Secular Negev Kibbutzniks Make Way for ultra-Orthodox Newcomers

Young religious Zionists from settlements and central Israel looking to develop unpopulated region.

New life is being breathed into two Negev kibbutzim from an unlikely source: a group of ultra-Orthodox Zionist families from central Israel and West Bank settlements.

Kibbutz Tlalim, south of Be'er Sheva, managed to bring in 28 ultra-Orthodox families, who have lived there for the past three years after Tlalim shed its kibbutz trappings and became an ordinary community. The families arrived under the auspices of Or, a movement dedicated to encouraging settlement in the Negev, and the Ramat Negev Regional Council.

Tlalim is now expected to grow to 300 families, which would make it one of the largest communities in the Negev highlands. The Regional Council is in the middle of a NIS 2 million infrastructure project in the community.

The members of the core group are all young, ultra-Orthodox Zionists, some of whom came from the center of the country and others from West Bank settlements.

"After the disengagement, it was terribly important to us that the crisis in our society not become permanent," said Tamar Green, one of the newcomers to Tlalim. "We came here to settle this region, which is mostly unpopulated. We wanted a quiet place to raise our children where we can live according to our values," she added.

At Kibbutz Revivim, a veteran community north of Tlalim, people are happy about the ultra-Orthodox newcomers to the area.

"Finally there are people who share our vision of settling the Negev. They are the closest to us in ideology as far as settlement goes," said Tomer Priel, Kibbutz Revivim's secretary.

The second kibbutz getting a boost from newcomers is Kibbutz Retamim, founded in 1983. Almost all of the original members have left the kibbutz in the Negev highlands southeast of Be'er Sheva. One member, Yael Drori-Azran, will be packing up and moving today to Kibbutz Revivim, after more than 20 years.

"I am part of every blade of grass, every planted tree. It's hard for me to leave. I am leaving my private paradise. They prepared us for this day but I didn't believe it would happen. I asked the new people to take good care of this place."

According to Roni Palmer, head of the Or movement, there are other Negev kibbutzim with large negative population growth, and groups of young people are expected to come boost them.

"The Orthodox core group has come for the long haul; the families come to the Negev because of the importance of settling the Negev. In the future, many families will come," Palmer said.

The Ramat Negev Regional Council is also happy about the new arrivals. Council chairman Shmuel Rifman said yesterday: "This is a historic moment and a day celebrating the strengthening of settlement in the Negev highlands. The fact that the council has managed to renew settlement in a failing community means significant savings for the state and proper utilization of existing infrastructure."