I was a professor of art and education at Columbia University living with my wife and children in a house backing on a bird sanctuary in Teaneck, two blocks away from a synagogue, and a short drive across the George Washington Bridge to the art center of the world. Although my life seemed like the American dream fulfilled, my wife and I dreamed the Jewish dream of making our life in Israel.
For an American Jew, however, aliyah (ascent) can seem like yeridah (descent). Tel Aviv is a city like New York, but far less. Tel Aviv University where I had taught isn’t Columbia. I talked about this dilemma with the former director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Education who was a doctoral student at Columbia at the time. I asked him, “You know where I live and work. What place in Israel is the opposite?”
“Yeroham!” he responded. “It is an out-of-the-way town in the Negev desert mountains, isolated from Israel’s academic and artistic life, and burdened with deep social and economic problems.”
My wife Miriam and I discussed the wild idea of moving to Yeroham as a way of not feeling yerida. Living there would be so radically different from our life in Teaneck and Manhattan that there would be no basis for comparison.
Before making such a major decision to so greatly change our way of life, we sought the guidance and advice of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory. The Rebbe listened to me explain my theory that making such a drastic change would give us a feeling of living in an extremely different world rather than a lesser one.
The Rebbe thought for a while looking deeply into my eyes and Miriam’s. He told us that it was a “chalutzic,” pioneering, idea if I used my educational background, creative abilities, and academic connections for the benefit of the people living in Yeroham.
The Rebbe explained that in the United States there is the concept of a college town. The University of Florida, for example, has thousands more students than the entire population of Gainesville where it is situated. He said, “Build a college in Yeroham. It would transform the image of Yeroham as a town that people longed to leave to a place where people from across Israel and abroad would come to live and learn.” With a twinkle in his eyes and endearing smile, he gave his blessing for our success in Yeroham.
In the summer of 1977, we sold our house in Teaneck and moved to Yeroham sight unseen. Our new neighbors in this dusty underdeveloped desert town, mostly Jews from North Africa, welcomed us warmly. Landing there felt like going back decades in time, to the days when the state was established.
Exploring our new town, Miriam and I came across a building in the final stages of construction isolated on a hill in the desert on the southern edge of Yeroham. Looking through the widows, we saw classrooms and offices – obviously a school building. When we asked townspeople what function this building was to serve, they all responded with a shrug of their shoulders. No one had a clue.
The next day, I went to the local municipality building and introduced myself to the mayor as a new citizen of Yeroham from New York. He welcomed me. I asked him about the school building. He placed his hand on his forehead, and responded “Oh, that building. It’s a mistake. We were ordered by the Ministry of Education to build a school for children with special needs and funds for its construction were deposited in the municipality’s account. I phoned them to explain that we had no need for such a school. I told them that we provided transportation for the five special needs children in Yeroham to go to a school for special needs children in nearby Dimona. The Ministry of Education demanded that we build the building that was authorized by their committee on special education.”
Mayor Moshe Peretz continued, “Now that the building is nearing completion, they discovered their error. It seems that a Ministry clerk who had never been to the Negev and didn’t know one town from another wrote on the order to build a special education school in Yeroham instead of Netivot. Although it was their mistake, they are extremely angry at us for building a building for which we have no use. They accused us of moving to Yeroham from Chem.”
“Give me the building,” I said. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe advised me to create a college in Yeroham. It will be the first building of the college campus.”
The mayor excitedly phoned the town engineer. “Come quickly with the keys. There’s a Jew here who wants the building!” The engineer ran into the mayor’s office, threw the keys on his desk shouting, “Take the keys. Take them! The building is yours.”
Mayor Peretz then asked me to do him a favor. He explained that the Jewish Agency had matched up Yeroham with the Jewish community of Montreal as part of Project Renewal. Since he spoke no English, he asked me to be the interpreter for the first delegation of Canadians that would visit Yeroham in later in the week. I gladly agreed.
The Canadians were surprised to find an American living in Yeroham. When they asked me what I was doing here, I told them I came to open a college as a way to develop this depressed town. I explained that although I had a building, I had no funding. They thought that creating a college there was a great idea. Incredibly, they immediately offered to cover the college’s startup costs.
I now had a building and financing, too. But how do I open a college without accreditation and professors?
I sought the advice of Dr. Tuvia Bar Ilan who was in charge of the branch campuses of Bar Ilan University. “I always wanted to write the Uforatzta verse from the Torah on the catalog of the university’s branches,” Bar Ilan responded, referring to the verse in Genesis ‘And you will burst forth westward, eastward, northward and southward (negba).’ We have branches in Ashkelon in the west, Safed in the north, and on the shores of Lake Kineret in the east. We’re missing a negba branch. The college that the Rebbe advised you to open in Yeroham will be Bar Ilan University’s branch in the heart of the Negev.”
I was offered a professorship at Bar Ilan University. Half of my job would be teaching two courses and advising doctoral students at the university’s main campus in Ramat Gan one day a week. The other half of my job was to head the new Ramat Hanegev College in Yeroham. Bar Ilan offered to send lecturers by taxi to teach in Yeroham.
After the Simchat Torah holiday when studies begin in all Israeli universities, Ramat Hanegev College opened its doors with 400 students from Yeroham, Dimona, Mitzpeh Ramon, and kibbutzim in the Negev and Arava. We also opened a work-study program for students from United States and Canada that combined academic studies with social service projects in Yeroham.
Ten years of work was condensed into 10 weeks.