A group of about thirty guests and residents of Nitzana sing “Shalom Aleichem” together under the rising full desert moon. We are 8 and 18 and 40 and 60. We are men and women from Tel Aviv suburbs and Paris and development towns in Northern Israel and Moscow and Washington D.C.
A global (eco-)village
The world alters as you near Nitzana. You will see military drills and camels, and road signs to remote communities. As far as the eye can see – there is you, there is sand, and a parched sky. Which leaves ample space for you to dream.
Indeed, that is how the place was born.
Nitzana is an educational eco-village in Israel's Negev, about 30 minutes beyond the last signs of civilization (Aroma and McDonald’s), and just before the Egyptian border. It was imagined by late Labor party visionary Lova Aryeh Eliav, and built by The Jewish Agency for Israel. Eliav wanted Nitzana to become a “school to teach respect for humanity and its place in developing the arid wilderness,” and truly – it is.
Today it is administered by The Agency and the Negev Regional Council, and headed by a compact, ageless man appropriately named David Palmach, a true blue (and white) cowboy who began as Eliav’s right-hand-man close to two decades ago. And like any desert cowboy worth his sand in these parts, he makes perfect mint tea.
A strange looking tube-like structure at the village’s edge is a sun-powered ‘desert cooler,’ one of several installations in Nitzana’s solar park, a small outdoor science museum about green energy which is visited by about 10,000 kids every year.
But the thing about Nitzana is who lives there.
The dwellers at Nitzana are incredibly tranquil, particularly since most of them are between the ages of 14 and 24. Where their counterparts in cities are often wild, these transplants to the wilderness crackle with positive, open energy, disturbing no one or nothing but the Universe, in the T.S. Elliot sense.
They are a living mosaic who in their very being answer the question of “why Israel.” In the Herzl sense.
Nitzana is: Students at the post-high school service learning program (Derech Eretz), kids from Israel’s periphery who spend six months learning and volunteering instead of warming their mothers’ couch during the time between high school and IDF service. They return home sunburned, independent, empowered, and with a strong sense of communal responsibility.
Nitzana is: Participants of an Aliyah program called MIR, young people from the Former Soviet Union learning Hebrew and getting acclimated to their new country and culture with the help of a well-trained staff. It defies logic how people used to negative temperatures can love the desert, almost instantly.
Nitzana is: Other students, on a Masa Israel Journey program called Desert Challenge, a semester or two of Hebrew study and sport-instructor training in cooperation with the famed Wingate Institute. Swimming, working out, learning physiology, and hiking, many students fall in love with Israel (or an Israeli) and come to stay; others go back to their countries of origin as excellent ambassadors for Israel and Judaism… and in perfect shape.
Nitzana is: A few dozen Eritrean refugees, boys between the ages of 14 - 18. They walked across Sinai, often brutally abused on the way, to seek human rights and refuge in Israel. A boarding school at Nitzana provides these unaccompanied minors with supervision and vision – several years of being held by kind, professional arms – and an education.
Nitzana is: Some two dozen kids doing a year of service before being conscripted to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). These are Israel’s elite; demand for a volunteer year at Nitzana is in the hundreds, of whom the top few percent are chosen. These volunteers (called "shinshinim" in the Hebrew slang) guide school children at the solar park and guests at Nitzana’s hostel, act as big brothers and sisters to the Eritrean kids, tend arid crops, and generally behave as if the future is in their own personal hands, which I most certainly hope it is.
All of these young people take their meals together in a big dining room. There is total decorum. Every time.
A recent acquaintance, Tel Aviv attorney Gideon Fisher, remarked that he had thought the pioneer era was over, that his parents’ post-Auschwitz generation had suffered and done the work of nation building so our kids’ generation would not have to. A highly respected, successful professional with extensive international ties, Fisher was sure that Israel had finally arrived as a full-fledged Western country without the need for constant remaking. He found himself corrected on his visit to Nitzana, where the pioneer spirit is something, as he put it, "you can feel between your toes."
On second thought, we mused together, perhaps constant re-invention is simply who we are, as Israelis, and as Jews. Perhaps it makes us who we are. I am reminded of Shimon Peres’s mandate to be forever dissatisfied, like his mentor, David Ben-Gurion, another man of the desert.
The Silicon Coast of Herzliya and the sands of Nitzana bear the very same DNA, after all.
If you will it…
Back in Jerusalem, Nitzana is a mirage. But it is living proof that dreams are real, if you give them air, sunlight, and respect.