Since we’ve been living in The Land, we’ve become accustomed to seeing the cranes just about every day. No, not as in The Cranes Are Flying or as in the migratory birds that come and go our way every spring and fall. I mean the large pieces of machinery needed to erect high-rise buildings. The ones you see in Jerusalem. The ones you see in Tel Aviv. The ones we kept seeing in Ashkelon as our tour bus left the city in the morning and came back in the late afternoon. What I didn’t expect to see (and I suspect I wasn’t alone in that) was the evidence of their presence in Sderot, that battered community. But, sure enough, as we entered from the south, there, for all to see, were a row of high-rise buildings, clearly constructed in the last few years, right smack-dab in the line of fire of the missiles from Gaza. I think we all had the same questions, directed at all and sundry of the locals we met on our trip. What are you doing? Why are you here? Isn’t it kind of dangerous in these parts?
The first person we had this conversation with was Noa, a woman who had grown up on a religious moshav somewhere up north, but who had chosen a different way of life. She and her family were now part of an urban kibbutz in Sderot. Wait a minute, you are asking, an ‘urban kibbutz.’ Isn’t that somewhat of an oxymoron? I guess not. A while back, twenty families persuaded the Sderot mayor to let them build houses on one particular street. They had a communal bank account, pooling their resources and each family purchasing what they needed. Sounds to me like a kibbutz mentally. Today, six of the families still maintain this arrangement. Everyone else and any newcomers (like Noa) are Privatized. They still have one communal building where everyone can get together, and that’s where we gathered to hear Noa’s presentation.
Our group had left the tour bus and walked midway down the street ‘belonging’ to the kibbutz. Had we continued down to the end of the block, we would have come to a building that was a residence for several people with, shall we say, emotional issues. But they weren’t just ‘there.’ The subject of Noa’s presentation was the integration of these folks into the community: inviting them into the kibbutz members’ homes for festive occasions, making them feel welcome the rest of the days – especially by the children (in Israel, there are always children). Equally as important, the kibbutz has found a way – using its powers of persuasion – to find employment for lots of people like the ones down the block, oftentimes side-by-side with workers from the general population. In order to make this arrangement work, there has to be a social worker (there is always a social worker). Standing nearby was Zohar, who had functioned in that capacity and was now moving on in her career.
We, of course, had our own set of questions about life in Sderot (see above). For starters, let me point out that we would discover many points on which all the people we spoke to – regardless of their political leanings – agreed. 1) the current situation on the ground was untenable; 2) the response by the government was inadequate, leaving the local residents to their own devices; 3) no one could pinpoint what the government ought to be doing; 4) the situation has changed since 2014, with the advent of the Iron Dome; 5) no one was planning on leaving. In fact, the population in Sderot was growing (day by day it seemed, because each person we spoke to gave an ever-increasing version of the town’s population!).
Noa was quick to say that 5% of the time life there was a living hell. However, 95% of the time, it was a wonderful place to be. The town is well-run, and that’s a big selling point when it comes to deciding where to live in The Land. Her teen-age kids seem reasonably well-adjusted. The new train line connecting Sderot with Tel Aviv has made a big difference, making them a lot less isolated. In short, she is happy with her life – most of the time.
There was one matter that none of us AACI-ers could wrap our heads around. When this urban kibbutz was established, the founding members, in what they thought was their wisdom, decided that it would exist for one generation – that’s all. If their kids wanted to be urban kibbutzniks, they would have to start anew somewhere else. Most of us have figured out over the years that success usually means being able to pass on what you’re doing to another generation, and so forth. Otherwise, what’s the point? Noa, who wasn’t part of the original decision, did not feel obliged to defend her neighbors’ decision. It wasn’t something she would have thought of on her own. Nor would any of us.
We kept discussing this matter amongst ourselves as we returned to our bus and headed down the road apiece. If you’re going to start your day at an urban kibbutz, then you might as well go next to an agricultural moshav, like Talmei Yosef, and visit Shvil Salat, or, in our mother tongue, the Salad Trail. Sort of like a petting zoo for vegetables. What Uri Alon (despite his name, he’s originally from Germany) has created, in what is considered the Northern Negev, is a place to demonstrate for all and sundry innovative agricultural techniques developed in Israel. You can walk around and dig carrots of many colors out of the ground, wash them off, and pop them in your mouth.
Whatever is growing in the greenhouses you can eat right off the vine because they haven’t been sprayed with all the nasty stuff some people use. Not only could we; we did, as Chava (originally from San Diego) took us around. Lots of tomatoes, all sizes and shapes – even one kind with minimal juice, perfect for sandwiches.
What’s that growing all the way at the end? Little orange peppers labeled as the hottest in the world. Who do I know ‘dumb enough’ to want them? BRIAN!!!! I picked four of these innocent looking guys and stuffed them in a pocket and joined the rest of the gang for a homing pigeon demonstration.
It’s not clear to me why they have these birds, but they do, and it’s part of the package. Uri explained that homing pigeons have a way of knowing where they’re from and will fly back there if they’re taken elsewhere. Who wants to hold one? Are you surprised if I said Barbara? On the signal, all of the ‘lucky’ pigeon holders let their birds loose, and the birds all flew back to their coops together.
Time for lunch. It had to be better than yesterday’s, when we were let loose in one of the less-tony parts of Ashkelon. Barbara and I had wound up dining at Cofix as the least bad choice we had. (If you are not familiar with the chain’s cuisine, rest assured you don’t need to know.) And yes, it was – our lunch, that is. We were served a delicious vegetarian lentil stew. (Those who wanted could have a piece of chicken added to their plates.) Well worth the 75 NIS we were charged.
So why was Uri there? Why was Chava there, all the way from San Diego? Maybe, despite the intermittent rocket attacks from across the fence in Gaza, they’ve seen an opportunity for growth when most of us wouldn’t. Which is why they are there, and we are here (wherever ‘here’ is).
Sometimes an ‘opportunity’ is created while making the proverbial lemonade. Take, for example, Halutza. It was begun by hardy souls, who decided to reinvent themselves on sand dunes not-so-far from the homes they were expelled from in Gaza. And as an example of self-reinvention, could one do better than speak with Gilad? He had started out as a secular Israeli, trained as a marine biologist, and here he was, a representative of a religious community, growing hydroponic lettuce. (His are not just for show; his greens are sold throughout Israel!)
The communities of Halutza are growing. People like Gilad are moving there, building communities, leading their lives, raising their children. It’s considered the fastest growing region in all The Land. Go figure, as someone once said.
To be continued. But you knew that.