Most people would probably consider Be’er Sheva as the current epicenter of the Negev—it’s the biggest city in southern Israel. The city is named as such (“well of the oath”-בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע) in honor of the covenant of peace Abraham made with King of Gerar, Abimelach. According to Genesis the well is located in, you guessed it, Be’er Sheva. On a previous trip to the Negev during the MASA Leadership Summit, I actually stopped at the Abraham’s well attraction and visited the hot spot—literally just a well. But, it’s cool to know the namesake of this blossoming city.
Home to Ben Gurion University, the only logical name for a university in the Negev of course, even the oasis of Be’er Sheva isn’t perfect. Our group took a tour of the Dalet (ד) neighborhood, a section of the city facing steep socioeconomic gaps and high rates of immigrant absorption from Ethiopia and Erritrea. We spoke with a representative from the Tor HaMidbar NGO, who works with community integration and sustainability projects in the neighborhood. Café Ringelblum, which only employs at-risk youth from Dalet, epitomizes the organization’s mission of reducing socioeconomic disparities and building a healthier community. ITF got to experience their progress first hand by eating here, and it was easy to see how “just a café” can change these employee’s lives by giving them a steady wage, providing a safe space, and fostering community values.
Switching gears to other modes of development, the Be’er Sheva Fringe Theater was established in 2010 as a non-profit NGO and serves as a cultural hub to the city through their performances and community involvement. ITF attended an improvisation workshop with two of the theater’s actors, where we trained our “receiving” and “giving” skills through a variety of Whose Line is it Anyway-type games. Easier said than done, being receptive to the material someone else gives you, and constructively giving back while thinking on your feet, can be terrifying and borderline impossible if you can’t let your brain step outside the box.
After a couple of laughter-filled hours, our tiyul continued with a visit to a southern Bedouin village. We met with the “Bat HaMidbar” (daughter of the desert= המדבר בת), a Bedouin woman who started her own business selling salts, lotions, and balms from local herbs. Her inspiring story was one focused on believing in yourself, not being afraid to take risks, and learning to advocate for yourself. She is the only woman in her village to leave for college (she attended University in England), and created her own business upon returning home. Today, she exports goods to the US, Germany, and throughout Israel. For a more hands on, relatable experience, we all participated in a balm- making workshop ourselves! Muddling rosemary, filtering olive oil, and boiling beeswax, I made my own natural lip balm!!
Day 1 of our trip left us tired, hungry, and at the Sde Boker (שְׂדֵה בּוֹקֵר) Kibbutz for the night. Staying in the desert overnight means significant temperature drops, eerie darkness, and as a result, an illuminated sky full of stars. Here, it’s easy to see why the song “twinkle twinkle little star” is named as such hehe. Picking out constellations as clear as crystal (yes, I know Orion’s belt and apparently can’t find the Big Dipper when it’s right under my nose), we could even see Neptune… with the help of a constellation app of course. Even though ITF planned our halfway point reflection trip in Jerusalem, coming to the desert and feeling so small, I felt more reflective than ever. I ended the night with stars, and woke up with some friends at 6:15 am for the sunrise (pictured above!) And this week I reach my 6-month mark!
If you thought this was the end, psych! Israel Experience planned a second jam-packed day for us with an itinerary that included a morning hike (Nahal Haverim), a visit to Ben Gurion’s grave and home on the Kibbutz, and an animal farm specializing in dairy products. Rather than bore you with the details of another activity day, I’ll just reiterate that the theme of the tiyul positively framed the Negev, exploring its beauty, problems, solutions, and future vision.
The Negev truly is an underrated and overlooked chunk of Israel. The government’s future vision for the Negev is to double the population from 600,000 to 1.2 million by 2025. With benefits for new Olim and special tax deductions for small businesses, the Negev certainly has its attractions. Efforts to build up cities in the South and better integrate communities for a more metropolitan feel will also help in the future. However, the desert is the desert for now, and despite desalinization and the green movement, living in the Negev has its drawbacks and isolation. Out of all my experiences in the desert, I think this one takes the cake. Doesn't necessarily mean I'm running to move to the Negev though ;)