May 2012 / Iyar 5772
Diners enjoy a meal at Café Ringelblum, a restaurant opened by a Jewish Agency-supported community of young social activists
Sitting in a small vegan restaurant at the edge of Israel’s hardscrabble desert city of Beersheba, Naomi Efrat, 30, one of Café Ringelblum’s owners, bounces her baby daughter in her lap and describes how she wound up in Beersheba, only 120 miles but seemingly a world away from her privileged Haifa upbringing.
“I joined an army branch that was working with at-risk youth who were soldiers,” she recalls. “Many of these people were nearly illiterate and I was overwhelmed by the social gap. I realized that I had to do something to get out of my social bubble. The Negev is one step behind the rest of Israeli society.”
So when Efrat enrolled at University after her army service, she started to seek opportunities that would bring her into contact with Israelis from the other end of the social spectrum. Many of Israel’s working class and working poor are concentrated in what is known as the country’s social and economic periphery, remote places like Beersheba. And while the Jewish state continues to experience rapid economic growth that is the envy of much of the world, many of its citizens in the periphery lack the education and specialized skills to keep pace with a free market society that has modernized at an astonishing rate. While Beersheba is the home of one of Israel’s largest student populations, most of the educated young adults who study or teach at Ben Gurion either commute from Tel Aviv’s suburbs or live in Beersheba for a few years and leave.
Few people from Israel’s professional class settle in periphery towns. As a result, there is very little capital invested in the city’s economy or its civil society. Israelis with the education and resources to organize strong, economically viable communities have gravitated to its core areas: the suburbs of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. In order to encourage talented young adults to settle permanently and infuse Israel’s periphery with pioneering spirit and sustainable community life, The Jewish Agency is providing support for young communities, or groups of educated young adults, who together plant their roots in various periphery cities and form non-profit organizations that are focused on empowering local residents to organize and advocate.
Currently there are more than 100 young communities in Israel. Many—like Efrat’s group, called Kama—formed as offshoots of youth movements. The Jewish Agency helps them become situated in periphery towns, with housing and budget guidance. It also helps communities establish social projects and identifies outside employment opportunities so members can make ends meet.
Kama formed in 2002. Four years later, it officially formed an NGO, Tor HaMidbar (Time of the Desert ), to help groups of people in Beersheba organize grassroots campaigns to advocate for better infrastructure and improved schools, which ultimately benefits members of the young community.
“There are not enough places for everyone to work, so we need to create a platform that will ultimately create jobs and allow us to stay in the Negev,” she says. “We are trying to make Beersheba a better place to live.”
As is frequently the case for young communities, Kama eventually reached a point where it was not economically viable for all of its members to work full-time for the non-profit. Some members had to find jobs in other sectors and contribute as volunteers. But the community also realized that a philanthropic model would not generate enough revenue. So, with support from The Jewish Agency’s Ness Fund, it opened Café Ringelblum with the idea of supporting the NGO through revenues generated by the business.
“Eventually, young communities get to the point where they want long-term stability,” says Barry Spielman, the Jewish Agency’s Director of Communications for North America. “The businesses they start are for-profit, but they are also a means to reach a social objective. The Jewish Agency provides seed money for a manager, business coaching and sales and marketing training.”
For Café Ringelblum’s wait and kitchen staff, the community hired youth-at-risk, who had been working at jobs that interfered with their schoolwork. The community also hired a social worker to assist these and other teens in balancing the demands of work and school. In addition, one of the community members remained as the full-time manager of the non-profit while a professional business manager was hired to run the restaurant, which uses locally sourced fruits and vegetables and homemade pasta and uses compost to fertilize a community garden and irrigates the garden with recycled water.
The community is hoping to establish a full-fledged sustainability center that will include the community garden and a recycling center and host seminars on sustainable living. It is also hoping to open another business: a second-hand clothing store that will employ local women.
“What the community is trying to do is prove that we can be successful and engaged by what is around us without having to live in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem,” Efrat adds. “When my father was growing up it was very mainstream to be a Zionist. Now if you want to be active in building the country, you have to take a proactive step. The typical upper-middle class life story is to go the University, get married and live in Ra’ananna. I didn’t want that story. Being here is the real success story.”