Pioneers of the Periphery: Olim of the South

A new wave of English-speaking Olim is heading to Israel's periphery and enjoying a genuinely southern welcome.

Benzi Kluwgant ,

Olim on wheels
Olim on wheels
Benzi Kluwgant

Hoping to make a meaningful contribution to a high-potential area? Interested in buying a private home for the price of an apartment? Looking for a less stressful life that has the flavor of an exotic vacation? A new wave of English-speaking Olim is heading to Israel's periphery and enjoying a genuinely southern welcome.

You have the ability to make an impact here, to be a big fish in a smaller pond,” notes Ravit Greenberg, a Schenectady New York native who made Aliyah in 2005 and now lives with her family in Be'er Sheva. According to Greenberg, who is the Director of the Nefesh B’Nefesh Go South initiative, “people have Negev pride and they want to bring you into it.” Be'er Sheva, Ashkelon, Mitzpeh Ramon and other areas are receiving these enthusiastic immigrants with open arms, and word is spreading fast.

Since the launch of Go South, interest in moving to the Negev region has more than tripled. “We hope to bring several hundred Olim to the south this year and next,” reports Greenberg. Most of these families and singles are new to Israel, while others made Aliyah recently and are now heading south thanks to the help of Go South's relocation project. Although Olim receive grants no matter where they settle, all these future residents of the southern cities will receive a greatly enhanced Go South assistance package. This package is thanks to the sponsors of the program: Nefesh B'Nefesh, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, The Jewish Agency For Israel, the Jewish National Fund and Israel's Ministry of Immigrant Absorption.

The combination of this new incentive package and the superb infrastructure developed by the many southern Olim who came from America, South Africa and England in the 70's and the 80's, means that the opportunity is ripe for a new generation of periphery pioneers.

Ophira Stramer and family are already on board. 28-year-old Stramer made Aliyah to Arad in 2004 and moved to Be'er Sheva a year later. “I wanted to be away from the center. I was hoping to go to an area with not as many Anglos, to learn the language and become as Israeli as possible,” she explains. For the past nine years Stramer has been teaching high level English at Sapir College in Sderot. Recently chosen as Teacher of the Year, Stramer is making a successful career meeting the high demand for English language teachers in the region. Naturally this means that she speaks English most of the day. “It's funny,” she reflects with a chuckle. “I came to become Israeli but I married an American and I work in English. I see I gravitate towards English and I don't fight it anymore.” Of course, Stramer still has ample opportunity to work on her Hebrew since amongst shopkeepers and other service-providers in the city, knowledge of English is a rarer commodity than in other parts of the country.

Stramer's other half, Josh, is an environmental engineer who supervises environmental remediation projects in Ramat Hovav, Haifa and other areas. Eager to apply his talents to the south in all ways, Mr. Stramer also uses his green thumb to run a communal garden that he established for children of Olim who live in a nearby absorption center.

When not at work or caring for their young family, the Stramers enjoy the local color, and the neighbors. After renting for a year, the Stramers bought a nice apartment in one of the city's newer neighborhoods. “Housing is much cheaper in the Negev,” she points out. “And food is as well. We have friendly Israeli neighbors with kids the same age as our kids. There's a courtyard in front of our building and there's something so nice about watching all the little kids running down to play there together. I grew up in a non-Jewish area and I didn't know how special it is that kids can play outside on Shabbos.” Ophira comments. “There's lots of school options and lots of shuls in the area. And there's something about the pace of life here, people seem more relaxed.” For a more relaxed city, Be'er Sheva is notably dynamic, since, as Stramer enumerates, it boasts: New museums, a new industrial park, a mayor who keeps the city beautiful and clean, and a thriving university with an active student life. Thanks to the popularity of Ben Gurion University of the Negev and the Shamoon College of Engineering, Be’er Sheva has emerged as Israel's college town, and the destination of many students including native Israelis, foreign exchange students and Olim. According to Stramer even Be’er Sheva's weather is a draw. “The heat is dry here. There's no humidity. I appreciate that.” The Stramers' love of their adopted hometown clearly runs deep, just ask their nearly six-year-old son Negev, he'll tell you all about it!

Everyone from young children through seniors, can find their niche. With many of the first wave of southern Olim nearing retirement age, they are welcoming contemporaries coming to retire in the sunny south. “We're seeing a new trend,” Greenberg comments. “Seniors are coming, knowing they can find affordable homes here, live off their pensions, enjoy nice weather and enjoy a built-in English-speakers network of people their age.”

For younger folk looking to work in the south, there is also good news: Companies are hiring and local yishuvim and kibbutzim have ambitious business ventures that require talented employees/members. As Greenberg summed up the scene “Although there are perhaps fewer jobs specifically for English-speakers, there is also less competition for those jobs.” It only takes one right offer to launch a new life.

Newlywed Bernie Malaky is in the midst of launching his new life, in Ashkelon. 29-year-old Malaky, whose wife Dikla is a native of the city, has been living there for three months. Malaky, who designs and produces events, upscale simchas and theater productions, is busy developing a new client base in Israel. “Compared to what people outside of Israel are accustomed to, commutes are reasonable,” he reports. “The whole country is small. Ashkelon is called the south, but it's actually just a hop skip and a jump from the center of the country. Tel Aviv is less than an hour by train and so is Jerusalem. I go to Jerusalem once or twice a week. It's a super smooth ride, and the scenery is much better than when I used to commute from New Jersey to New York. The trains are clean and quiet, and the buses are surprisingly on time. Frustratingly so sometimes,” he says with a laugh.

In terms of drawbacks, Malaky only has one complaint. Life in Ashkelon occasionally makes him forget why he's there. “We're very fortunate. We live two blocks from the sea and there's almost always an ocean breeze. Every yard here has a fruit-bearing tree. This time of year you can pick any kind of fruit in your own backyard, or ask your neighbors to pick from theirs. Sometimes I have to remind myself that this is a day-to-day life and not just a vacation.”

Got that pioneering spirit? You're invited to help build Israel's periphery by planting roots in southern soil.

To learn more about the Go South initiative click here.