Sderot, Rocket Magnet of the Desert – and Boom Townlet?

Students at alumni of the nearby Sapir College are inspiring local initiatives as the town recovers from its traumatic recent past.

Daniel Bar-On

Nir Shohat, the owner of the Sushimoto restaurant in Sderot, came to the desert town seven years ago, to study cinema and television at the nearby Sapir College. He rented a room, took this and that student-level job, met the woman he would marry, Gal, finished his studies, and felt trapped.

“I knew I wouldn’t continue in cinema,” he says. “I didn’t see myself in the Tel Aviv rat race, with black circles under my eyes and desperately seeking work in the industry. But there wasn’t much to do around here.”

Finally, he found work as a shift manager at the Green Pub, which is actually the only pub in Sderot. Come his father’s birthday, his life changed, after Nir, who liked cooking, volunteered to make sushi. It was a hit.

Gal was the one who thought of selling sushi rolls from home, and the rest is history.

The sushi joint does well: At midday on Tuesday, it was packed. The customers live in Sderot and the surroundings, says Shohat; about a third are students at Sapir.

Sderot is better known for rocket barrages from the Gaza Strip than sushi, but Shohat feels that life there is terrific, all in all. “Most of the time it’s fun,” he says. “People go out to have a good time, like everywhere else.”

Located just a kilometer from Gaza (0.60 miles), Sderot was founded in 1951 as a development town for new immigrants from Iran and Kurdistan. Later, Jews arrived from Romania and North Africa, the latter becoming the majority.

Its location made the town a favorite target for Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets on Sderot over the last decade. It is also the picture child of an unemployment-stricken, hard-up outlying town in the periphery.

In the last election, by the way, 37% of the residents voted Likud, 16% Shas and 16% Habayit Hayehudi.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, as of December 2013, the town, with 22,000 residents, ranked 4 in a socioeconomic scale of 1 to 10. The rate of high-school matriculation in 2012-2013 was 68.9%, and the average wage in 2012 was 6,177 shekels ($1,570), about 3,000 shekels below the national average.

Like other outlying towns, housing in Sderot consists mostly of neglected apartment blocks. The roads are cracked and there aren’t many playgrounds and green spaces. Yet local builders are optimistic: They feel Sderot is attracting small businesses, mainly restaurants and entertainment.

Sderot now features one compound with food and bars and another of students. It began with one pub that went up in a derelict area, Shohat says. Its success attracted two more and a burger restaurant. Students graduating from Sapir College are starting to settle in the city, which hadn’t been happening four years ago, he says. Why?

“There’s something romantic about this place,” Shohat says. “There’s also opportunity here that doesn’t exist elsewhere. It isn’t always easy here. The margin of error is bigger. If I opened the restaurant in Tel Aviv under the conditions under which it opened here, I’d have closed down in a year. I’m not a professional chef. At first it took me 40 minutes to get out a dish. Now it takes me four minutes. But here they gave me time to learn.”

It isn’t as though it’s cheaper to operate in Sderot. His rent per square meter is the same as it would be in Tel Aviv, Shohat says. “The leasing company has a monopoly in the compound and significantly raised the rent after a year. Why? Because they could.”

Have idea. No skill, but have idea

Shai Sigal, a resident of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, founded his popular hummus joint Hahummus shel Tehina in 2010 with his friend Amir Regev. Customers come from surrounding towns, too, plus a lot of Sapir students, Sigal says.

The attraction in Sderot was Sapir – but the initial impetus came from a friend, Tal Schmidt, observing that the area had no hummus joint. For hummus, they had to go to Ashkelon and the hummus there was lousy, Sigal says.

So they made the decision – not that either knew how to make hummus. Sigal took jobs at hummus restaurants in Tel Aviv and learned, though he was aware that when they started out, investing 40,000 shekels (“We bought used equipment, and friends helped fix up the place”), their recipe for the chick pea paste was not a winner.

They apparently addressed that problem. Today, Hahummus shel Tehina is a chain of three branches (it's in Be’er Sheva and Jerusalem, too), with 60 employees. They have designs to open a shop in Tel Aviv, too, Sigal says.

It all succeeded beyond their wildest dreams – they’d just thought to have fun, not to do serious business, Sigal says. “The name came from one of the guys one night when we were totally drunk. But it just worked.”

Theirs led to more businesses: The new pub and the burger restaurant were opened by Hahummus shel Tehina grads who saw that it was good, and wanted some too,” says Sigal.

Kibbutz Kfar Aza also produced three other young men who decided to gamble on business in Sderot: Nico Bogdanovich, Almog Weiner and Dvir Rosenfeld, who are in the process of obtaining licensing from the city for a hangar for productions and events. Rosenfeld calls it a quasi-business, quasi-social endeavor.

“We want to give a space to the people of the area, who are very musical, and to hold concerts and parties. The only places of entertainment here now can’t hold more than 100 people. We’re planning a big hangar for 300 or 400.”

Why Sderot?

“There are a lot of young people from Sapir, and there’s a big movement of young people coming back here to live, despite the security situation – or maybe because of it. We three came back after six or 10 years living in central Israel or overseas.”

Their initial investment is “pretty silly – a few tens of thousands of shekels. This won’t be our main business. But we’ll start with this.”

Sapir: Economic anchor or condescending institution?

Many of the new young businessmen in Sderot are Sapir grads. “Sapir is actually the main economic anchor in the region,” says its president, Prof. Omri Yadlin. “We are one of the big employers in the region. Many of our employees come from Sderot; the director of the college is from Sderot; our students live in the city and its surroundings, renting apartments, working and living here. We are also a cultural anchor. We hold the international film and music festival, which lasts a whole week and picks up the whole city. Also, the social work division at the college is active in the town, and the social involvement division at Sapir has quite a few projects underway,” he says.

Sapir was founded in the 1950s as an academic institute for the members of the surrounding kibbutzim. Just under 20 years ago, it turned into an institution for higher education and has programs in law, economics and accounting, computer science, technological marketing, industrial management, cinema, social work and a telecommunications school. A few years ago, it began offering MA programs in public administration and policy, and in cinema and production.

Actually, though, Sapir lies within the jurisdiction of the Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council, and its relationship with the Sderot townspeople is complex.

On the one hand it provides employment and is a cultural hub. On the other, many feel it is an alienated, condescending institution that does not connect with the town and its people. The fact that there is no direct road between Sderot and Sapir says it all, to some.

The keenest expression of the circumspection in relations between the college and town happened a few months ago, when the college heads allowed provocative works to be displayed in the new gallery of the campus art school. The works were hamsas (hands of God) bearing legends such as “Slaughter the Jews,” “With blood and fire, we will liberate Palestine” and “Jerusalem of Gold, Jerusalem of Shit.”

The college, which was taken aback by the firestorm that ensued, explained its choice of artist: “It is the nature of an exhibition to reflect the range of opinions in society, some of which are unpleasant to behold for those who hold other opinions. At Sapir, there is freedom of expression and thought, together with nurturing pluralism and tolerance, and we invite the public to visit the new gallery and gain an impression.”

The residents did not evince tolerance at the weak explanation, nor did Sapir’s own students, who were furious about the exhibition. “It is a badge of shame for the college that ‘welcomed’ the first Qassam rockets. Apparently this college is being run by insensitive fools,” students said. Residents also accused the college of obtuseness in giving a platform to opinions of the sort while being a constant target for Hamas attacks.

“It was a mistake,” a Sapir source says, with hindsight. “It’s a shame that happened. The college tries as hard as it can to bridge the gaps, contribute to Sderot and forge ties with the residents. We have amazing projects being done by students in collaboration with residents. That superfluous exhibit just hurt the already delicate fabric.”

Elsewhere, in a small room in central Sderot, several dozen seniors and students were seated at tables set up for an early Passover seder, and listened to Ruth Barki thank those who had helped organize the event. Barki is a telecommunications student at Sapir and coordinates the college’s social involvement unit. The visit by students twice a week is one of the 35 outreach projects the unit manages.

Barki also works as shift manager at the local sushi restaurant and plans to stay in Sderot after graduating, if she can find work. “I’d like a career in marketing, but there aren’t any opportunities to develop here. For instance, there are no ad agencies.”