Idealistic Newcomers Reshape Desert Town

By Jo-Ann Mort

Published July 29, 2005, issue of July 29, 2005.
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LETTER FROM SDEROT

SDEROT, Israel — On August 15, Deputy Mayor Shai Ben-Yaish will report for reserve duty in Gaza, just five miles away from his desert township of 28,000. “It’s a little surreal,” he exclaimed in a recent interview at his office in the Sderot’s municipal building, during a brief cease-fire and reprieve from the Qassam rocket barrages that have plagued the town. “Here in Sderot, being attacked by Qassams, I am responsible for youth and children, and on the exact date when we are preparing for the new school year, I have to go help with the disengagement,” mused Ben-Yaish.

Ben-Yaish is a former community organizer, born in Sderot 36 years ago, who gave up traveling in Chile to “follow my heart back to Sderot.” He set up a volunteer organization, Ha’Gedud Ha’Ivri (“The Jewish Legion” — named for a World War I-era British army unit), and began painting the exteriors of all the local schools in bright colors. On a whim, he ran as an independent candidate in the 2003 municipal elections, and he ended up with more than 15% of the vote.

Sderot, best known around the world as a target of relentless attacks by Qassams, the crudely effective Palestinian rockets, is a town that desperately needs native sons like Ben-Yaish. The town was created by government planners in 1955, and its first inhabitants were 10,000 Moroccan immigrants brought here by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Many of the first settlers’ children now form the core of a successful, second-generation middle class. The population grew again in the early 1990s, when thousands of new immigrants from the Caucasus region — the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia — were settled here. Today, there are few professional opportunities and many of the town’s young people continue to leave after high school and army service.

But Sderot has become a magnet for another sort of newcomer. Two different groups of young idealists have settled here in the last two decades, and both aim to remake themselves by remaking this desert town. Their progress is being watched closely around the country by social reformers who view their success as a test of Israel’s increasingly strained social fabric.

One group, originally made up of kibbutz youth, came here 18 years ago to establish an urban collective called Migvan, or “Diversity.” Part of their goal was to right what they considered a previous kibbutz-movement wrong — the tendency of Israel’s mostly-Ashkenazic kibbutzniks to live as closed, self-contained communities, cut off from the working-class, mostly-Sephardic development towns nearby. Migvan is now an urban kibbutz with some 60 members — mostly families. Many of their children attend the ailing public schools of Sderot. Sderot residents who can afford it usually send their children to the high-achieving school at nearby Kibbutz Yad Mordechai or to the preparatory school run by Sapir College. Migvan members could afford to educate their kids at the better schools, but they try not to, one member said, because they’re committed to improving the city’s education system.

Migvan runs a nonprofit social-service agency called G’vanim, regarded as one of the Negev’s model community organizations. With 200 employees, it is Sderot’s largest social-service employer; half of the employees come from the non-kibbutz population. The agency runs a variety of programs upon which the municipality depends, including a summer camp, nursery school and programs for the physically and mentally disabled. Moreover, said Nitai Schreiber, G’vanim’s director, the agency has “developed 30 people as community leaders trained in professional social services with a long term commitment to the town, including students in their 20s from the Caucasus.”

These kibbutzniks also work jointly with another group of idealists who have chosen to make Sderot their home: Reut Afikim Banegev (Bringing Water to the Desert), a group of 30-something year-old graduates of Bnei Akiva, the Orthodox Zionist youth movement. They moved to Sderot about a decade ago, some 80 families strong. The two groups disagree strongly on settlements and peace, but their differences barely affect their work in Sderot. “We work together,” said Atara Orenbuch, a Reut member. “We came to Sderot for the same goal.”

Orenbuch, a computer science teacher in the town’s religious high school, spoke to the Forward amid stacks of used garments in the Reut-operated, used clothing store. The clothes are donated by some townspeople and bought by others for an average of 50 cents per item. The group also runs a restaurant and food pantry, which charges 50 cents per meal. The object is to make clients — they feed about 200 people regularly — feel they are not receiving charity.

Reut also operates a women’s support group for the town’s large number of single women, mostly from the Caucasus, especially active during the Qassam attacks.

Orenbuch said she and her fellow Reut members identify closely with the beleaguered settlers in nearby Gaza — “We came from the same type of education as Gush Katif settlers and we feel part of them,” she said — but by moving to a development town, they deliberately chose a different path.

“We want to be part of society,” she said. “We teach our children that they should do something for others, not just for themselves. Settlements are important, but for over 10 years, more and more religious Zionists have been going to cities and development towns.”

Indeed, despite her right-wing views on security, Orenbuch has come to share some of the left-wing attitudes of the kibbutzniks — partly a result of living in one of Israel’s poorest towns. Singling out the free-market policies of Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she said the “country decreased welfare but didn’t give jobs. We want people to support themselves, but you can’t just let kids grow without hot meals.”

“My job is to take kids from homes where parents didn’t finish high school and help them finish college,” she said. “I’ve seen my students graduate from Sapir College. That’s my goal. We hope that if the city gets better, people will want to stay here.”

For all her idealism, Orenbuch said, “it’s not easy in Sderot.” About a year ago, her son came home using “terrible words he never heard in our house.” She called her rabbi, “who said we shouldn’t get scared. That made us feel better. It’s important for our children to see different people, but only to a certain extent. We want to become one society — not that we should become the same, but live together.”

Still, she said, “the differences are very big.” Some, like kosher food and Sabbath restrictions, are obvious, but Orenbuch sees them as part of a deeper rift. “It could be that Gush Katif is just a symptom,” she said. “There are very different ways of seeing things. Some Israelis want to be part of Europe, versus Israel being a Jewish country. But I really believe that living together, we can make a difference because they see me as a person, not through the media.”






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