Keeping the Negev Alive

Nine years ago, when Yamit Azoulay was discharged from the army, she had "a strong feeling that for all my friends from school, especially the stronger ones, staying in the Negev was not even an option. The feeling was that if you're successful, it's best for you to seek your future elsewhere, and vice versa: If you stay, that in and of itself proves you're messed up."

Azoulay, who lived in Be'er Sheva until the age of 15 and since then in the nearby community of Lehavim, decided to fight this convention. Together with a group of young people who felt similarly (the leader of the group, Ruvik Danilovitz, has since become the deputy mayor of Be'er Sheva), she helped found Start Up - the Center for Guidance, Information and Consultation for Young People.

Start Up aspires to offer everything that young people need to build their futures. This includes a counselor "who, with the young people, maps their needs, talents, desires and dreams and suggests a path to achieve them"; diagnostic employment services; "empowerment workshops" for young people with low self-confidence; preparatory courses for the psychometric exams, which are offered free to those who cannot afford them in exchange for days of volunteering in the community; scholarships for the needy; and more. Most of the services, Azoulay stressed, are provided free, or for a symbolic charge that is defined as a fee to prove one's seriousness - an attempt to ascertain the recipients' willingness to invest effort.

Now in its ninth year, the center worked with some 5,300 young people from Be'er Sheva and the vicinity last year, on an annual budget of just NIS 2.5 million. The secret of the gap between the variety of services offered and the low budget is the fact that "for each of our objectives, we constantly review which bodies already operate in this area and hook up with them. We have no desire to replace any existing organization, only to pool resources."

After four years of operation, Azoulay recalled proudly, the Joint Distribution Committee identified the center she set up as a model worthy of imitation and sought to set up similar centers all over the country. Today, there are 20 such centers.

Azoulay herself moved to a new job two years ago: same field, but a more senior position. She now works for a project organized by a group of businessmen who "felt that for years, they had been contributing to the Negev, but in effect were only giving young people who benefited from their investment a better shot at moving to Tel Aviv. So they decided to focus on a project that would keep young people in the Negev."

The project, called Daroma ("To the South"), was adopted in 2005 as an official government project. Azoulay directs its next generation department.

As part of this new venture, she is engaged in two main projects. One is setting up more multidisciplinary centers for young men and women of the kind she established in Be'er Sheva (there are now four others).

The second is more ambitious: a project called "Choosing Tomorrow," aimed at keeping quality young people in (or bringing them to) the Negev. The project offers students scholarships and living stipends, as well as training in how to establish businesses or social projects, with the goal of exposing them to the Negev's hidden opportunities and putting them on track to associate their future with the Negev. In return, they commit to live in the Negev for two years after completing the program, in the hope that in those years, they will indeed tie their fate to the Negev for the long term.

Because the program just started last year, and the training program is two years long, it is hard to evaluate its success. But there are currently 70 students in the program, including two Bedouin.

As for her own future, it is no surprise that Azoulay sees it as being in the Negev. Her dream is to set up a new young community, either in a new location, or as part of an existing community. Apart from that, "as a serial initiator, I have lots of dreams: for example, establishing a fund for artists from the periphery, which would not only encourage their personal work but would also encourage them to give back to the community."

Her main problem is "the need to invest all my energies in what I'm doing. It's a very high level of emotional involvement. But I don't see it as price, but as a place where I feel my life is meaningful."

Do friends and family wonder about a potential businesswoman's choice of such an altruistic path?

"No more than they would about an economist or high-tech worker who spends endless hours at work. But they have no questions about [my] values. Much to my delight, in my immediate circle, there is nothing but support. I grew up in a home that really allowed my sister and me to follow our dreams."