Barring traffic, the drive from Tel Aviv to Ramle should take about 25 minutes. Yet Ramle, a mixed Arab-Jewish city located right near Ben-Gurion International Airport, is often perceived – if not geographically, then at least socially – as part of Israel’s periphery.
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According to figures published by the Central Bureau of Statistics, Ramle ranks among Israel’s poorer municipalities, with barely a third of the its high school graduates eligible for university studies based on their matriculation exam grades.
But that could all change with the establishment of a brand new technology hub in this city that will include its first ever startup accelerator. The $2.5 million project is scheduled to be unveiled on Sunday at a special groundbreaking ceremony.
“Having worked in Ramle for 15 years, we consider this city to be our preferred beta site for new social and digital programs,” said Dafna Lifshitz, the CEO of Appleseeds Academy Israel – the driving force behind the new initiative. “For us, it was very important to launch a project like this in a mixed Jewish-Arab town, where we believe we are needed most.”
About 70 percent of Ramle’s population of 75,000 is Jewish and 30 percent Arab. The city is also home to many poor immigrants.
Established in 2000, Appleseeds strives to narrow Israel’s digital divide through programs in technology, vocational training and life skills developments in dozens of disadvantaged communities around the country. Its target audiences are youth at risk, unemployed women, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Lifschitz noted that a disproportionately large number of Israeli startups and accelerators are concentrated in central Israel, putting residents of the periphery at a severe disadvantage. Of 1,445 registered startup in the country, more than 1,000 were based in the center, she said, as were 38 of Israel’s 57 registered accelerators.
The new technology hub in Ramle will be housed in a stately two-floor building built in 1935, which was vacated years ago and is to undergo renovation. Although situated in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the historic building is conveniently located just a short walk away from the Ramle train station and central bus station. The municipality has committed to finance maintenance costs for the building, to the tune of $300,000 a year, for the next 20 years.
The major funders of the project are Keren Hayesod via the Jewish community of Capetown, the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Foundation in Britain, and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in the United States.
According to Lifschitz, the plan is to have the center in full operation within the next 18 months. In addition to the historic building, the new hub will include a new 200-square-foot modern wing. “My dream is for it to ultimately become the center of a technology park in Ramle,” said Lifschitz.
Besides housing the startup accelerator, the facility will also serve as the new headquarters for Appleseeds and provide space for community programs and training.
“This is an important initiative for the city and its residents,” said Ramle Mayor Yoel Lavi, “and I thank Appleseeds, the funders and partners for choosing Ramle.”