April 10, 2012 


As Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzamut, and Yom Yerushalayim all just recently passed, I reflect upon a recent Pesach excursion withJewish National Fund. Just as during Pesach we celebrated freedom so too as the smell of bbq –and freedom—has permeated the entire city ofJerusalemover the course of the past several weeks. From the celebration of statehood and returning home to the celebration of L’ag B’Omer to the return of the complete eternal capital of the Jewish people the Pesach excursion south with JNF includes bondage, freedom, hope, and love.

On the Road

From the wheels’ first revolutions Shahar Hermelin peppers his commentary with jokes about Israeli culture and attitude but insists that the JNF goal of 250-500K permanent new residents of the Negevby 2020 is ambitious and possible. Shahar explains: “We began Blueprint Negev 7 years ago and we intend for it to succeed.”

Shahar, as Director of Tourist Operations for JNF, leads a surprisingly full bus out ofJerusalemon Highway 1. Several minutes later we pass the only 911 memorial outside the United States—commemorated in November 2009—that honors every person lost and even includes a piece of the World Trade Center.

As Shahar narrates the sights, the history, the surroundings and our charted course his demeanor exudes love for his specific role and theJewish National Fund’s critical role in planting trees and forestation over the past century. Shahar encourages questions and his voice and honesty reveal a palpable adoration of the land.

Jewish National Fund

While established in 1901—and initially focused on the gigantic task of planting trees across all of Israel—todayJewish National Fundhas been refocusing and rebranding itself as the premier non-government entity assuming responsibility for planning, assessing, and building Israeli infrastructure including: reservoirs, drilling, and desalinization, and site preservation critical to our present, our future, and our legacy.

Over the past 111 years JNF has planted nearly ¼ billion trees inIsrael. Breeds include: Cedars fromLebanon, Pines,Cypresswhich are native to the region, and Eucalyptus imported fromAustraliafor draining swamps.

I ask Shahar where the trees are bred and nurtured, whether abroad or inIsraeland he shares that there are nurseries all overIsraelincluding the nature preserve at Neot Kedumim, not far from Modiin.

As we pass a featured stop on another JNF tour Shahar highlights the Ayalon Institute where from 1945-1948 the workers made more than 2.5 million bullets “without which we likely would not be here today”.

As we wind past citrus groves of bright flaming oranges, mustard and almost-fluorescent sunflowers I chat with Yehuda Arenstein, a recent 30-something single transplant from “several NY neighborhoods: Brooklyn,Queens, NYC”. Yehuda heard about JNF Tours in 2010, and just got back toIsraelfrom a brief hiatus to complete a PhD dissertation on Religious and Political Thought in Early America. Yehuda, currently studying Hebrew at Ulpan Etzion, shares: “I wanted to see Sderot by an experienced and guided tour to better understand what is really going on here versus seeing from a car window or walking around the city without a proper context.”

We pass the community of Neve Shalom where Muslims and Jews have together designed and built a unique community of co-existence and camaraderie. Minutes later we are passing Bab Elwad/Shaar Hagai where during the siege of Jerusalem in 1948 Jewish forces encountered  brutal fighting and sustained heavy losses as the Arabs held fortified positions—reinforced with guns, rocks, and British military tacticians—on the heights. The Jewish forces eventually broke the siege to allow food, water, supplies, and medical necessities through to a devastated population inJerusalem. Shahar’s grandfather was a driver of one of the crude lightly-armored vehicles during this battle.

Old Nitzanim

We first visit Nitzanim where we learn a meaning of ‘Women of Valor’. Here in 1948 women were urged to leave the yishuv with their children in a night operation called Operation Safe Babies during which the Jews evacuated to a nearby farm, Be’er Tuvia. The clandestine night escape involved trekking several kilometers away, by foot, with hostile murderous Arabs swarming every hill in the vicinity. Via miracles, intuition, bravery, and daring leadership the evacuees made the journey safely. Yet, many women chose to stay and fight: determined to have a hand in ensuring a better tomorrow for their children and their community.

(A gate with an artist’s depiction commemorating Operation Safe Babies.)

The evacuation was precipitated when on May 29 a kibbutz worker on lookout spotted columns of Egyptian tanks and armored vehicles traveling fromEgyptnorth towards Tel Aviv. The worker counted 1200 total vehicles! With only 140 fighters and 114 weapons (and lacking any true military support or reinforcements) the kibbutz was eventually surrounded by Egyptians but surrender attempts failed when the Egyptians killed the Jews offering surrender with sniper fire. In total 33 were killed and 105 taken prisoners of war.

Old Nitzanim now serves as a heritage site for women of all battles and honorable deaths in the IDF. We are provided with a brief history by a young and anxious Israeli guide and we sit for a brief video: a salute to the endurance, persistence, and commitment to survival of IDF women. The video illustrates the wrenching decisions of those women in 1948 in separating from their children. We learn the story of Mira Ben-Ari, one of these women, shot in cold-blood during a surrender attempt and for whom a memorial stands on site.

Old Nitzanim has a place in history as aiding in clandestine immigration when the ship Shoshana landed 700 immigrants on a cold, windy night in January 1947. Residents came to aid the newcomers—some only days or weeks from Holocaust Europe, without families, friends, food, and with only the shirts on their backs. The people followed a rope hand-over-hand that had been laid from shore to the rusty ship. Kibbutz members quickly activated to divide and hide the people between their homes and residents. Each person was taught simply to answer, in Hebrew, to any British authorities, soldiers, or courts: “I am a Jew. I am from Eretz Yisrael!”  The British discovered the operation and detained 400 Jews who were promptly boarded on buses toHaifaand shipped toCyprusdetention camps, like cattle. They were released only in 1948 when the British were finally expelled fromIsrael.

When the residents returned due to the heavy damage sustained in the fight for independence the kibbutz was devastated. The founders and residents decided to reestablish the kibbutz—from scratch—2 km south, where it remains today.

The community of Nitzan is literally meters beside us, formed in August 2005 when families from Gush Katif were expelled from their homes with no planning or housing for thousands. Today, roughly 450 families remain in caravans.


On the way to Sderot we pass Yad Mordechai the first community destroyed by the Egyptian army on the way to Nitzanim in 1948. The town is named for Mordechai Ilanovitch, the leader of the Warsaw Uprising.

We see Sderot from the inside. Literally. We enter the 20,000 square footJNFIndoorRecreationCenter: also called the “The Blue Box” (in reference to the iconic JNF fundraising boxes). Shahar tells us proudly of the extent to which JNF extended beyond its normal process and beyond the requirements by the government and the IDF: doubling the thickness of the concrete and steel for the protected rooms residents seek for shelter when missiles are incoming. Residents have 15 seconds from the time the sirens blast.

(Child at the Sderot Indoor Playground. The wall climbing app on the iPhone is amazing!)

(No caption necessary.)

The project began the end of July/early August 2008 and was finished by March 2009 and dedicated with a Purim party and parade: the first in Sderot in a decade! The space includes: foosball, boxing bags, ping pong, a climbing wall, video games, computers—for games and homework (many residents do not have one at home), air hockey, air castles, an abundance of dolls, stuffed animals, and toys. In the complex are refurbished offices that serve as therapy and counseling spaces for children, but the most important aspect of the space is the laughter and excitement of children and the soothed souls of their parents.

(JNF’s role in the Sderot playground was as one person put it: “massive”.)

The lifecycle development and supervision of the space was conducted by JNF who also secured the lease via direct contact and negotiation with the owner of the defunct factory. The process was very much a new and unchartered territory for JNF but pursued with zealousness considering the special and extreme circumstances.  The project required $5.5 million of support and maintenance costs continue to be a costly expense.

Sderot is still considered a development town with roughly 25K people, 5k of whom are under 18. Sderot is less than a mile from Gazaand has endured thousands of missile and mortar attacks since 2001. Sderot was founded in 1951 largely by Kurdish and Persian Jews living in tents and shacks. Today, the influx of Moroccans (in the 50’s and 60’s), Romanians and Kurds, and former residents of the USSR, allow Sderot to boast a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural community of strength and resilience—represented by more than 25 different nationalities.

(Entertainment value: differences matter not. The will to score does! GOALLLLLLLLL!!)

As I meander through the playground jotting notes and taking photos, and noticing abundant staff, I find conversation with Ellen and Gary Rosenberg of West Hempstead, Long Island only minutes from my own hometown. The Rosenbergsare visiting their son Andrew studying at Yeshiva HaKotel for the Pesach break. Their daughter Stacie, currently enrolled at QueensCollegeand son Matthew, recently Bar Mitzvahed are gaining an insight into an Israelthey don’t often hear about. When I ask Ellen how the family found their way to this tiyul (tour) in particular she relates: “We are Zionistic and wanted a tour with Zionistic values and program. My father is also a contributor to JNF so now we can see up close the work being done from his support.”

(Lots of people: all sizes, types and kinds, all ages, all having fun on Chol Moed Pesach!)

(Ready, set, g-………………..heyyyyyyyyyy!!)

(A young teenager from Sderot hits the bags. Bareknuckle!)

Yet while Sderot’s residents remain “hanging tough” it has not been without serious trial and challenge:

*In March 2008 the Sderot population reportedly suffers remarkable decline: families leave the city in desperation, apparently to the tune of somewhere between 10%-25%. Many families that remained could not afford to move out or were unable to sell their homes.

*In March 2010 the municipality is nearly bankrupt and residents who leave to rent elsewhere cannot continue mortgage payments on their Sderot homes.

Yet, in a town where more than 120 bus stops double as a protective shelter the endurance is palpable and prolific:

*Sderot boasts 9K students of some of the best schools in the country includingSapirAcademicCollegewith one of the best cinematography curricula in the nation and the Hesder Yeshiva of Sderot

*The ratio of singers, instrumentalists, composers, and poets with roots in Sderot compares favorably to Liverpoolin the sixties. Notable artists of various genre include: the Teapacks, Knesiyat Hasekhel, Sfatayim, Shlomo BarKobi OzHaim Ulliel, Smadar Levi, Hagit Yaso, Shimon Adaf, and Maor Cohen.

At lunch I sit with Lisette David who lived here until 18 at a place called Kiryat Matalon, named for the donor who helped build the town, located between Petach Ttikvah and Bnei Brak. She is on the tour with her husband Jack, a structural engineer, and notably a great-grandson of the Ben Ish Chai. She speaks proudly of her son who has lived in Ramat Bet Shemesh for the past 5 years, ordained as a Rabbi and father to four children. Mrs. David joined the tour because her daughter Sharon works for JNF in NY on rebranding and marketing. SaysSharon: “The main idea behind this new campaign and initiative is: ‘We aren’t just trees anymore.’”

Shahar shares that aside from the needs for safety for the people in Sderot nothing like this play space is available in the entire region! For a comparable space residents would need to travel between an hour to an hour and a half.  Shahar tells of Sderot resident, Stav Amar: when he was 13 he told JNF staff upon the dedication of the indoor playground: “All the time my friends outside Sderot used to only feel sorry for me. This is the first time in my life my friends from outside here envy me. ”

The people of Sderot say this space has changed their lives. Previously, summer camps had to be inJerusalemor other towns and birthday parties, bar and bat mitzvahs were always under threat of interruption. With the safety of the space—backed by generators—now near home, parent and child alike are relieved, thankful, and proud.

But the people of Sderot also insisted that admission be charged for entrance to the playground. They were not seeking charity and wanted to contribute to their own space, their own well-being, and the maintenance of a space that has granted them even a little (piece) peace of mind. The entrance fee is 10-15nis per person but no person or family is turned away if they cannot afford such. The space is open to all. Just as Sderot bears the brunt of attacks for the entire country so to the residents bear the responsibility for the entire community.


When we visit Ofakim we are honored to be greeted by several of the bravest men in the country: the firefighters, Avi Arush, Lior Yosef, and Dudi Michaeli.

Here, with never enough resources of human power they are responsible for a 100 square km. area.  Avi, clearly the “commander” of this unit, explains: “When I visited NY to share and learn about fighting fires we see that for 8 million residents there are 11,000 fighters and for a much smaller geographic radius. They have 3 trucks and 15 fighters sometimes for a basic fire. Here we are lucky if there are more than 2 of us for each fire. For 8 million people inIsraelwe have 700 fighters and about 100 non-fighter support personnel who are mostly volunteers. Before the latest JNF purchases in the past 5 years we were fighting fires in cotton uniforms and with trucks and equipment from 1967 and later updated in 1975.”

We learn that JNF has long supported the fire crews and departments and recently purchased 25 thermal cameras to peer into buildings to detect human life and location. The water planes that do strafing runs of large quantities of water, usually for forest fires, are flown and maintained by the air force, but the fire departments remain in authority of their use and strategic and operational direction. There are currently 7 for the entire country.

The costs are tremendous:

*A large truck that holds and pumps 750 gallons of water costs $450K not outfitted

*A smaller truck (the size of a large pickup truck) holds and pumps 250 gallons of water and costs $150K not outfitted

*Outfitting each truck can cost upwards of $300K

(One of the larger well-outfitted fire trucks sponsored by the JNF and honoring the Simches.)

(Shahar explaining to a tour participant, Sharon, about the fire station equipment and needs.)

Shahar explains the scope of devastation of theCarmelfire in 2010: “This was the first fire inIsraelwhere we lost firefighters and in total 44 people were lost. 12,000 acres and 5.6 million trees were incinerated in 72 hours. Last year an additional 1 million trees were burned from smaller fires.”

The cost of negligence is much greater.

(from right to left: Avi Arush, Lior Yosef, and Dudi Michaeli)


On the way further south I speak with Shira Rozgovich who made aliyah in 2008, was married in 2009 and returned toChicagoin 2011. Her husband, Liad, is a pastry chef at a 5 star hotel and Shira plans and directs events for Mideast Center of Excellence for JNF. Such events include:  fundraisers, breakfasts, parties, golf outings, celebrity functions, and holiday events. Shira and Liad had the opportunity to come toIsraelfor Pesach and join the tour to see “on-the-ground” what JNF does and how the events lead to direct contributions to areas of need. She loves the work she does for JNF and became interested, and as a result sought employment with JNF, because her brothers Seth and Asher in NY are involved in JNFuture, the Young Leadership division of JNF.

We head south and west from 34 to 25 to 241 to 232. We pass within dozens of meters a barbed fence behind which is rubble and ghostly remnants standing like scarecrows in the barren sand drifts of what was Atzmona. Desecrated.

The name Halutza is mentioned in Midrashic sources, though not in specific as to its function, but was apparently founded for Nabatean traders traveling theSpice RoutebetweenPetraandGaza. Halutza means ‘pioneer’ in Hebrew.

The creation of Halutza was approved by Knesset in the Summer of 2001 despite vehement protest from Knesset members including MK Yossi Sarid (Meretz) who suggested the people seeking to build were more in love with business than the land of the Negev and MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) who saw the communities as another impetus to the ‘peace process’.

At present there are approximately 100 families in each community, Naveh and Bnei Netzarim and 30 families are soon to arrive in Shlomit with each family on average with eight children. Actual building began immediately after the expulsion from Gush Katif in 2005. JNF helped clear land for housing and farming, purchased temporary pre-fabricated homes, installed basic infrastructure, paved roads, assisted in establishing social and educational structure, constructed public buildings, and created needed green spaces. In total there are 6 communities planned for the area of Halutza.

But the question remains: Why the Negev?

The Negev is 62% of the land of currentIsraelbut only 9% of the population live here and only 5 % of the Jewish population. JNF is leading the charge to develop the sustainable infrastructure and economic reform and support needed to encourage individuals and families to move to the desert. This is JNF’s Blueprint Negev campaign.

Halutza includes many former residents of Gush Katif but as well Israelis from all over the country, with the aim of laying the groundwork for the area to serve as a modern, well-planned population center.

Halutza presently operates successful agriculture that incorporates environmentally-friendly methods including recycled water for irrigation and organic farming techniques. The last crops varied from potatoes to sweet potato to carrots and peppers.

After the visit, as I research Halutza and farming I find that Jordache (yes, the jeans and clothing company from my younger days!) has a diversified portfolio and actually produces oil from olive groves in the area! See for yourself: http://www.jordachecorporate.com/2012/agriculture_main.shtml

We meet Arik Yaakov who works in the recycling industry in Be’er Sheva and who arrived here several years ago with a determination and spirit to contribute, to make a difference, to help build a new community, and to provide the best environment and atmosphere for his children. Arik candidly explains with a smile: “Bnei Netzarim, Halutza, and other communities are still small and remote. I personally feel and I have seen that the more remote the community the more connected and close the community and the better the education.”

Arik explains that at the moment there is encouragement and enthusiasm for people who are seeking to move to Bnei Netzarim, who are eager to be involved with the community and, in specific, with farming. “Many people are arriving seeking a change of career from being a lawyer or accountant or something else. We are seeking commitment.” Arik elaborates that if a person has, or can raise or borrow, 70KNIS this helps the current farmers and yishuv to see that there is a serious commitment and foundation with which to eventually lease or purchase land and needed materials, resources, and equipment. In the meantime, the community members will mentor, lease a space of land, and provide tools and resources for the new farmer until they have succeeded in learning the trade sufficiently. The people are first and foremost interested in seeing the community grow. The money the yishuv receives from various projects, leases, and investments is appropriated by committee: reinvestment, a dividend to residents, building of playgrounds, schools, or infrastructure.

Arik tells us the farming down here is called “suitcase farming”. It is very technical and precise, but a person can start themselves with the correct training, mentoring, and community on a small scale. While 1kg of yellow or sunshine tomato seeds can cost $100K farmers then sell the seeds from their crop to seed banks for a serious profit. All farming at Bnei Netzarim currently remains private. This system protects the larger interests of the yishuv financially from a bad year or bad crop.

(Two of Arik’s beautiful children in the sands of Halutza.)

Amazingly entire olive groves were replanted from Gush Katif joining Sifrei Torah and the families once again working to turn the desert green. Currently there is a waiting list for families seeking to join the Bnei Netzarim. As with most things Israeli the list is growing as the town waits on the government to approve the needed extensions and infrastructure.

(The chayalim protecting the yishuv and ensuring security on the border with Egypt.)

There are currently three elementary schools, none of which are co-ed. The yishuv remains in serious need of completing the new synagogue, additional basic infrastructure, additional schools (for current and anticipated growth), and an already planned and state-of-the-art 3000 square meter medical center. The closest hospital is a 1 hour drive and the nearest medical attention is a 1/2 hour drive.

(The playground at Bnei Netzarim. Just the first, just the start.)

On the ride out from Halutza I engage with Yedidya and Shira Harush who were recently married. Yedidya was born in Gush Katif, Atzmona in 1988, the 3rd of 7 children to his father a Lt. Col. in the IDF and his mother a schoolteacher. He tells of a not easy or simple life, but far from boring. He recalls daily attacks, many funerals, and some really rough times.  The expulsion from his home and community, August 13, 2005 was his 17th birthday. He knew then that he was leaving behind countless memories, unfulfilled dreams, his childhood, knowing he could never go back. He stares off when speaking about seeing the tractors arrive to demolish his neighborhood. His words resonate like stories of WWII Nazi Europe.

But Yedidya tenses and braces himself. He explains: People from Gush Katif had to choose: be angry and disengage from the country or be angry and continue to build, live, thrive. Many of us stopped voting and stopped engaging the government and others said: ‘We are mad, we are angry, but what is next? What is our next mission?’”.

After the expulsion Yedidya secured a high school basketball scholarship in Edison, NJand played successfully enough to earn a college scholarship but he knew his calling was to return to Israeland to enlist with the army. He tells me point blank and seriously: “We can hire people to do all sorts of work for us: caretakers, farmers, cleaners, but defense is our own responsibility.” Yedidya joined the paratroopers, earned the rank of Commander Sergeant, and received an honorable discharge.

I speak with Yedidya about the contrast of living near water versus living in sand. He tells me: “It’s different. At times it’s difficult, but we remember this is not just about us. It is about our nation. The focus is b’gadol (the big picture). It was hard 60 years ago. Then also it was not about comfort but about the children and those that would follow.”

Yedidyah continues: “Many think that the people moving here are crazy but Tel Aviv also started like this, with a vision and hard work! It’s all a miracle.”

Shahar calls to our attention as we pass one of the best etrogim orchard in the nation. “Experts said you cannot grow etrogim here. They said it could not be done.”

Yet the dream is being built. Right here.

This and alternative Southern Excursions are available via JNF-sponsored day tours of Israel every Wednesday. Cost:  200nis, includes a sit down lunch. 

Questions? Call 02-50-25-007 or email shermelin@jnf.org for more info or visit www.jnf.org