Remembering WUJS and Arad

WUJS Arad was a very special program; not only for me but for the thousands who have paraded through this dessert town since 1968.

This past Sunday morning when I wrote of the Institute’s Arad closing and impending move to Jerusalem, it was out of sadness. To this audience, I assumed newsworthy. But no-way was I prepared for the outpouring of comments from alumni, parents, former staff and others which you can find here (scroll down). I also received a comparable number sent privately.

Arad touched thousands of us in different ways. I know of several who did not have the best of experiences at WUJS, but you wouldn’t know this from their comments. It seems so many share a sense of loss.

There is also an excellent story on present day Arad, Give my regards to Arad (and Amos Oz), in the magazine section of today’s Jerusalem Post by WUJS alumn and noted Israeli columnist Calev Ben-David.

This afternoon it is my pleasure to have a particularly inspiring guest post by Harry Schneider who along with his wife Dianne participated in the August, 1986 machzor. Today they make their home in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Also be sure to check out the promo video at the end from the Arad-iriya on the charms of living there. (the video was added by eJP; it was not part of Harry’s comments).

In 1986 my wife Dianne and I had the great fortune to have three wonderful ulpan families, two of whom were founders of Arad. One of our ulpan fathers, Uzi Haimovitch, had been city manager. He was also our community shaliach in the US and, after shlichut, was responsible for bringing to Arad the family that opened Arad Towels, one of the city’s major employers. Our other ulpan father, Beiga Shochat, was, at the time of our machzor, mayor of Arad. He subsequently became Treasury minister. His wife Tema is the daughter of a former prime minister. Both families told us the story of Arad’s founding as a socially engineered environment. Recruitment was aimed at highly motivated ex-kibbutniks ideologically disposed to pioneering the Negev per BG’s vision and willing to create a community in an isolated development town. And the government, before Likud, provided incentives to get them there. We have a copy of an early pictorial history of the town published around 1970 showing people living in tin roofed buildings.

As explained to us, Arad was deliberately selected for the home of WUJS. One of the most important reasons for this choice was so that WUJIES could get to know and be influenced by the locals, especially our ulpan families. In 1968 these families represented some of the best “human material” in the country. Bluntly put, that’s why WUJS is in Arad and not in a place like Yerucham. The idea was that such social contact would help foster an appreciation of the country and hence motivate WUJIES into making aliyah. In short, they wanted us to fall deeply in love with Arad and, by extension, all of Israel. Also, Arad’s relative isolation would lead to regular contact with our ulpan families (and would provide a far less distracting environment for engaging in meaningful study, than, say, Tel Aviv). While this formula (and the Sochnut’s investment in the two of us) didn’t lead to an immediate dividend for Israel, I am proud to say that our 18 year old daughter is making aliyah this August with Garin Tzabar and will be drafted into Tzahal in November.

Alas, none of our three ulpan families still live in Arad. Arad (which was supposed to top out at 75,000 people based on the original long term plan) went into decline. No, I’ll be blunt for those who’ve not been there in years. It’s a dump. The Mercaz is filthy. The Russian aliyah was used to fill the vacant flats in town so that it now seems that every other storefront features the finest pork and vodka available in the Negev. The Bedouin are another story. And Arad has been in receivership no different than Yerucham, So, after army and university, the children of our ulpan families, armed with law and business and hi-tech degrees, left Arad. And, with great sadness, their parents, many of whom had lived there for 35 years or more, followed them. And they no longer even visit Arad because none of their friends are left there. Several years ago I asked Uzi how many people like him (former pioneers of Arad who followed their kids out of town) were living outside of Arad, and said that he knew of at least a dozen in Rishon alone.

While I concur with the post-mortem described above, despite the failings of YJ or anyone else, this ain’t the same Arad that many of us knew and adored. The people we came to know and love, that wonderful and inspirational founding group (and their kids) is no longer there. They were the lynchpin. And they’ve not been replaced. We weren’t brought to Arad for the scenery. And we weren’t put there so as to make friends with other Anglos (although finding one’s besherit is always properly on the agenda). We were there to learn Hebrew and to fall under the spell of the best that Israel had to offer. And without them there, without that part of the equation in place, WUJS, as a catalyst for aliyah, became severely incapacitated. If WUJS is to continue with an aliyah agenda (because without it, it’s not really WUJS), then it has to be reconstituted in a place, if it exists, that resembles what Arad used to be – small, removed, yet accessible, and populated with unabashed Zionists willing to befriend and engage without reservation.

After we arrived in Arad the city observed the 25th anniversary of its founding at the old hotel (I forget its name). Amos Oz, the featured speaker that night, paid homage to the town and its founders. As we had just arrived a few weeks earlier my ulpan brother Tzvikah translated for us (he and his family insisted that we be there). With almost the kind of reverence that people used to display when in the presence of a notable rabbi, Tzvikah and his father quietly pointed out to us all of the government officials who were there who had helped make Arad happen. With all of the dark pants and white shirts the scene looked like something out of a history book. That’s when we got a crash course as to what Arad was about.

Without that kind of Arad today, the kind of WUJS we knew can’t exist today. Despite all of the press and communiqués from YJ I have yet to see anything that articulates with any meaningful clarity the purpose of WUJS. Without the context of Arad, without a truly intensive ulpan, and without a clear agenda for WUJS YJ should simply rebrand the program and promote it as an addition to and extension of its popular year course. There would be nothing wrong with that. And once YJ has done so, I would not object to having my name removed from the YJ mailing list as I am not a YJ alum. As the teudah on my office wall says (the one next to my law license) I am an alum of WUJS.


Shabbat Shalom