Sderot Redux (Part 4)

On trips of this kind, it’s almost always we, the AACI-ers, who board the bus and head off to where the people we are going to meet happen to be. Except in the evening after dinner, when our featured speakers come to where we are staying to delight us with their well-chosen words. With one slight wrinkle. I mentioned that on this trip we had two busloads of folks, and we were staying at different hotels. Our group had to get back on the bus to go the few minutes to the Harlington Hotel, more of a ‘business hotel,’ which has conference rooms that could accommodate all 80+ of us. Each night we heard a different speaker, each from a very different background, but who wound up doing very similar things, under the radar that the media use to decide who is important and who is not. Neither of them had much to say about themselves and a lot of about what they were doing. (Maybe that’s why they remain under the radar.)

First up to bat was Ibrahim Nsasra. He was accompanied by Ravit Greenberg, who happens to be the daughter of two of the people in our group. She explained that she is a small town girl, from Schenectady (that’s New York State, if you don’t know). She figured that she wouldn’t be able to accomplish much in the Big City (as in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv), so when she made aliyah she headed for the Negev, where she is now the Executive Director of the Tamar Center. Her main function at our program was providing aid and comfort (as in help with English) for the main speaker.

You wouldn’t have given Ibrahim Nsasra much of chance of being a Somebody. He was the twenty-something child of a Bedouin man who had more than thirty children with three wives. (So much for monogamy in The Land.) Ibrahim did have a college education, but he didn’t dwell on how he became a successful entrepreneur. Somehow, he gained access to the Right People (which is the main way people get things done here). He was able to convince these Right People to allow him to provide proper transportation for Bedouin school children, who otherwise might have to walk half an hour or more each way to school or to get a bus to then take them to school. He started out with two of his brothers and three vehicles. Now he employs 200 people and has 150 buses.

When his bus service proved a success, Nsasra focused his attention on providing meals for the same student population. His company now provides 15,000 hot meals every day, employing 100 people, most of them Bedouin women. In 2015, he was able to launch his biggest venture, the Tamar Center, to dramatically improve the educational opportunities for the Bedouin community in the Negev by focusing on the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Although he is fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, he realized that if he wanted to enlarge the scope of his operations (including all the entrepreneurial ventures he’s involved in), he would need to speak English. At the age of 35, he started learning our mother tongue. Three years later, he is able, with a little help from his friends, to give a presentation to an English-speaking crowd. I think we were all impressed.

And then there’s Alon Futterman (or ‘Alon from Ashkelon’ as he described himself), who spoke to us the next night. You watch him in action or listen to him speak for one minute, and you KNOW he’s going to succeed in whatever he starts out to do. He was raised in an English-speaking environment, so communicating with us was not a problem.

It was no secret to anyone involved in education here in The Land that there has been a critical shortage of qualified teachers in many specialized subjects, especially in the periphery. One of the subjects is English.

Enter our man from Ashkeon. He went to the Ministry of Education with an idea. Let’s recruit young, qualified, motivated teachers of English from abroad (read: USA); get them to come here, all expenses paid, for a month during the summer vacation to teach English; and offer this program to parents in under-served parts of the country. The volunteers from abroad would co-teach with Israeli teachers. Besides the feeling of a job well done, they would gain valuable experience and something significant to put on their résumés back in their own hometown. The Ministry was interested and, together with some American foundations with big bucks, created TALMA with Futterman as National Director. The initial program was a success, encouraging Futterman to go one step further. How about getting volunteers to stay for a semester? How about a year? How about getting local Jewish Federations involved, encouraging the volunteer teachers to participate in Federation programs back home? That’s how entrepreneurs operate, always thinking ahead, planning the next step. The icing on the cake is that, to date, five of the teachers from The States have made aliyah.

Speaking of planning the next step, we got a good example of doing just that at Kibbutz Nir Am, the next and final day of our trip. Let me paraphrase how Jaimie Salter, our guide, described what we were going to see: There were, and are, many kibbutzim in Israel, the majority of them devoutly secular, with no need for a beit knesset. They did, however, have a need for a chader ochel, which served not only as a dining hall for communal meals (everyone ate together in those days) but as a social hall where the kibbutzniks would gather to discuss, argue, and pontificate (everyone met to discuss, argue, and pontificate in those days). Over time, almost all of the kibbutzim privatized. Families ate their meals in the privacy of their homes, and there would be professionals administering the kibbutz affairs (no need for all those long, drawn-out meetings of the members); so, with the exception of those that turned their chader ochel into a restaurant or a catering hall, there was no need for a large communal dining room. Kibbutz Nir Am was just such a place. What to do?

Zarta Studio to the rescue! Their idea was very simple. Turn the white elephant chader ochel into a hub, creating workplaces for start-ups and small high-tech companies. Avital, from Zarta, joined us to explain what they had done. You might think that a kibbutz a mile from the Gaza border would not be a location of choice for entrepreneurial types to do their day’s work, but, as I’ve tried to make clear, the area is alive and doing reasonably well. One of our group asked Avital why the place seemed deserted. It’s too early, we were told. These high-tech folks don’t keep standard Israeli hours because most of their clientele is either in Europe or The States. Sure enough, people began trickling in as the morning wore on. One kibbutz member, who lived a few minutes away, showed up, not to work, but to talk to us. He had his own take on things. The Iron Dome was intercepting enemy rockets right over their heads, making, as you can imagine, a bit of noise. The kibbutzniks might go deaf but at least they were safe. (I was astonished to find out that there is no safe room in this building. As always, go figure.)

However, our speaker had something else on his mind. One of his neighbors was a young woman who recently had a stroke while giving birth to a preemie baby. There were expenses not covered in our health system, and the folks around were frantically trying to raise the funds to cover her care, using the usual social media. It was one of those deals where you need to raise a certain amount by x date. A number of us reached into our pockets and started pulling out shekel notes of various denominations. Oh no, we were told. We have an on-line campaign. We will give Jaimie the information, and he can send it to you tomorrow (Fri.). Nooooooooo. You’re trying to raise what’s required by Sun., but you don’t want us to give you cold cash today? How does that work? The fellow did ultimately see the light of reason and took our money. I hope his neighbor is doing better.

One more stop and then we would be done. We kept passing by Kibbutz Yad Mordechai every day of our trip, and it was only right and proper that we paid them a visit. I recognized the name: their label is on a lot of olive oil and honey sold in our part of the world. But that’s not why we were there. Part of the kibbutz was a 1948 battlefield, in which the kibbutzniks slowed the advance of the Egyptian army, who otherwise would have advanced all the way up to Tel Aviv – and you can imagine the rest.

Scene of the battle, with ‘Egyptian troops’ below and our bunkers above

The kibbutz was named after Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the many heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto, and there is a statue of him – next to the kibbutz water tower that was destroyed in the battle.

Mordechai Anielewicz  ‘defending’ the water tower

Our kibbutz guide, Inbal, took us to the battlefield, and we walked through the bunkers, where the defenders – with their scant ammunition – held off the Egyptians. In case we had trouble envisioning what transpired, latter-day kibbutzniks put up mock-ups of the Egyptian troops advancing in the fields below. There we were, in December 2019, a mile or two from a troublesome border, looking over the scene of a battle for national survival in 1948, in a place named for a hero who fought in far-off Warsaw in 1943. Do you detect a pattern here?

We were heading back to Jerusalem with a stop in Ashdod for a few of the AACI-ers to board a train heading north and the rest of us to have lunch. Once again Jeff Rothenberg proved himself a master of precision timing. The sky looked gloomy as we got off the bus, and as we headed towards a Café Greg, it looked nastier and nastier. We got inside in time to watch all of the restaurant staff frantically making mad dashes outside to bring everything inside that was not nailed down: cushions, napkins, table settings, menus. And then the skies opened up. By the time we were finished eating and ready to reboard the bus….. all gone! I can’t imagine how Jeff times it so well.

One postscript: our friend Abby Leichman reminded me that she had written an article a while back about the urban kibbutz phenomenon in The Land, one of which is the one we visited in Sderot. You can find her article here.

I will take a short break to catch my breath, and then my beloved wife and I will be boarding our virtual helicopter to rejoin our other set of AACI-ers about to dock in Venice. Until then……..


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