COVID Cases Were Skyrocketing in This Israeli Desert Town. Then the Mayor Intervened

As female leaders worldwide win praise for their handling of the pandemic, Yeruham Mayor Tal Ohana is giving her own government a primer on how to contain COVID-19

Yeruham Mayor Tal Ohana in her office. “I keep this picture here to remind me where I came from and where I’m going.”
Yeruham Mayor Tal Ohana in her office. “I keep this picture here to remind me where I came from and where I’m going.” Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

In mid-September, when the list of coronavirus hot spots in Israel seemed to be growing by the hour, one small desert town managed to buck the trend.

Over a period of two weeks, the number of active cases among the roughly 11,000 residents of Yeruham had dropped by more than half: from 100 to just over 40. This sudden drop was duly noted by other municiaplities in Israel, eager to learn from Yeruham's example.

Much of the credit for this southern Israeli town’s swift turnaround is being attributed to its young and energetic mayor. Rather than sit around and wait for instructions from Jerusalem, Tal Ohana decided to take matters into her own hands.

“We decided we would assume full responsibility, and that made a huge difference,” the 36-year-old, first-time mayor told Haaretz in her office this week.

As soon as the first cases of COVID-19 reached Yeruham in late spring, Ohana set up her own one-woman contact-tracing system – not willing to rely on services provided by the national health system. She personally notified all residents who tested positive and personally interrogated them about where they had been in the previous two weeks and whom they had been near.

The Negev town of Yeruham, established in the 1950s and home over the years to immigrants from Romania, North Africa, Iran, India, Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

By the time a second and much larger wave of infections hit in late August, the municipality already had its own contact-tracing system in place, manned by a large group of volunteers, students and municipal employees.

Averting disaster

Because a majority of its residents are religious or traditional, Yeruham has a large synagogue-going population. Ohana says she understood that if they were allowed to pray indoors over the High Holy Days in September, she would have had a disaster on her hands.

After she secured the consent of local rabbis, two days before Rosh Hashanah, all synagogues in town were closed until further notice. That was a full two weeks before they were closed nationwide.

This might not have been possible were it not for the excellent working relations she enjoys with these local rabbis and her ability to get them on board with her plans.

“If you ask me what broke the chain of infection here in Yeruham, this was critical,” she says.

A children's play area in Yeruham.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

But so were other preemptive and proactive measures.

The local municipality, for example, is unique in providing residents with free coronavirus testing on a regular basis, without the need for referrals from doctors. That’s how it was able to contain a recent outbreak within the local ultra-Orthodox community, which had threatened to turn Yeruham “red” again. (Yeshiva students infected at schools they attend out of town, who had returned home to their families for the holiday break, were the source of this latest outbreak.)

When numerous cases were recently discovered in a class at one of the town’s main high schools, Ohana decided to close the entire school. Under Health Ministry regulations, she was only required to send home students in that particular class, but she didn’t want to take any chances.

When a member of the local gym was discovered to have tested positive, the Health Ministry notified the municipality that, based on its findings, there was no reason to close the facility. The council thought otherwise and immediately took action.

Within a matter of days, it turned out another three members of the gym had tested positive. By ignoring the recommendations of the ministry and closing the gym immediately, the municipality was able to contain any further spread of the virus.

The Negev town of Yeruham, where coronavirus infection has bucked the national trend during the second wave.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Straddling different worlds

The first woman to serve as the town’s mayor, Ohana was elected as an independent candidate in 2018. She had served as deputy to the previous mayor, Michael Biton, for eight years. (He’s now a lawmaker for the centrist Kahol Lavan party and holds the portfolio for civilian and social affairs in the Defense Ministry.)

Ohana, who is single, has deep roots in Yeruham. “My family goes back four generations here,” she notes proudly. Her great-grandparents immigrated to Israel from the Sahara region of Morocco, and she often jokes that “they went from one desert to another.”

Leah Shakdiel, a longtime resident of Yeruham and prominent social activist, says Ohana has been particularly skillful at getting all the little communities that comprise this diverse town to understand they have common cause. “She’s been extremely effective at this,” says Shakdiel, who believes it’s been key to her successful handling of the health crisis.

Avi Warshavsky, a specialist in educational technology who moved to Yeruham more than 20 years ago, is most impressed by the mayor’s ability to straddle different worlds and generations.

“On the one hand, she’s young and hip and lives on the internet,” says Warshavsky, the CEO and founder of MindCET, an ed-tech innovation center. “On the other, when you talk to her, it’s almost like talking to someone from two generations ago. She has this deep appreciation for history and tradition.”

“I don’t know when she sleeps,” says Debbie Golan, a long-standing member of the local English-speaking community. “You can send her a WhatsApp any hour of the day and be guaranteed that she’ll respond.”

‘A link in a long chain’

Debbie Golan. “The phrase ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is something you experience here on a daily level.”Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

When Ohana assumed her new role, she asked that all the pictures and certificates hanging on the walls of her office be removed. All except one. It’s a photo of four elderly women, taken in one of the local parks. “These women were part of the founding generation,” Ohana relays. “I keep this picture here to remind me where I came from and where I’m going.”

Tall and slim, she wears her hair cut in an elegant bob. Dressed for the office in skinny jeans and spike-heeled burgundy pumps, she definitely doesn’t come across as a religious woman. But don’t let looks fool you, she says.

Ohana is strictly kosher and observes Shabbat. In fact, when she needs to notify members of the community on Shabbat that they’ve tested positive for COVID-19, she walks to their homes to deliver the news, because driving is forbidden on the Jewish day of rest.

“What really draws me to Judaism,” she says, “is the tradition – the idea that I’m a link in a long chain, and that even if my ancestors didn’t know how to read or write, they loved the Torah. They were simple, good people who were believers.”

Entering national politics is definitely on her agenda, but not yet. “It isn’t the right time,” she says, volunteering that she’s already received offers from different parties. “I still have a responsibility to this place, and there are all sorts of projects I started – which had to be put on hold for now – that I’m determined to see through to the end.”

What party would she join? “I don’t know yet,” she responds, “but it would have to be a party that has a strong social agenda and is inclusive. I’m not into identity politics.”

A town of many different immigrants

Yeruham Mayor Tal Ohana. “My family goes back four generations here.”Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Situated half an hour south of Be’er Sheva, Yeruham started out in the early 1950s as an immigrant transit camp – the first to be built far away from the country’s main population centers.

The first immigrants to settle here arrived from Romania. They were followed by a much larger group from North Africa in the ’60s. Yeruham also has smaller groups of Jews originating in Iran and India, and a tiny community from Ethiopia. During the ’90s, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the town took in a large contingent of Russian immigrants: They currently account for about a quarter of the town’s population.

Under recent mayors, and until the pandemic hit, Yeruham had enjoyed considerable prosperity – certainly relative to many other so-called development towns in the Negev.

Per capita, it has one of the largest concentrations of doctors in the country, many of them employed at the Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva. The relocation of large sections of the Israel Defense Forces to the Negev has also created many new jobs, though most tend to be low-paying. Two of the town’s religious high schools – one for boys, another for girls – have won national acclaim, drawing students from around the region.

Like the rest of the country, Yeruham has taken an economic beating in recent months. Residents, most of them women, who run small businesses or are employed in the hospitality and tourism sectors have been particularly hard hit.

‘Tremendous warmth’

Naomi Lev and her family came to Yeruham from Colorado last summer. It’s not the destination of choice for most immigrants coming from the United States, but Lev, who has two young daughters, says she was drawn to the desert.

“Dimona was too big for us and Mitzpeh Ramon was too far [south],” she says, explaining why these other Negev towns were ruled out. “I came to spend a Shabbat in Yeruham and there was just this tremendous warmth from everyone,” Lev recounts. “I knew immediately that this was where I wanted to be.”

Today, Lev heads a special program aimed at improving English-language proficiency among students in town, while her husband works as a nurse at Soroka.

Naomi Lev and her daughters. “I came to spend a Shabbat in Yeruham and there was just this tremendous warmth from everyone,” she says.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Originally from Boston, Debbie Golan moved to Yeruham in 1986 after a stint at a religious kibbutz in the south. She’s one of the founders of Atid Bamidbar (“Future in the Desert”), a nonprofit that focuses on community-based tourism initiatives and Jewish-Bedouin partnerships.

Asked to explain the remarkable success of Yeruham in wiping out the coronavirus, she says: “The phrase ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is something you experience here on a daily level. Battling a pandemic requires mutual responsibility and a lot of volunteering. It’s the sort of situation where a town like Yeruham is going to shine.”

Unique approach to protests too

In March’s general election, the ruling Likud party won nearly half the votes in Yeruham. But a week ago, for the first time a group of local residents held a protest in town against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, joining hundreds of other small demonstrations across the country. The Yeruham contingent was immediately outnumbered and outshouted by a group of Netanyahu supporters, who quickly organized on the other side of the street.

The demonstration was led by Shakdiel, who first entered the public limelight in 1987 when she became the first woman in Israel to sit on a local religious council – in this case, the one located in Yeruham. She had moved to the town in the late ’70s, together with a group of young and idealistic men and women from Jerusalem. They were all religious left-wingers.

“We wanted to do something meaningful, but we didn’t want to go to the occupied territories – so we came to Yeruham,” she says. After settling in the Negev town, she helped found Afikim BaNegev, a progressive Orthodox congregation.

Leah Shakdiel. The mayor has been particularly skillful at getting all the little communities in Yeruham to understand they have common cause against the coronavirus, she says.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The recent confrontation between the anti-Netanyahu protesters and the Prime Minister's supporters,  wasn’t the first time such a face-off has taken place in Israel in recent months. But here’s what makes Yeruham unique: The following day, after they exchanged nasty remarks on the local Facebook group, representatives of the two political camps convened in person for a truce. A photo of the meeting was published on the same Facebook group, and the posts that had upset everyone were deleted.

Last Saturday evening, the local anti-Netanyahu group intended to join the national protests again. But then they were presented with a special request to postpone their plans by a day so as not to disrupt the small celebration in town to mark the Simhat Torah holiday. The protesters agreed.

They were also asked if they could refrain from waving black flags at the protests, because some of the town’s residents had taken offense. Again, they agreed – making clear, however, that they had no intention of softening their anti-Netanyahu message.

The protest was eventually held on Sunday night. As they had the previous week, Netanyahu supporters showed up and held a counterprotest. This time, it was less acrimonious. The face-off ended with both sides singing the national anthem in unison.

Is it any wonder they beat the Coronavirus?