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 A Vast Horizon: Attracting, Integrating and Retaining Young People in the Negev

Summary of a Thought Paper written by Yamit Azoulay
Priority Regions Division, Israel Department, Jewish Agency For Israel
Negev Conference, Miami, May 17-18, 2009

This paper was conceived especially for the Negev Conference in consultation with a team of professionals from organizations centrally involved in these issues: UJC, JAFI, JDC, UIA Canada, The Oran Foundation, The OR Movement, Ayalim and Shahaf: Center for Community Development.

The goal of this paper is to provide a platform for a strategic discussion on how UJC, the Federation system and Jewish philanthropists can best address the challenges of attracting, integrating and retaining young people in the Negev.


“It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested.”
- David Ben-Gurion.

Communities in Israel’s geographic and social periphery are at a critical turning point. The disturbing difference in the quality of life between the center of the country and Israel’s periphery means chronic despair for generations of families and communities. Plagued by Israel’s highest unemployment and poverty rates, and populated by Israel’s most vulnerable populations, the challenge of transforming these areas has grown rather than diminished over the decades. The vulnerability of the Negev—and widening social and economic gaps that impact the quality of life for its residents—mandate even greater commitment and innovation to meet this historic challenge head on. Always a national priority, strengthening the Negev has been identified by Israel’s leaders as one of the most important Zionist goals of the 21st century.

Activating the young population — students, young adults, individuals and communities —can bring real change to some of the difficulties facing the Negev.  The younger generation tends to be socially and professionally mobile and often seeks out creative solutions to social challenges.  Investing in the younger generation in the Negev could provide a fertile and rewarding opportunity for philanthropic involvement to reduce the vulnerability of the region and to effect long-term social change in Israel’s periphery.

Partnership with young people in the Negev has the potential of becoming an inspiring vision for a new generation of Jews around the world and the basis for a new kind of partnership — a partnership based on hope rather than fear.
Mapping the Social Landscape: Working with existing infrastructure, institutions, and initiatives

A foundation of programs and institutions, as well as on-the-ground expertise, already exists. Capitalizing on existing efforts will heighten the potential impact of coordinated and collaborative philanthropic investments to attract, integrate, and retain young people in the Negev. Below are some examples of anchors around which efforts could be based:

  •  A critical mass of local young communities
  • Premier academic institutions and research centers
  • A cadre of university students who chose to study in the Negev
  • Industrial Zones and other forces igniting economic development
  • Major efforts to improve existing infrastructure
  • Established ideological movements, (e.g. OR Movement)
  • The relocation of IDF bases to the Negev
  • Regional and grassroots organizations dedicated to supporting the needs of children and youth

Existing Models for attracting, integrating, and retaining young people in the Negev

The initiatives mentioned below provide a sampling of current efforts that are at the heart of a dynamic network of social entrepreneurs, program providers, local and international funders, businesses in the Negev and government at all levels working together to tap into the potential of the Negev. They reflect the wide range of proven programmatic models for investing in the Negev, from working with youth, university students, and young adults in both existing communities and in building new communities.

Model 1: Young Communities

One of the most promising and exciting new directions to emerge in Israel is the new generation of “pioneers”—young social change activists committed to reviving Zionism for the 21st century. These enterprising college students and recent post-army adults have come together to form “educational” communities in Israel's periphery to help transform these underdeveloped areas into wellsprings of social life. While each young community embraces its own model, each one is based on the premise that creating lasting change in the periphery must come from within. In addition to living and working or studying in the area, all pioneers commit to give back to the community—with the majority volunteering to work with disadvantaged youth.

The Shahaf Center for Community Development was established by a number of founding members for whom the concept of partnership is central to achieving their mission. Shahaf provides a social and professional network to the diverse young communities, offering tools and support to ensure their stability and sustainability over the long-term. Shahaf also assists the young communities in maximizing their impact in the delivery of social services and their other activities with the local population.

Model 2: Youth Centers: Centers for Young Adults

JDC’s Centers for Young Adults are established in cities which are home to large immigrant populations. Open to all young adults, they serve as a central and non-stigmatizing platform for launching projects to help young immigrants. Centers provide a wide range of counseling and orientation services including: individual guidance regarding higher education and vocational training; job skills counseling such as how to find a job and advance in the workforce; life skills education such as money management; volunteer projects; housing advice; and courses on key skills for education and employability.

Centers in the Negev have adapted their programming to respond to the region’s issues of population drain and lack of cultural and social outlets. These include direct provision of recreational activities and development of the “Young Community” program which offers a variety of benefits to encourage local young families to stay in their community.

Model 3: Working with University Students

The following are two examples of programs that achieve the goal of attracting and retaining youth in the Negev by working directly with university students.

Ayalim empowers young Israelis to follow in the great pioneering tradition of early founders, merging their spirit and ambitions to recreate Zionism for the 21st century. Ayalim’s strategy is to build a network of Ayalim Student Villages that will infuse the Negev and the Galilee with the most precious of all Israeli resources: Israelis. The villages are built adjacent to major universities by the students themselves. In exchange for inexpensive housing and full scholarships, residents perform community service, engaging local at-risk children and teenagers in a full slate of activities. The students become role models, mentors and advisors for children and parents alike. The long-term goal is to turn temporary students into permanent residents, dramatically increasing the population in the Negev. These new residents will attract new employment opportunities and help break the cycle of poverty. Ayalim’s network consists of 11 villages, with the goal to reach 1,000 students, working with youth in surrounding communities.

 “Students Building a Life in the Negev,” is another program that focuses on working with students in the Negev. This select program provides group-building skills, leadership training, community volunteer projects, and professional mentors related to the field of study of students during their 3 years of academic study. Students receive tuition scholarships and living stipends, and upon completion of university, they are provided with an array of services to help them find a job and to support their integration into the work force. Program beneficiaries receive a grant upon staying in the Negev for one year.

Model 4: Developing New Communities in the Negev

The mission of the OR Movement is to develop and populate the Negev by working with all sectors of Israeli society, especially those who recognize the opportunities the Negev has to offer and are seeking viable options for setting in the Negev.  Their information center and professional advisors provide information, direction and support for families and groups who chose to make the Negev their homes. 
Moving Forward: Strategies to Develop the Negev

Below is an outline to frame the ongoing discussion of possible strategic approaches and operating principles for philanthropic investment in developing the Negev, with a focus on attracting, integrating, and retaining young people in the Negev.

  • Promote a comprehensive, regional agenda of the entire Negev by: encouraging systematic cooperation of the planning process between cities, towns, the entire region, and the government of Israel and supporting regional projects that can be replicated and scaled
  • Communicate and market the relative strategic advantages of the Negev Region as well as the organizations and programs that are currently working to develop the Negev
  • Promote the professionalization and build the capacity of young communities in the Negev
  • Support the building of local identity and a sense of uniqueness as a local asset to further development.
  • Encourage partnerships, matching gifts, and leveraged funding by merging local programs and initiatives with established organizations and government-run programs.