Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

10 Tony Awards and an Amazing Hasidic Tale

Hearing that the Broadway show The Band’s Visit won ten Tony Awards connected New York where I was born and educated to Yeroham in the Negev desert mountains that became my home forty years ago. Yeroham was the setting for the original 2007 Israeli film that was reshaped for Broadway. A 2004 Israeli film Turn Left at the End of the World highlights the difficulties of Moroccan and Indian Jews in their new life in Yeroham in 1968.

“Welcome to Nowhere…” is the headline of the website of the Broadways show. “Spend an evening in the company of unforgettable strangers at the award-winning musical, THE BAND’S VISIT. It rejoices in the way music brings us to life, brings us to laughter, brings us to tears, and ultimately, brings us together.”

Today, our son Ron and his wife tell everyone about the quality of life they enjoy with their six children and a grandson in the charming town of Yeroham that he has made his home for four decades. Ron is a rabbi (Yeshivat Merkaz Harav in Jerusalem) and scientist (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) who teaches about the interrelationships between Torah and science. His wife Miri is a social worker in the town.

How my wife Miriam and our New York born sons came to Yeroham where our fourth child Moshe was born is a Hasidic tale of miraculous proportions.

I was a professor of art and education at Columbia University living with Miriam and our 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.

We felt that to successfully create a new life in Israel we could not compare it to our life in the America that we loved.   I asked Elad Peled, a doctoral student at Columbia who was a general in the Israeli army and director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Education and Culture, “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.”

Miriam and I discussed the wild idea of moving to Yeroham where life 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 significantly change our way of life, we sought the guidance and advice of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The Rebbe thought for a while looking deeply into my eyes and Miriam’s. He told us that it was a halutzic (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.

We sold our house and moved to Yeroham sight unseen. Our new Moroccan neighbors welcomed us warmly. They said in Hebrew, “Moroccayi, Americayi, kemat oto davar” (Moroccan, American, almost the same thing).

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 incredulously welcomed me. “From New York?” 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 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 ten weeks.

Photo of the Negev above by my grandson, Or Alexenberg, a professional photographer who lives in Yeroham with his wife Daniela and their son Oz Yehuda.

About the Author
Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer, and blogger working at the interface between art, technology, Jewish thought, and living the Zionist miracle in Israel. He is the author of "Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media," "The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness," and "Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art" in Hebrew. He was professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife artist Miriam Benjamin.
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