A coalition of Federations joins forces with Israeli partners and dreams up a project to help revitalize Israels Negev. Together, they aim to make it a more dynamic region to which people want to move – and where they want to stay

Galia Kaspi Sprung
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"It is in the Negev that the people of Israel will be tested, David Ben-Gurion, Israels first prime minister, said back in 1955. For only with a united effort of a volunteering people and a planning and implementing state will we accomplish the great mission of populating the wilderness and bringing it to flourish. This effort will determine the fate of the State of Israel and the standing of our people in the history of mankind.

Children in the Negev town of Netivot participated in the Federation-funded ‘Season of Wellness’ program launched in 2015

For 60 years, Jewish Federations have worked toward that goal. Today, that work continues through the Negev Creative Vitality Initiative (NCVI), an innovative partnership that dovetails with an Israeli national endeavor to develop the Negev.

Israel is relocating major Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bases to the Negev, bringing along thousands of professionals and their families. And NCVI is encouraging those families and others to make the south their permanent home by creating programs to help turn it into a thriving region and dynamic place to live.

In June 2014, a coalition of Federations hosted a conference in Delaware that included representatives of major Israeli government ministries. The Federation system already had a history of pooling resources and expertise to fund high-impact projects in Israels south. The Negev Funding Coalition (NFC), which includes the Jewish Federations of New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Greater MetroWest NJ, Delaware, Toronto and Montreal, decided at the Delaware conference to embark on a new partnership with the Negev Development Authority, the Southern Relocation Administration of the Ministry of Defense, Israels National Program for Health Education, local municipalities and universities, and national health service providers (kupot cholim).  And so the Negev Creative Vitality Initiative was born.

A new IDF base being built in the Negev

By bringing these diverse entities to the table and developing the projects together, we are leveraging existing Israeli investments in the Negev and encouraging new ones, said Dr. Robin Karol-Eng, who chairs the Negev Funding Coalition as well as the Jewish Federation of Delawares Israel & Overseas committee.

After a short month of planning, the new effort found itself grappling with a significant setback. The summer of 2014 brought weeks of violence to Israel, and Negev communities suffered fear and destruction. Operation Protective Edge overshadowed the Initiative for several months. Federations responded with Stop the Sirens, a major fundraising effort to support their Israeli brothers and sisters. More than $55 million was raised to address the urgent needs of Israelis under fire and contribute to long-term recovery. The impact on the Initiative was a new urgency to make the Negev a strong, resilient region, and Federations committed $2.5 million of the funds they raised to launching the effort.

The Negev Creative Vitality Initiative is addressing the challenges of the region with an eye toward long-term resilience and increasing the quality of life, said Dr. Heschel Raskas of St. Louis, who chairs NCVI and co-chaired the Stop the Sirens allocation committee. We hope to strengthen the regions demographic stability and growth, which is so vital to the security of the south and the entire State of Israel.

Creating vibrant communities

The initiative identified two goals: encouraging a vibrant cultural scene based on the energy of creative entrepreneurs, and inspiring a variety of healthy and active lifestyle activities.

Creative placemaking, a cutting-edge discipline that uses arts and culture to strategically shape an areas physical and social character, is already revitalizing public and private spaces across the Negev. By rejuvenating streetscapes and involving community members in improving their surroundings, creative placemaking can transform a neighborhood, town or entire region.

One of the Negevs creative placemakers is Livnat Kotz. In the wake of Operation Protective Edge, Kotz, a resident of Kibbutz Kfar Aza in the Gaza border region, developed a number of local artistic projects to foster community resiliency. She is now a participant in the first Creative Placemaking Management course at Ben-Gurion University, supported with funds from the NCVI. The course equips participants with the theory and skills to bring their ideas to life.

Kotz is now expanding her project to provide the students at the regional Shaar HaNegev high school a maker space – a quiet place for artistic expression that will also be open to the wider community. Seed funding from NCVI will jumpstart her project.

There are plans for a Negev Creative Placemaking Challenge and a masterclass series with leading experts from North America. Programs to teach the approach to middle school children are also in the works.

Another venture is an annual Negev Season of Wellness, with programs aimed at putting the Negev on the map as a healthy, active and vibrant place to live. In the pilot Season of Wellness, schoolchildren got activity trackers that measured things like how many steps they took and distances they walked or ran. The results, which were incorporated into their math lessons, motivated the kids to become more active. Healthy cooking classes are also planned, as are regional events like a 5K run.

The ultimate goal is not only to focus on the health of Negev residents but to attract others to visit the region for wellness retreats. From health food store owners to yoga instructors, entrepreneurs in this field will benefit from an increase in demand for their services.

The power of partnership

The Negev Funding Coalition, the group of Federations that created the Negev Creative Vitality Initiative, is a unique partnership in which each member contributes equally and has an equal say in the decision-making process. Federations of all sizes work as equal partners on large projects and bring major Israeli entities to the table as well.

Early NFC projects focused on supporting clean-technology research and development, encouraging STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education among high school students, and helping young communities become self-sufficient. (The young communities initiative encourages groups of young people to relocate to low socioeconomic areas in Israels periphery, including the Negev, thereby improving the quality of life for all around them.)

The NFCs work in developing smart partnerships is another step forward. This is the first time Federations have collectively partnered with large, influential government bodies that are investing enormous sums of money, says one veteran Federation professional. The Federations now have a new template to work with. 

This pioneering partnership gives Federations a direct role in building Israel hand in hand with major Israeli institutions and government entities. In this new paradigm, Israelis are not merely beneficiaries of funds but are true strategic and financial partners – an exciting way for Jewish Federations to continue their commitment to Israel.