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Living it up in Arad: Building a Young Community

The Negev region comprises about 66% of Israel’s land mass, yet only 14.6% of the population lives there. “There is a lot of negative immigration from the Negev regions,” explains Tehila Nachalon, Israel representative of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey (JFCNJ).  “Young people who grew up there leave for the big cities to seek higher education, employment, and a better social life.”

The Jewish Federation of CNJ is working to change this reality, with a particular focus on drawing young families to its Partnership 2000 regions of Arad and Tamar. 
It was understood that in order to draw young people to Arad, the city needed to offer a variety of social services, such as assistance in finding employment, guidance in educational opportunities, and empowering and assisting people to develop social and business initiatives. “There was no one here to start these initiatives,” says Nachalon. “There tends to be a general attitude amongst young Israeli's that once you finish the army, that’s it; you’re already grown up. No one has to give you services ¬-- now go and live your life.”

JFCNJ, together with the JDC, has built a youth center, known in Hebrew as Mercaz Tz'irim Arad, whose primary purpose is to connect young people, and to create a greater sense of community.

"The Mercaz has been running for 3 years, and we are already building a great community," says Nili Surkis, director of the Mercaz. Many social initiatives have come from community members themselves, with the Mercaz's support. For example, a group of three or four families decided that there needed to be more social activities for young families in Arad. They took it upon themselves to organize weekend activities for young people in the area, such as a Shabbat program for Friday night, weekend trips, Shabbat picnics, karaoke, and Shuk B'Shekel, a community "garage" sale. This group's activities have developed into the community project Kamatz, a Hebrew acronym for Young Families’ Community. Sirkus estimates that there are 200 people who are involved in Kamatz. Within the Kamatz framework, a group of young people from Arad are currently undergoing a two year Social-Community Leadership Training Program with the Mandel Leadership Center in the Negev.

A second initiative, led in cooperation with the Mercaz, the Ministry of Education, the Jewish Agency, and JFCNJ's Ness Fund,  is training 11 college and graduate students majoring in education to take on leadership positions in different educational contexts, such as within schools or youth groups. The educational leadership project aims to develop young educators who will be able to immediately integrate into Arad's local educational framework, and to initiate and implement projects for the community. "This way we strengthen the educational system while involving young people in a meaningful way," says Surkis. "The students involved in this project are exceptional people; they were carefully selected out of 30 students who applied. Many of them have second degrees as well."

The Mercaz serves as a platform for young activists to advocate for services that are important to them. "For example, public transport is a big problem for young people in Arad," says Nachalon. "It is very expensive, unless you can get the student discount. In the Negev, all cities have direct public transport to Beer Sheva, which is about half an hour away from Arad, but there is no public transport between the Negev regions themselves. Sderot, for example, is a 10 minute drive from Arad, but you cannot take a public bus there." The center is currently empowering and funding a group of young activists, who are lobbying the Ministry of Transportation to make the Negev regions more accessible by public transport. 

The Mercaz provides practical help to young adults as well, assisting them with finding employment, running professional courses for those seeking to start their own business, and providing educational guidance. People seeking employment in Arad have the opportunity to send in CVs, so that the center can help them find work. Staff members are in constant communication with employers all over the region, and publicize positions available.

These services may begin as soon as a young family decides to move to the area, and even before that, when they are merely considering it. "We employ a demographic development coordinator, who sits with families and tells them about schools in different neighborhoods, and discuss where certain employment opportunities lie," says Surkis. "We take families around the area and show them the different cultural activities going on. Once they decide to move to the area, we set them up with families with the same level of religious observance, and who have kids around the same age. It really is like a Kibbutz atmosphere around here!"

The essential services that the Youth Center provides have been recognized by the municipal authority "JFCNJ started this project in 2008, without the help of the Municipality of Arad," says Nachalon. "It is now so successful that the municipality has essentially taken this project under its wing as part of the services it provides."

JFCNJ has a far-reaching vision for the Negev region. There are 40 such youth centers in the Negev region, which are mostly run by the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). "We approached JDC," says Nachalon, "and said "Look, we know that you run a lot of youth centers all over the Negev. We are also very interested in development in the Negev. Let's take all these centers and establish a network, so there won't just be local leadership, but also regional leadership." Take employment for example," she continues. "We have Netivot, Sderot and Ofakim nearby. Why not try to establish regional employment, and have a larger employment forum?"

JFCNJ's ultimate vision of the Negev as a social and economic hub is reflected in its other projects. For example, the Ness Loan Fund is a business loan initiative that supports and nourishes new businesses all over the region, and funds the expansion of existing ones. Through projects such as the Mercaz and the Ness Loan Fund, JFCNJ hopes that creating a climate for the development of economic ventures and social opportunities will generate growth.

As far as JFCNJ is concerned, however, the difference is in the details. "Our center is fully renovated," says Surkis proudly. "We use it for everything: meetings, guidance, workshops and community Shabbat meals. It is like our Partnership's home in Arad."

Written by Devorah Nutovics

Arad residents enjoy the Shuk B'Shekel, a community "garage" sale organized by the youth center.

College and graduate students majoring in education receive financial support from the Ness Fund to take on leadership positions in Arad schools or youth groups.