on a career in art, so for them to meet a real Israeli desert artist – one who gathers her clay and glazes herself, right from the Negev – was a big treat.... They were all impressed with how beautifully Beersheba keeps the past alive in a very modern city.”
The Art Experience offers many different programs and workshops.
“In addition to photography and ceramics, we have a printing workshop where small teams are given objects and images of a particular culture that’s influenced Israeli art. They design a symbol or motif for that culture, something they can print and take home on paper or a tote bag. In an improvisation workshop, we give them a few basic props, costumes and pieces of cloth, and then show them a painting. We ask them to act out what happened in the few minutes right before the action in the painting. We video their performance and talk about it afterwards. We have an Artist’s Trail workshop, a sculpture workshop, a drawing workshop and many more.
“For groups who will be with us for a little more time, we take them to the Negev Museum, the Artist’s House and many other local places that feature Beersheba and the Negev’s unique art.
The object is always to tie art to the history of Beersheba. We want to put them into this Biblical city and show them what a big role Beersheba plays right now in Israel. As a separate matter entirely, it’s also important to bring them to a city where they could actually afford to live, if they made aliya.”
When the Young Judaea kids came, they were housed overnight with a dozen of Beersheba’s Anglo families.
“We had 24 kids staying in 12 different locations, with hosts who were just as happy to welcome them as were the kids to be there. Since the time of Abraham, Beersheba has been famous for its hospitality, and it really showed. We won’t be able to go back to the Anglo community for hospitality every time, of course. I’m hoping for day-long stays, but not necessarily overnight. So much depends on the amount of time the groups have, in addition to their budget.”
Rendell’s first big season begins soon.
“We’ve got several organizations lined up who are sending tour groups here this summer. We didn’t get started in time for last summer’s tour season, but we did have some last September. Our first big year starts in May. It was fun talking to the last tour guide, who was an Israeli from Tel Aviv. She’d attended BGU years ago, she said, but hadn’t really been back.
When she was here before, she said, she’d never paid any attention to the Old City, and had thought of Beersheba as being at the end of the world. That’s a common impression.
It’s not, of course. It’s just that for many years, Beersheba had a bad [image], something that’s disappearing fast. When we get kids here – 25 at a time – who go home talking about how Beersheba rocks, then we’re obviously showing Beersheba in a very different light.”
As a side note, before the Metro interviews, Hannah Rendell and Debbie Hadad had never met. Now they have, and the two are already planning events they could do together.
“We could do a culinary tour of Dalet,” Hadad suggests, referring to the exotic neighborhood around BGU.
“All those interesting little eateries around there? Most people don’t know about them.”
“Or we could take tours to some of the great places to eat in the Old City,” Rendell chimes in. “Some of them have a lot of history behind them.”
What they needed, they agreed, was for someone to take this new idea and make it work.
Stay tuned – after all, Beersheba rocks!
For more information on the Beersheba Art Experience,

For the Beersheba Business Club, see