The Student Operation to Bring Sderot Back from the Edge

The construction site of an abandoned elementary school in Sderot which Ayalim is using to build a student village; photo courtesy.
The construction site of an abandoned elementary school in Sderot which Ayalim is using to build a student village; photo courtesy.

By Tsvi Dahan

Many continue to pray that Israel’s recently completed Operation Protective Edge will finally bring an end to the rockets that have rained down on the Negev city of Sderot since the second Palestinian intifada broke out in 2001. Yet for residents of the beleaguered town that is only a Qassam’s-throw from Gaza, victory is not measured by military gains.

The people of Sderot want to win back their city. They want to find a way of restoring its beat and rhythm. But even if the immediate threat of rockets is curtailed, a city with a sordid history of terror stands little chance of ever being revived. And terror is only one variable in the equation. Sderot remains one of Israel’s most impoverished cities, with a disproportionately large number of welfare recipients, many of whom are illiterate immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. The burden of educating and integrating individuals of these diverse backgrounds is, by its own admission, beyond the capacity of Sderot’s local municipal authority, which is overwhelmed with simply trying to protect its citizens from the ongoing security threat.

Additionally, young people tend not to stay in Sderot, and this negative net migration means the city also has a population that is mostly elderly. Enter Ayalim’s latest initiative: building a student village in Sderot.

Ayalim, the largest Zionist youth movement in Israel, aims to develop the country’s social and geographical peripheries. Although the Negev and Galilee together comprise around 80 percent of Israel’s total land, only 8 percent of the country’s economy comes from those areas. With the vision of realizing David Ben-Gurion’s dream of “making the desert bloom,” Ayalim hopes to reverse that trend. Since its inception in 2002, Ayalim has built 14 student villages across Israel, housing close to 1,000 students. But with more than 300 students set to move in beginning this October, the Sderot village will become the biggest one yet. Construction began just before the outbreak of the latest operation in Gaza, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave final approval for the village at an Aug. 10 cabinet meeting.

As a nonprofit, Ayalim aims to keep costs down by using existing buildings and finding other inventive ways to reuse in its formation of student villages. In the case of Sderot, the village will utilize an abandoned elementary school in the town center as well as recycled shipping containers. Bizarre as it may seem, shipping containers make for ideal housing because in addition to being cost-effective, they are extremely durable and quick to build.

Did the latest operation in Gaza mean that construction was put on hold?

“Absolutely not,” said Anaelle Lauer, who is also part of Ayalim’s partnership development team. “In fact, just the opposite. We think this is the exact time to continue to demonstrate our solidarity with the citizens of Sderot, and for that reason we’re going full steam ahead.”

According to Lauer, the volunteers – who are in their “shnat sherut,” a gap year for Israeli post-high school students performing national service – are working around the clock to get the project finished in time.

“It isn’t always easy,” she said. “Sometimes you’re up on a ladder hammering away and a siren blares, and then of course you have 15 seconds to scramble to the [bomb] shelter.”

It isn’t only Israelis who are giving up their time to rebuild Sderot. At the behest of ARZA, the Zionist wing of the Reform movement, a group of rabbis from around the U.S. volunteered at the construction site during the height of Operation Protective Edge. Unafraid to get their proverbial hands dirty, the rabbis were involved in anything from bricklaying to spackling.

“The work [Ayalim] is doing in Sderot is of utmost importance,” said Rabbi Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, N.J. “I was honored to be a small part of it.”

Come October, the village will be populated with students from Sapir College, an academic institution located just outside Sderot. Current enrollment stands at about 8,000 Israelis. Since Sderot offers very little by way of student housing, however, most of them are forced to find accommodation in surrounding settlements and kibbutzim. This means that they end up contributing very little to the development of the town.

“But we’re changing all that,” said Effy Rubin, Ayalim’s director of partnership development. “We’re hoping that the [Sderot] student village will have the same impact that our others have had elsewhere in Israel. A trifecta of education, integration, and innovation. When you have young people move into distressed communities, the change is almost immediate.”

Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi was delighted at the news that Ayalim would be building a village in the heart of his city.

“Both in vision and in spirit, the establishment of a student village is great news for the city,” he said. “This is the first step in our strategic plan to transform Sderot into a student city as well as providing solutions for affordable accommodation to our young people, and of course to hundreds of students who study in Sapir College.”

In addition to subsidized housing in the village, each resident of the village will receive a full scholarship to Sapir College. In return, students are expected to give back 500 hours annually to the local community. This includes volunteering with Sderot’s youths, both in conjunction with the city’s school system and within the framework of informal education. As with all the other student villages built by Ayalim, the Sderot village will have a family center connected to it that will host local events and social activities. Lauer said that “charity begets more charity,” and in her experience, the buck never stops with just the 500 mandatory hours.

“What you’ll find is that [Ayalim’s] residents will keep on volunteering in projects of their own initiative,” she said.

Rubin explained that there is a problem with the Sderot’s branding in that young people simply aren’t enticed by the town’s image as a desperate, rocket-strewn wasteland. But over the years, Ayalim has gained a reputation for spearheading change.

“If anyone can change Sderot’s image, its Ayalim students,” said Rubin. “We also want to show that violence won’t prevent Israelis from living near the border. On the contrary, if anything, violence just spurs us on to build and develop more fiercely than ever. As the new pioneers of Israel, Ayalim’s young people are what today’s Zionism is all about. Making a difference to their own lives and the lives of those around them through social welfare.”

Indeed, Kiryat Shmona Mayor Rabbi Nissim Malka was so impressed by the impact that Ayalim’s student village has had on his city that he actually put forward a proposal to change the name of one of the city’s streets to “Ayalim St.” He said he wanted to show gratitude to Ayalim for “changing the face of the city, both in terms of education and providing solutions to the other needs of the community.” Ultimately, Ayalim politely declined the street-naming gesture, explaining that its aim was “to be a seamless part” of the city, not to manage it.

What happens once Ayalim students graduate? Do they abandon their city? While Lauer won’t claim that the students will all stick around in Sderot, she does think a large number will end up settling in the surrounding villages. While the student village may be a transient population that changes every few years, Ayalim has other projects to encourage young people to put down roots in Israel’s periphery. One such initiative is “Garin,” an affordable housing project for Ayalim’s married alumni as well as other young people looking to find cheaper accommodation in return for giving back to the community.

“At the end of the day, young and active spirits contribute a great deal,” said Lauer. “And the idea is that not everyone has to live in Tel Aviv and work in hi-tech. Ayalim shows that it is possible to live more modestly, but with cause and purpose.”