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Living Social Responsibility: The Negev Funding Coalition's 'Young Communities, Sustainable Future' Program

In southern Israel, an area frequently associated with lack of growth and the under-provided periphery, a group of motivated young activists are collaborating over an innovative enterprise to make the Negev bloom. 'Young Communities, Sustainable Future', a groundbreaking program, brings together young adults to live in low socio-economic areas both to improve the quality of life for those surrounding them, and to create a culture of shared community between the activists and the local residents. 'When I first came to Eilat,' relates Aron, a Young Community member, 'we made links with the local residents, saw what was lacking and started working hard to make the area flourish.'

This pioneering work is one of the Negev Funding Coalition's two programs. The Jewish Federations of North America's Negev Funding Coalition, chaired by Richard Bernstein, is a partnership of nine Federations which have agreed to collaborate philanthropically on the Negev through joint funding of strategic, high impact projects. The Coalition was set up in 2011 by JFNA’s Negev Work Group, a partnership of Federation lay leaders and professionals passionate about the Negev, chaired by Marilyn Blumer, Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of JFNA, and consisting of members from over 20 Federations.

Spread throughout the Negev, the ten young adult communities do exactly what it says on the tin – they are modern day pioneers, settling the Negev for the continuity of the area, bringing energy and positive growth for a 'Sustainable Future'. The program is operated by four Israeli young adult organizations, Tor Hamidbar, Keren Kehillot, Rikma, and the Gvanim Association. These bodies select communities to be included in the program and work with them in forming a supportive network. Much of the work is in guiding their efforts as they develop significant, effective and long-term social service projects both locally and regionally throughout the Negev.

Tor Hamidbar and Keren Kehillot, a secular and a religious organization respectively, provide professional advisors for the communities while the training and infrastructure is developed by Rikma, the national network for socially involved communities of all sects of Judaism. The Gvanim Association, an organization for social change runs more than 40 social activist projects for disadvantaged populations in the Negev, and acts as an incubator for social initiatives and community enterprises. In addition to programming partners, the Negev Funding Coalition is partnered with a number of funding bodies, including the Jewish Agency, the Shahaff Foundation and the Gandyr Foundation.

The nine member Federations of the Negev Funding Coalition funding ‘Young Communities, Sustainable Future’ are: Federation CJA of Montreal, Greater Miami Jewish Federation, Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, Jewish Federation of Delaware, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Jewish Federation of San Diego County, UJA Federation of New York, UJA Federation of Toronto, and UJC of Metro West. Demonstrating their dedication to the Negev Funding Coalition, each member Federation made a commitment of $25,000. Blumer, the Negev Work Group's Chair, identifies this philanthropy as 'springing from the belief that the Coalition's efforts can deeply influence the cross-cutting challenges in the Negev. The two extraordinary projects which the Coalition has identified will undoubtedly catalyze development across the Negev.' The Coalition is now recruiting new members for Year Two of its activities.

'Young Communities, Sustainable Future' is a framework for filling the gaps in local services. Each new community strives to identify and provide the services most needed in their neighborhood and city, while simultaneously building networks to pool efforts and resources. Previously unavailable high quality, urgently needed social services are worked on by the Young Communities with designated budgets from government offices. Whether it's child care, housing assistance, care for senior citizens, or mentoring schemes, the communities are making a difference wherever they are. Life is not always easy in Israel, especially in places with a dearth of local facilities, whether that's a top hospital, good school or appropriate employment. The young adults involved in these communities have made a choice to devote themselves to a national goal, serving the country as pioneers.

The program's magic lies in its unique grassroots community action; the programs are developed from within each community, for the developing community itself, and carried out in partnership with members of the broader existing community. 'We see the need in terms of what the residents are receiving from the country and what they have to rely on for social services,' explains Naomi Efrat, Rikma Partnerships Manager and 'Young Communities, Sustainable Future' co-organizer.

The need for young communities of this type is particularly pronounced in the periphery. 'The periphery,' explains Naomi, 'isn't necessarily physically far away; it's not necessarily the Galil or Negev, but more on the socioeconomic level. It could be southern Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or Haifa.'

Eliad Melamed, Tor HaMidbar organizer and 'Young Communities, Sustainable Future' program co-organizer, sketches out the massive ripple effects of these communities in terms of occupational opportunities, improved social and economic status of the periphery, and an increase in the Negev’s population of educated and employed families.  'We want to create avenues for these young adults to step ahead in providing sustainable long term projects,' he asserts. 'These ten communities will work together, secular and religious, to think about how we are promoting the Negev in general, not just the projects that will be built in each individual community.'

'The gaps between cities, in terms of welfare, education, public systems, and even public services, are huge. It's not difficult to see the areas that need our help,' reports Naomi. Cooperation between the young communities, municipalities and other bodies is key to avoiding overlap. Indeed, the long term sustainability of the Negev Young Communities is based both on the stable partnerships with government offices and municipalities, and on strengthening and cohesion of the Young Communities as one pan-Negev body, creating social change on the macro level. 'For Israelis,' continues Naomi, 'the vision of success is to move to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, for the most part, so that's something we're trying to go against. We want to show that you can be successful, no matter where you are in Israel.'