On Location: The deep south

Arad is suffering from empty-nest syndrome. Will a new generation replace those that flew the coop?

arad tourism 88 224 (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
arad tourism 88 224
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
An eye-catching structure greets visitors coming into Arad: a stack of a dozen or so sizable boulders piled one on top of the other, 10 meters high. The rocks appear to be just balancing there, but in fact, it's a crafted sculpture, a work of art. Intentionally or not, the rock spire serves as a metaphor for the town itself. Finding and sustaining an ethnic and lifestyle balance in this very diverse Negev community of 27,000 amounts to nothing short of a work of art. Arad came into being in 1962 as the country's most meticulously planned city. Located on a hill 25 km. west of the Dead Sea, all aspects of its future were considered, mapped and designed. With an allocated area of 9,000 dunams (2,250 acres) - second only to Jerusalem - not a spade of earth was turned before a detailed urban grid was in place: people living in one area, industry in another, with sites designated for education, shopping, recreation and access. Everything its planned 55,000 residents would need. It wasn't just mapping, either. A team of urban and social planners set out to hand-pick 160 young families to establish the town, a group a city brochure refers to as "socially suitable." As a "development town," businesses and industries would be eligible for favorable tax treatment and other subsidies. As for the first residents, all were either Israeli-born or veteran immigrants, young pioneers who had not only the special skills a new community would need, but economic stability as well. As a final touch, the government planners who designed Arad were also required to live here. Today in Arad, the population balance has changed considerably. There's now a high percentage of immigrants from the former Soviet Union - many of them new - as well as Ethiopians, South Americans, French and other immigrant groups. Although few Beduin live here, thousands live on the outskirts, making Arad a far more diverse community than the planners anticipated. Religiously, too, Arad has grown. Today, Arad boasts a respected hesder yeshiva, and is also a stronghold of both Chabad and Gur Hassidim - the town's Ashkenazi rabbi is Chabad. Then, too, Arad has a growing Christian presence, requiring an even greater balancing act. Tensions run high when Jewish residents encounter overt Christian proselytizing, and recently, public demonstrations against the Christian organizations made the news. That said, the physical plan laid out by the government planners appears to have been a remarkable success. The streets are wide and clean, pedestrians walk or bike on shady sidewalks, and trees, flowers, benches and artwork abound. The successful industrial area remains nicely segregated from the residential areas, and most everyone seems satisfied with easy access to shopping, schools and recreation. The industrial zone turned into the kind of powerhouse you'd never expect to find in a Negev town this remote. Several major factories operate here, including Arad Textiles, where 600 employees churn out an incredible 5.7 million high-quality towels a month, supplying hospitals and hotels across America, including Las Vegas, where half the hotel rooms use towels made in Arad. Then there's the Rummikub factory, which produces not only the Israeli-invented game in 26 languages, but many others as well. Then there's the host of Dead Sea cosmetics firms which supply the world with the finest creams and lotions made of Dead Sea minerals. There's Motorola, AMS, Rotem, a fertilizer factory - the list goes on and on. THOUGH ONLY 45 years old, the town has much older roots. In the book of Numbers, a Canaanite king is mentioned, "the king of Arad, who dwelled in the South." Tel Arad, a 5,000 year old Canaanite village, lies just a few kilometers away, with its paved streets, shrines and a palace still evident. Two thousand years later, King Hezekiah of Judah built a fortress here. Fast forwarding to 1921, Rahel Yanait Ben-Zvi - wife of Israel's second president - headed a group of the Jewish Brigade in an attempt to settle the area, but lack of water doomed the effort. Not until 1960, when the government took over, was the effort successful. When the first families finally arrived in 1962, they shared a common dream: to build a thriving economic community while preserving the quality of life. Did they succeed? Yes, says Tzion Shasha, founder and manager of the Shasha Real Estate Agency. "Arad has assets you won't find anywhere else in Israel," he says, noting that he himself chose Arad, having grown up in Ramat Hasharon. "The best thing about Arad? Probably our schools, the quality of education here. It's a great place for kids. If you're looking for big wide-open views, clean air, a safe place, with welcoming people, then Arad is the place to come." Financially, Arad has appeal as well. "Lots of people work right here - in the industrial zone, or in Dead Sea tourism. Others commute to Beersheba, or to Omer for hi-tech, or locally as teachers or in small businesses. Housing is cheap. A two bedroom, older apartment, would run about $40,000. For something newer, between $60,000 and $65,000. Three bedrooms? Between $45,000 and $78,000, depending on age and condition. The most expensive house in Arad? About $600,000 - but that home is very unusual. A normal, expensive home, in great condition, might cost $200,000 or a little more - that's less than it would cost you to build it, today." "Arad is great for real estate agents, too," Shasha adds, smiling. "Arad has seven real estate agencies - very high for a town this size. Compare it to Dimona - with 33,000 people, Dimona has only one." The ethnic mix is another special feature of life in Arad, Shasha says. "Arad doesn't have ethnic enclaves like other cities. We have Moroccans, Ethiopians, South Americans, Russians, all living together, in the same apartment buildings, in the same neighborhoods. There's a big rumor that the Beduin are moving in, buying homes in Arad, but that's not true. A few may have tried, but it didn't work. Many come here to shop, bank and do other business, but the notion of a Beduin invasion is pure myth. Journalists love to come to Arad and take these lovely pictures - there's an Ethiopian, a Russian, a Beduin, all living together. It's a great photo, but it's not true." The huge Russian immigration is a fact, Shasha says. "In 1989, we brought 100 families here from Russia, mostly engineers. They found good jobs, a place to live, and then they brought their friends. They're good immigrants, strong people. "The problems you might see in Arad have to do with our lack of vision. Our kids get a great education here, then they go to the army, but they don't come back." AMIR NITZANI, 31, grew up in Arad, and now with his university degree lives elsewhere. "I had a wonderful childhood in Arad. My mother was a teacher; my father worked at Rotem, a fertilizer factory. There were 20 of us kids who were together all the time, playing, being together. It was safe, we had free run, life was great. But when we grew up, Arad got boring." Nitzani went to the army, then studied at the Technion. He married, and now he and his wife live in Haifa. "My parents are divorced," Nitzani says. "My mother and sisters live in Beersheba, so no one goes to Arad. My friends all moved on, they're scattered all over the country. "Arad has changed in the last two decades - when I grew up, it was like a kibbutz. I knew everyone. Now? You have all kinds of new immigrants, a weaker population, lots of crime. I didn't even consider moving back to Arad." Nitzani grew up and left but Yitzhak Borodosky didn't - in fact, none of the four Borodosky brothers did. All four still work in the nursery business their father began 22 years ago. "My family is longtime Israeli," Borodosky says. "My grandmother was born here, and my father, Yosef, was born here in 1929. He and my mother started this business, growing the plants in their backyard. Two years later, they moved it to this site. We've been here 20 years, and now have a Dead Sea store, too." Borodosky's Nursery is almost beyond description. Lush green plants and trees arch high overhead, filtering the sunlight, while below, the ground is covered with plants and flowers, divided only by winding footpaths. A Middle Eastern canopy covers a seating area, with wicker chairs and rockers, right next to a stand of free drinks. Fountains bubble, koi swim, flowers bloom and it's so inviting that many locals come here every day, just to relax amid the greenery. At lunchtime, workers in nearby businesses come to eat their lunches. But Borodosky's also offers a multiroomed gift shop, a playground and a petting zoo. "I practically live here," says Hana Levi Julian, one of Arad's newer residents. "I come in the morning, drink coffee, wander among the plants, listen to the water and talk with other people who came to do the same thing. I love the plants, but this is the only place in the country where you can buy towels by the kilo! I always end up buying something." Geese honk, chickens cluck, rabbits and cats do their thing, while two donkeys beg for treats. "We had six sheep, too," Borodosky says, "but we think the Beduin stole them. One of our customers was so sad he brought us these donkeys instead. The Beduin will leave donkeys alone." For the Borodosky brothers, leaving Arad was never a consideration. "My father had a difficult life," Borodosky recalls. "He was abandoned several times, grew up in an orphanage but overcame it all. As an adult, he met brothers he never knew existed. But his whole life, he loved plants and animals, so he started this nursery. Before he passed away, he said, 'Now I'm turning it over to you,' saying he hoped all four of us would stay together. We will." The Borodosky Nursery is just a short distance from another family-owned enterprise, the Mushroom Farm. Growing mushrooms is an indoor operation, one mostly accomplished in the dark. Here, microscopic mushroom spores - imported from France - are seeded unto massive trays of compost, each tray measuring about 12 x 3 meters. Stacked one on top of the other, six high, the structures nearly reach the factory ceiling. The pickers who selectively harvest the biggest mushrooms work from tall platforms. In a sunny workroom, others pack the day's harvest into cartons, which are contracted to wholesalers for resale to grocery chains. When they started the business in 1980, the Alinsky family had no experience growing mushrooms or anything else. "All we knew was that we wanted a business that would benefit the community as well as ourselves," Mikela Alinsky says. "Mushrooms caught our eye - there's something magic about mushrooms, isn't there? They're so mysterious, growing in the dark. Israel didn't have many mushroom growers back then, so we began. Today lots of companies grow mushrooms, most of them up North, in Galilee - which is one of our problems. We're the smallest grower in the country, but now the government is helping the bigger farms up North, because they're in a war zone. Here in Arad, we're really struggling. The government doesn't do anything to help the Negev." Alinsky's complaint is virtually universal: Every prime minister, from David Ben-Gurion on, has pledged to develop the Negev, but whenever it comes to actually allocating resources, very little trickles down South, residents say. "Our needs are ignored." ODDLY ENOUGH, the government did get involved with Arad last August, when Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit unceremoniously removed Mayor Motti Brill from office. No allegations of corruption were made, but the town's numerous financial problems, plus the failure to pass a city budget for eight months, was cited. In October, Brill's arch political rival, Gideon Bar-On, was appointed mayor, a move especially galling to Brill. The dispute between the two remains bitter, but even Brill's supporters acknowledge the former mayor could have used a crash course in common courtesy, not to mention practical politics. If politics is the art of getting things done, Brill had no place in the political arena. One of many sore spots was the Egged bus contract. A bitter battle between Egged and Brill ended with Egged pulling out, and the Metropoline bus line coming in. Under Metropoline, ticket prices have dropped, but so has service, residents say, with fewer buses traveling popular routes. Still, the mayor fiasco doesn't play much of a role in daily life. "We're still getting gas and electricity, and the roof hasn't fallen in," says Jeffrey Moskowitz, an Arad resident since 1982. Since 1999, Moskowitz has served as registrar for the venerable institution of WUJS, the World Union of Jewish Students, facility. "WUJS has a lot of connections with the municipality, but most of it is ceremonial. Our real community connection is with the people of Arad, so it doesn't matter too much who the mayor is. Or isn't. "Everyone knows WUJS. Fly into Israel, hop in a taxi, say, 'WUJS' to the driver, and he'll drive you right here," Moskowitz says. "When my wife and I came to Arad in 1982, there was a sizable Anglo community here, a wonderful community. Now, very few Anglos live here. Young people don't stay - we're typical, I guess. My wife and I have three kids, and none of them live in Arad. "The huge influx of Russian immigrants in the 1990s changed things. Before, there'd been a good mix of ethnic groups, Anglos, South Americans, Sephardim, but then the Russians began to dominate. Now unemployment is up to 10%, and crime has become a problem, with burglary and even assault. It's not big-city crime, but in Arad, the quality of life has changed." Arad still lacks a hospital, although it does have a well-stocked emergency room, says Dr. Bennett Brest, who arrived here in 1977 from the Bahamas. "Emergencies are treated here, then transported to Soroka [in Beersheba] if they need it." The one thing the Brests miss most in Arad is a movie theater. "We loved the cinema," Ruth Brest says. "There have been movie theaters, but they all closed. There's very little entertainment here, and none of it in English." The Brests are moving to a senior residence in Beersheba, but the Julian family - Hana, Sinai and four of their seven children - made aliya in 2003 and came to Arad, after first spending their first weeks living in a Beduin village. "It was our Beduin friend, Younis Abu Hamad, who suggested Arad to us," Hana Julian says from the family's comfortable home, which overlooks a breathtakingly beautiful wadi. "There's a special quality to the life in Arad - it's quiet and safe, the air is wonderful - every day at 4 p.m., like clockwork, a fresh breeze blows in. In winter, the wadi is covered with flowers, hundreds of varieties. The schools are good, Arad is less expensive than most places in Israel, and Arad doesn't have a single traffic light. We care about each other here - drivers stop for dogs and cats! This is exactly the kind of place I want to live."