Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

The Rebbe’s Insight: Creating a College in the Desert

By Mel and Miriam Alexenberg

We were living in the 1970s with our three children, Iyrit, Ron and Ari, in a beautiful home in a treed suburb a short drive across the George Washington Bridge to New York City, the art center of the world.  Both of us are artists.  Mel was art professor at Columbia University where Miriam was a graduate student.   Although our life seemed like the American dream fulfilled, we dreamed the Jewish dream of living in Israel.

How could we miss out on the amazing opportunity to be an integral part of the Zionist miracle, unprecedented in world history?  The biblical miracle of the Exodus from Egypt pales in comparison with the establishment of the State of Israel.  Compare liberating one nation of thousands from enslavement in the one country of Egypt after hundreds of years of exile with the Zionist miracle in our time of liberating millions of Jews from persecution, pogroms, and the Holocaust in scores of countries after thousands of years of exile and bringing them home to Israel.

Seeking a halutzic challenge, we considered aliyah to Yeroham, a dusty underdeveloped town isolated in the middle of the Negev desert mountains.  Its population of immigrants mostly from North Africa and the west coast of India suffered from deep social, educational and economic problems.

Before making such a major decision to so greatly change our way of life, we sought the guidance and advice of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  He thought well of the idea if we made use of our 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 from 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, olim from Morocco, welcomed us warmly. Landing there felt like going back decades in time, to the days when the State of Israel was founded.

Exploring our new town, we 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, Mel went to the local municipality building and introduced himself to the mayor as a new citizen of Yeroham from New York and 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 in nearby Dimona. The Ministry of Education demanded that we build the building.”

The mayor 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 in Netivot.  Although it was their mistake, they are angry at us for building a building for which we have no use.”

“Give me the building,” Mel 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.”

The mayor then asked Menahem 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 interpreter for the first delegation of Canadians that would visit Yeroham later in the week. I gladly agreed.

The Canadians were surprised to find Americans living in Yeroham. When they asked what we were doing here, we told them we came to open a college as a way to develop this depressed town.   We explained that although we had a building, we 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

We now had a building and financing, too.  But how do we open a college without accreditation and professors?

Mel sought the advice of Dr. Tuvia Bar Ilan who was responsible for the branch campuses of Bar Ilan University.  Enthusiastic about the idea of building a college in Yeroham, he said, “I always wanted to write the verse in the Torah, ‘And you will burst forth westward, eastward, northward and southward (negba).’   We have branches in Ashkelon in the west, Tzfat 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.”

Mel was offered a professorship at Bar Ilan University.  Half of his job was teaching two courses and advising doctoral students at the university’s main campus in Ramat Gan one day a week.  The other half of his job was to head the new Ramat Hanegev College in Yeroham.  Bar Ilan University offered to send lecturers by taxi to teach in Yeroham.  Miriam taught in a program for educating art teachers at the new college.

1977: After the Simchat Torah holiday when the fall semester begins in 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.

1982: Our fourth child, Moshe Yehuda, was born in Yeroham.  We celebrated his brit at the college.

2019: Our son Ron, continues to live in Yeroham with his wife and children. He is a rabbi (Merkaz Harav) and scientist (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) who teaches about interrelationships between Torah and science in a Yeshiva Hesder that combines advanced Jewish studies with service in the Israel Defense Forces.

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.