By Caylee Talpert
The sun has not yet fully risen, yet there is a buzz in the usually quiet desert landscape. It’s 5:30 a.m. and students are slowly beginning to emerge from the caravans and tents where they slept the night before. They sleepily spread chocolate spread onto their Matzot, while sipping Turkish coffee as they prepare themselves for another day of hard work in the hot desert sun. Despite the fact that most only made it to bed a few hours before, they wake up voluntarily, ready to spend another day “getting their hands dirty” in the true sense of the word as they lay the bricks for a new set of houses.
If the unsuspecting visitor were to happen upon this scene, it would not be surprising if he began to wonder whether he was witnessing a desert mirage. Perhaps he will pinch himself and wonder whether he has traveled back in time and woken up in the 1940’s where he is witnessing a group of the Chaultzim (Pioneers) who are in the process of fulfilling the impossible dream of building the land and making the desert bloom. Perhaps our poor visitor will begin to wonder if too much time in the desert with too little water or too much Arak (a potent Middle-Eastern alcohol) has begun to muddle his mind.
However if this unsuspecting visitor would draw closer he would notice that there are loudspeakers blasting the latest Israeli tunes and that the Israeli flag hangs proudly above the building site. On closer inspection he would soon realize that these young men and women, in their standard Shoresh sandals and torn shorts, are in fact third generation Israeli “Sabras,” determined to ensure that their generation plays its part in the epic story of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
While to many this scene may seem to come out of a history book, it may actually sound quite familiar to thousands of Israeli students who have taken part in one of Ayalim’s regular “Shavuot Avodah” (Work Weeks) in the past 9 years. Over a few intensive days more than 500 students from across Israel come together to build houses, plant gardens, run children’s clubs and renovate one of the 12 Ayalim Student Villages that have been built by the Ayalim Association in the Galilee and Negev regions of the country since its establishment in 2002.
The last such “work week” was held this past April over Chol Hamoed Pesach. Students from across Israel, joined forces at Ayalim’s first student village, Adiel in Ashalim to build another 15 more houses in the village which already houses over 60 young Israeli students who currently study at Ben Gurion University. It’s hard to believe when witnessing such an event, which even included a visit from Israel’s President Shimon Peres, that all this began only nine years ago with a small group of young entrepreneurs who had just finished their army service. They had a vision of developing the Negev and Galilee by harnessing the talents, energy and idealism of the best and brightest young Israeli men and women.
Today the Ayalim Association serves over 20,000 at-risk youth and children in these areas. The association runs educational and social activities in Ayalim’s Ofarim Family centres, builds educational greenhouses at local schools, plants community gardens and most recently begun working with local Bedouin communities in the Negev. Beginning this year Jewish college graduates from around the world now also have the opportunity to be a part of these projects through the new Masa Ayalim Entrepreneurs Program
The Ayalim Student Village model is based on a reciprocal relationship of social activism and entrepreneurship where the students in exchange for financial assistance for their studies engage in community service in the area and initiative projects to help develop and rejuvenate the region. These students are in many ways the Israeli pioneers of the 21 century, who have made the decision to be a part of a vision that is greater than themselves and to live in a community that is based on giving and concern for others.
Perhaps most inspiring and encouraging is the popularity of these student villages among students who go through an intense selection process to be a part of these unique communities. Another impressive characteristic of the Ayalim villages is the diversity of the students who live there which includes both religious and secular students who come from vastly different backgrounds and who often have distinctively different political views. Visiting an Ayalim village, one is in many ways reminded of the egalitarian, socialist values at the heart of the establishment of the State of Israel. No one is too important to get involved in the physical work and at the same time no one is too small to take initiative and help shape and build the future of the organisation.
Despite this seemingly socialistic mentality and camaraderie that is at the heart of the organization, perhaps one of Ayalim’s most important features is its focus on entrepreneurship. Students are encouraged to initiate new projects and are given the support and guidance to make them into a reality. In this respect the organization has recently initiated a new Masa program, the Ayalim Entrepreneurs Program focusing on entrepreneurship to give Jewish college graduates from around the world the ability to be part of this unique organization as well as learn from some of the best of Israel’s entrepreneurs. The program is based in the Ashalim community, in what has been described as “Israel’s new pioneering frontier”- the Negev Desert.
Perhaps the greatest champion of this vision of the Negev Desert was Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who lived in the Negev and is buried not far away in Sde Boker. Ben-Gurion believed that,“It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested.” The young Israeli entrepreneurs who form part of the Ayalim Association seem to have taken up that challenge in the 21st century.