Roughly 70 kilometers south of Be’er Sheva, within easy viewing distance of Israel’s border with Egypt, is an unusual sight: a campus full of Israeli youth and young adults, from widely disparate backgrounds, living and working together toward common goals. In this quiet corner of the Negev, surrounded by the desert as far as the eye can see, around 15,000 young people visit each year for varying lengths of time to learn about desert ecology, grow their interpersonal skills, and prepare to become leaders in their communities – be they secular Israelis, Bedouin, or ultra-Orthodox Jews.
There are the 18-year-olds from ultra-Orthodox homes who are preparing to join the IDF in The Jewish Agency’s Nitzanei Hashachar pre-army academy. There are the 17-year-old new immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are studying Hebrew and preparing to enter the IDF or Israeli universities in the Mir-Selah program, ahead of their parents who also plan to move to Israel. There are the Bedouin youth in Neve Midbar, a boarding school that grows their leadership skills and sense of belonging as Israeli citizens. There are the children who have recently finished long hospital stays who come to Nitzana for several weeks in preparation for their return to home life, and schoolchildren on 3-day ecological seminars, and Christian friends of Israel on volunteer programs, and secular post-high school Service Year volunteers, and adults who live on the campus year-round to lead projects and model lives dedicated to tolerance and respect for nature.
“Nitzana fosters openness toward all members of Israeli and global society,” says David Palmach, Nitzana’s director, noting that The Jewish Agency founded the campus in 1986. “We gather very diverse populations under the same roof, yet we are a true community, where everyone interacts and engages with one another.”
“This campus holds within it the connections between the State of Israel’s past, present and future,” adds Michal Keshet, head of Nitzana’s counseling department. “A connection between the environment and its inhabitants, a connection between native Israelis and new immigrants, a connection between cultures. The challenges involved in supporting each individual’s cultural and religious needs, while preventing friction and promoting harmony, are met head-on. Each community works as a unit, but also comes together for joint activities, without forcing anyone to feel lesser-than or be driven to change who they are. If we try and replicate what is going on in Nitzana within greater Israeli society, our country will only benefit.”
Neve Midbar: A Desert Oasis for Bedouin Youth
Ahmad Jarbiya, the founder and director of the Neve Midbar boarding school, vividly recalls the day he felt called to lead the program. A retired school educator, he happened to be in a local courthouse on unrelated business when he encountered a former student of his, there on trial. Devastated by the turns this student’s life had taken, Mr. Jarbiya decided to come out of retirement to continue investing in a positive future for the Israeli Bedouin community. “I want to model the behaviors that I want them to espouse,” he says. “I want them to feel responsible for themselves and the greater community, to engage in social activism, and to know that if they focus on positive goals they can reach amazing dreams.”
Neve Midbar is a residential high school for Bedouin boys who come from all over the Negev. They study core Israeli academic subjects as well as farming principles and practices. The school is staffed by Jewish, Arab and Bedouin educators who focus on the acceptance of all human beings for who they are, while allowing the students to maintain pride in their culture and continue practicing their customs.
Nitzanei Shachar: A New Dawn for Yeshiva Students
A well-known issue in Israeli ultra-Orthodox society is the number of boys who, due to insufficient emotional, academic or material support, fall through the cracks of the yeshiva system and engage in risk behaviors such as dropping out of school and running away from home. At the same time, there is a need to assist those youth from ultra-Orthodox families to learn marketable skills and enter good units of the IDF if they choose to do so, often over the objections of their parents.
In response to both needs, The Jewish Agency founded a pre-army academy on the Nitzana campus to provide practical life tools to former haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva students. Here, far from their old neighborhoods and families, they form a supportive community of their own, build their physical and emotional stamina and self-confidence, and continue their Torah studies – all the while supported by a team of counselors and understanding Orthodox religious guides.
“The idea was to provide a supportive base for haredi youth who were struggling in their yeshivas and enable them to continue their religious studies, while also providing them an education in core secular studies, so they can learn a profession and maybe even serve in the IDF,” explains Rabbi Simon Gonen, head of Nitzanei Hashachar. “The integration of religious and secular studies will help them succeed as Israeli adults while also enabling them to maintain the religious lifestyles they grew up with.”
A Love for the Land
Yulia Segal has been living at Nitzana for 17 years; her husband, Ilia, is the head of two programs there for Russian and Ukrainian young Jews: Mir Selah (for teenage immigrants) and Masa Nitzana (for Jewish Masa Israel Journey participants visiting Israel on a long-term tourist visa – many of whom become immigrants upon completing the program).
“They come from different backgrounds,” Ilia says, “but they are united in the fact that they are here in Israel without any family. We become their family. Our staff is on call 24/7 and our counselors sleep in adjacent rooms to provide support and a smile whenever needed.”
Like many of her husband’s young charges, Yulia first came to Israel from Ukraine as a new immigrant. “At first I moved to Nitzana out of Zionist dream to build the Negev,” she recalls, “but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would wind up living here for this long! I grew up in Kiev, a city with 4.5 million residents, and now I live in the remote Negev, with just a couple hundred other long-term residents – and I wouldn’t change it for the world. This is the best place on earth.”
Nitzana relies on generous contributions and volunteers to keep its programs running. To find out how you can help drive social activism and positive change by contributing to Nitzana, click here.