June 24, 2008 / 21 Sivan 5768
“I love the Negev. I was born in the development town of Ofakim, but thought about leaving so I could raise my family in a better place. Through my work at the Yechini Student Village, I am fulfilling my dream of settling the Negev and bringing about real social change.”
Racheli Atias, 24, is an accomplished singer, painter and dancer. Growing up in the southern development town of Ofakim, she took advantage of every opportunity to become involved in extra-curricular activities. Following her army service, Racheli began her studies in radio broadcasting at Sapir College, near Sderot.
During her sophomore year, Racheli was looking for scholarship assistance. When she heard about the Ayalim Association, supported by the Jewish Agency through its Young Communities Initiatives, and the work they were doing in building socially-active student communities, she immediately signed up. “I loved the idea of being part of a group of students who were building their own villages to settle the Negev, volunteering with children and youth at-risk in development towns and receiving a college scholarship,” says Racheli.
Racheli was one of the founders of Ayalim’s third student village, Yechini, which is close to Sapir College. “I was responsible for supervising the building of this village,” says Racheli. “It was the summer of 2006, and most of the students had been called up for reserve duty for the Second Lebanon War. When they returned in September, 60 of us worked day and night, with no electricity, sleeping outside, to build the village.” In the span of four days they put in the entire infrastructure for 10 caravans.
“When we put up the Israeli flag, and raised a toast to our new village, it was one of the most moving moments of my life,” says Racheli. In the four years since its inception, Ayalim has seen tremendous growth. Today, there are eight student villages in urban and rural areas in the Negev and the Galilee. Some 500 students are living in these villages, volunteering 500 hours a year and reaching out to over 5,000 children, youth and senior citizens. This year there were 3,000 candidates who wanted to join Ayalim, but only enough funding for 430 scholarships. “I am so proud of what we are doing,” says Racheli. “The power of our idealism is unbelievable.”