Participants in the MEIR (formerly Selah) program for young people (ages 17 to 21) from the former Soviet Union.
Looking out over the sand dunes and open space of the Negev desert, Arie Lova Eliav had a vision: All this would one day be a youth village.
In 1986, Eliav – a former MK, member of the Hagannah, and friend of David Ben-Gurion - turned his vision into a reality, turning the once uninhabited land just three kilometers from the peace border with Egypt into a community he named Nitzana ("buds"). Today, the Jewish Agency supported Nitzana is a model educational community for sustainable living, environmentalism, immigration and absorption - not only for the Negev, but for the entire country.
"Today we are living not only the vision of Lova, but also of Ben Gurion, who even as early as the 1930s knew that the hot, sandy, dry desert would be home to agricultural communities," said Karen Kellerman, Nitzana's English language coordinator.
Nitzana, once nothing but an endless stretch of sand, is located just
three kilometers from the peace border with Egypt.
Every year, Nitzana hosts 15,000 youth from the south of Israel who are not only spend time biking in the desert, but who are exposed to everything from lessons in astronomy, recycling, solar energy, and desert wildlife. There is also a Rehabilitation Center for children recovering from disease and obesity.
Nitzana also serves as an absorption center, housing approximately 100 new immigrants each year from the former Soviet Union and North America. In the past the community hosted youth from Ethiopia.
"Being here has given me a feeling of new horizons and a connection to nature," said Lera Hazanov, 20, from Belarus, a participant in the MEIR (formerly Selah) program for young people (ages 17 to 21) from the former Soviet Union. The students spend five months living in Nitzana followed by four months in Carmiel, after which many serve in the army and then attend university. All the participants receive their teudat zehut (identity cards) and a high percentage of them remain in Israel. At Nitzana, the MEIR participants take ulpan (Hebrew lessons) in addition to classes in English, science and math. The classroom continues in the great outdoors where participants choose between two tracks – extreme sport or ecology.
Nitzana has a sophisticated recycling and educational center.
MEIR receives generous support from the Allied Jewish Community of Colorado.
"We are training them to be the future leaders of our community," said David Palmach, Nitzana's Director. "We bring the best students and offer them the highest quality studies and the tools to go on to university and successfully absorb into Israeli society. Often their parents follow them to Israel. We also help with job guidance and career coaching."
The counselors for the youth are highly motivated young Israelis from around the country who have deferred the army for a year of volunteer service.
Matan Lamdan, 18, from Moshav Gealia is spending his "shnat sherut" (Year of Volunteer Service) running the day-to-day activities for the young participants and leading them on biking and hiking tours throughout the Negev. "It's a lot of responsibility but I believe in volunteering and in the importance of helping others," he said.
The centerpiece of the community is their cutting edge work with solar energy and water conservation. Their solar park - 33% completed – will eventually fuel the entire community. "Here we've taken the enemy – the sun – and turned it into gold," said Palmach.
A sun desalination mechanism that is part of Nitzana's educational park.
Students who visit the park are treated to hands-on exhibitions about green technology, from the desert cooling tower, which is a natural "air conditioner" to a sun desalination display. Water conservation is an important part of the lessons – so much so that an entire classroom is devoted to this topic. (The chairs are shaped like toilet seats.) The lessons include visual presentations of how much water is wasted during routine washings-up and toilet usage, the importance of water conservation, and a behind-the-scenes look at how "dirty" water can be transformed into "sweet" water. In fact, sewage water from Nitzana is recycled into usable water for agricultural purposes through a program developed by Professor Gideon Oron from University of Be'er Sheva.
Water – such a scarce resource in Israel, particularly in the desert – is actually a hidden treasure at Nitzana. About 11 years ago, a geologist found a resource of water under the ground. Called a Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS) it contains enough water underground for 1 million people for next 150 years, which means Nitzana does not rely upon water from the center of the country. "This water has brought life to the region," said Kellerman.
The recycling center at Nitzana is just as cutting edge as its solar park. It is also a work of art - literally. Artist Michal Peleg gathered the trash of Nitzana and turned it into a classroom, with pieces of tires, rock, glass, soda cans and plastic bottles embedded into walls and turned into functional art. Here students learn exactly how materials are recycled and the consequences of not recycling. And the community makes sure that nothing goes to waste. Everything – from plastic to batteries to cars – are either recycled or disposed of safely. What can't be salvaged, like shoes and books and clothes, are donated back to those in need.
Nitzana is also a hub within the Negev. Neighboring residents often come to Nitzana to drop off their recycling or to take advantage of its half Olympic size swimming pool (heated by solar panels, of course) or to participate in sports activities. Neighboring communities can also use Nitzana's medical facilities since the closest hospital is one hour away in Beer Sheva.
The hands-on educational classroom to teach about water conservation.
Nitzana also offers a little-known secret, a weekend bed-and breakfast or tzimmer, as they call it in Israel. Amenities include furnished apartments and access to the activities of the community as well as the treasures of the area, such as nearby ancient archeological ruins.
Nitzana is a remarkable community. With its roots in the Bible – the land was graced by the 12 spies, Abraham, Hagar, Moses, and Miriam - it continues to nourish the land and people of Israel well into the future.