I don’t know what you’re doing at five o’clock in the morning, but I do know what 20 Bedouin women in the town of Hura in the Negev are doing. They are preparing 8,000 school lunches for a catering business known as Al Sanabel. Their efforts, which have transformed these women into proud breadwinners for their families, are part of an Arab-Jewish organization known as AJEEC-NISPED and its partnership with the municipality of Hura.
So what does this have to do with my day job? Well, I teach at GLOCAL, a graduate program in international development at Hebrew University. Our students, who come to us locally and also from countries such as Nepal, Rwanda, Mexico and Greece, are interested in how to build and strengthen communities. In class discussions, AJEEC- NISPED is often our go-to case study for a nonprofit operating within Israel in this field. Exploring their work helps us to answer questions such as: What does community development look like in Israel? Which types of social businesses exist in the Bedouin community? How do shared society Arab Jewish organizations operate?
AJEEC-NISPED’s partnership in the catering business, its ‘Women Weaving a Dream’ project that fosters economic independence (which recently has been adapted for Syrian refugee women in Montreal) and its training program for female photographers and disc jockeys to work in the women-only section at Bedouin weddings are just a few examples of efforts to advance the status of women in the Negev. The organization is also widely known for the creation of social enterprises, which range from educational tourism to agriculture cooperatives. Developed as a research case study at the University of Oxford , the catering initiative has been studied in developing countries around the world. Moreover, AJEEC-NISPED has a unique leadership model with an Arab and a Jewish co-director- a management structure that is used by a select number of organizations promoting shared society in Israel.
Each year, our GLOCAL students trek down to the Negev for a study tour. And when we get there, we have plenty to see. The first stop is straight to Hura to catch the morning bustle at the kitchens. After hearing all the details about how this collaborative social business is creating revenue to re-invest back into the community, we are then treated to a catered lunch. It quickly becomes clear why this school lunch program has been so successful, with its freshly made salads and use of Bedouin spices. Unlike the frozen meals that were originally shipped by contractors from Beer Sheva, these meals appeal to the appetites of the local Bedouin schoolchildren in the region.
The conversations during the day jump from social business models to community empowerment. And there is always particular interest in the question of how Bedouin women are able to maintain community traditions in the midst of so much change. It is a learning process to see how local nonprofits navigate these challenges – creatively finding ways to earn income for women while also encouraging the preservation of cultural traditions and artistic heritage. Our case studies and visits each year also include the work of NGOs such as KIEDF’s microfinance projects, and trailblazing women’s organizations such as Sidreh- Lakia, Bedouin Women for Themselves, and the Association for the Improvement of Women’s Status, Lakiya.
Our last stop on the tour this time is to a fitness center, El-Hudaj in the city of Rahat. It is Israel’s only fitness center that is specifically designed for Bedouin women, and is another example of a social business that operates in cooperation with AJEEC-NISPED. Keeping in mind the unique traditions of Bedouin culture and real obstacles discouraging women from focusing on their own health and diet, the opening of this fitness center is no small feat. As with Ultra-Orthodox women, modesty concerns and requirements of more traditional dress can limit opportunities for exercise. A welcoming, women-only space is a first here, and it has become much more than a gym to its members. Yes, Zumba classes have even reached Rahat.
What is of great value to our students is to see practical solutions that show how communities are building the capacity to help themselves. Our visit to the Negev offers us a wide range of local examples to evaluate and compare to similar initiatives across the globe. And as we come home on the bus after a long, but inspiring day, we can fall asleep dreaming about a time when these innovative community-based approaches to development become commonplace, and are no longer the unique teaching models that they are today.