This blog posting was contributed by Jim Lodge, UJC VP for Israel/Overseas.
|Morrie Siegel, Co-Chair, Education Subcommittee of the Yerucham|
The end of the first day of the Negev Conference -- and my mind goes back to its beginning. Some fifty or sixty people -- a turnout far beyond not merely expectations but even imagination -- gathered in the Board Room of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. Many didn't know each other, or if they did, only on the phone.
And what commotion! Stanley Stone (Central New Jersey) found Richard Bernstein (Miami) and embraced. Herzel Melmed (Colorado) wanted to find New York (Steve Shapiro) to discuss Lod. Someone started shouting "Mitzna's just arrived!" (He's the former mayor of Haifa, and onetime Prime Ministerial candidate for Labor, driven by ideological commitment to become mayor of Yerucham.) And then Marilyn Blumer (Montreal) stood up and said, "I'm Marilyn Blumer. I'm chair of the Negev Work Group, and I welcome you to this Conference."
We had begun.
Some of us hailed from federations (eleven were represented), three were mayors of Negev communities, and a number were here on behalf of our partners and other NGOs working in the Negev. But whatever our differences, we certainly could not stop talking.
We talked about models of economic development (loan guarantee programs, tourism, the supply and demand for labor, solar energy, mentorship). We talked about education and living bridge (Hebrew immersion studies, exchanges, English language proficiency). Tomorrow we will talk about attracting young people to the region and the specific needs of the Bedouin (some 25% of the population). We talked about how these issues all interrelate, that no single strategy can work by itself.
And we talked about the region itself (IDF bases, Route 6, railroads, natural gas, olives). That was Shmulik Rifman's remarks. He's the mayor of the Ramat HaNegev Regional Council and Chair of the Negev Development Authority. I give him credit for summarizing most movingly what we all felt about this land: "I've been all over the world, and I've never seen such a beautiful Negev as my Negev."
Between meetings, when we were supposed to call home or go to the bathroom, the conversations continued -- federations comparing experiences or meeting NGOs.
Here's the background: For years, federations have been engaged in P2K and other kinds of bilateral relationships with communities in the Negev. As Max Kleinman (MetroWest) put it, we've been like castles in moats. Nothing wrong with building wonderful castles -- but it's not enough. The issues of the Negev require regional thinking.
In fact, Zivka Greengold (mayor of Ofakim) stated that we are at a moment in Zionist history where it is incumbent on us -- all of us, not just the Israeli Government -- to settle the periphery. In a similar vein, Lisa Lisser (MetroWest) reminded us of the maps in some chumashim showing our deep roots in this Negev of ours.
The discussion was feisty enough that two of the presenters announced that the test of a good conference is that the earlier sessions make their own remarks obsolete. (They were too modest, but we took the compliment.)
More important was the outcome. We all agree there should be a regional approach. A regional approach is too large for any single strategy and it's too big for any single federation. So we ended with the importance of forming a coalition. The form of the coalition, its priorities, its structure, its aegis are all to be determined. What seems clear is that we don't want to stop.
And so we're going to keep at it. All that connecting at the beginning of the session is just a harbinger of more to come -- not just tomorrow, but at what Max Kleinman hoped would be the Second Annual Negev Conference. We have a lot to say -- and a lot to do.