When I was first told that I would be living and volunteering in Yerukham for the year, my initial reaction was loud sigh of dissatisfaction. Yerukham as I knew was a small town in the literally the middle of nowhere desert with nothing to offer a young jewish woman. Sensing my immediate dismay, my rakezet (director) Yael quickly began to highlight the advantages of Yerukham. “oh, you want the Hebrew, well this a really cool yeshiva there and a student village, so there lots of young people. And don’t forget that Mitznah is mayor and he has done a lot. It’s not the Yerukham that most people know.” I took this with a grain of salt and thought to myself “Well its not my first choice, but I’m here with a purpose and this is what I got, so Ill make do.” And that was that.
Over the course of the next two weeks, I found myself constantly reminded by the outside world how desolate and boring Yerukham is. Not one Israeli that I have encountered has had anything positive to say, although most have not been to Yerukham for 10 years if ever. Their sighs, negative statements and general looks of “I feel so sorry for you” typically are silenced when I say “Well I’m here to volunteer in the schools, and Yerukham needs lots of help so that is why I’m going there.” No one can disagree with me, and only follow up that occurs is a general invite for me to come and visit “be in civilization” every once and a while.
When Otzma ITC traveled to Yerukham on the morning of Sept 22, I was excited to finally catch a glimpse of this “isolated” community. The commute was much shorter than I anticipated, which was a bonus in my head, as weekend travels seemed more realistic. Driving in the bus I watched the landscape change from the flat sands of Beer Sheva to the more pronounced hills and plateaus of the Negev. Bedouins became more present and signs for camel crossings were posted every few miles. In the distance i saw a small mecca of palm trees and it looked like a mini oasis against the barren brown. Yael leaned over “That is Yerukham, Kyna.” Naturally I was pleased to have arrived and the green thumb in me was even more satisfied to see plant life. The first roundabout when entering the city from the west end, has obviously been restored. New coats of beige paint stand out to the vibrant colors of the desert blooms. A small hose trails in between the plants throughout, and the green on such a god awful hot desert day indicates that the plants are cared for daily. Immediately I can tell that this is not the Yerukham i have heard about. This is a Yerukham struggling to make change and difference. As we drive on “The main strip” to our first destination, I see a small walking path, neatly placed stones with plants growing in between, Olive trees line the street and a series of small community markets begin to appear. Once we arrive to the Government hall, I am impressed that the hallway is lined with gorgeous artwork from the students. I think to myself “This town clearly takes pride in the arts and believes in its children.”
Two days later, I arrive to Yerukham on a site visit with my colleague Melissa. After having a first initial reaction, I was still eager to dive into the core of this community that soon will become my home. I am happily satisfied to see the same beautiful entrance as I did two days earlier, but now I notice the unfinished work on the street. A new roundabout project is in the midst, and several small areas along the main road are torn up and smoothed with large curbs on the grass next to piles of bricks. I think to myself “Wow they are really doing a lot and its gonna look so nice when its done.” This time I am riding a public bus and we do not immediately go to the center of town. the bus circles through the many small neighborhoods around the center, and i for the first time really get to see what Yerukham looks like. I first notice that all the homes are shades of brown and blend in with the earth. So places have some small murals painted on their walls which add subtle highlights of color. As in most of Israel, garbage drifts freely on the streets and the overall up keep of the community is dismal, especially compared to my quaint inner city home of st. paul. A young man gets off the bus with his back pack and I’m certain we are traveling through the student village. Next we ride up hill on the outskirts of town and come through a series of typical looking high rise apartment complexes in Israel. A lady gets on wearing a tank top. “Oh good, not everyone is religious here,” I think in passing. We finally arrive at the town center and are greeted by an older man. “Melissa and Kyna?” “Yes” “Shalom, I am Avi.”
Avi, my new favorite best friend, one of the most amazing people I have met, is our tour guide for the day. Although he doesn’t know it, and if he does, he is extremely modest, represents the beauty of what could have been so ugly in Yeukham. He moved to Yerukham over 50 years ago at the age of 6 with his entire family. Born of moroccan decent, his family made aliyah like most, to escape the rising anti-semitism in the arab world after the creation of the State of Israel. His family, like most, was specifically told that they would be moving to Jerusalem and in the middle of the night were transported to the desert. Yerukham was established in 1953 as a series of small trailers filled with new immigrants who had been lied to and had no where else to go. Avi grew up as an Yerukhami, and served the military during the Yom Kippur war, and still coming home to Yerukham. After his military service ended he wanted nothing to do with Israel, and fled to the U.S. to work at a Jewish summer camp. After several months of being away, he had a dream that shook his core, and he realized he needed to return to his home, still loyal to the small town of Yerukham. Lost and confused, in a matter of two days his was back home and completely oblivious as to how his life would turn. He randomly ran into his old teacher and she asked him, “what are you doing with your life now?” not sure what to say and unwilling to tell the truth, he lied and said what he thought she would want to hear most “Oh I’m studying to be a teacher.” Afterwards, knowing he had lied and feeling guilty about it, he went and enrolled in school to be a teacher. He retired from teaching two years ago after working in Yerukham schools for over 20 years. Everyone under the age 35 was one of his students and our entire day was filled the joy and laughter this man has given his community. Person after person, Avi would share stories of love and triumph having witnessed and played a role in half the communities growth. The most remarkable part of it all, is that he and his wife won a piece of land in the neighborhood lottery and after 50 years of living a proud Yerukhami, he will finally be able to build a home, which is ironically located on the same hill his family moved to in the fifties, the hill of trailers filled with disillusioned immigrants.
Why do I tell you this? Because Avi “saved” so many young people and has continuously poured his heart and soul into this small town. despite the ugly truth of how it came to be his home, he always identified Yerukham as his home. Over the years he would travel the world, living abroad with his wife and children, and when it was all said and done, he still returned to Yerukham to teach. His loyalty, commitment and passion never waivered, and because of his dedication, a series of his old students committed to living in Yerukham after the military. Avi nearly cried as we listened to a young man explain his journey and decision process to move back home. He told us that he was going to live in Tel Aviv and had a job and an apartment lined up. However when he told people where he was from, he got a very negative response. This lead him to realize that he himself was part of the problem and encouraging these negative ideas of Yerukham, therefore he decided to move back home. word got out and soon 20 of his friends were living in Yerukham. Both of them encapsulate the spirit that possesses the people of Yerukham: complete dedication, love and commitment to the community and a passion to make a change. Whatever Yerukham looked liked 5 years ago, it is evident to me that the air has changed and the atmosphere has been uplifted. What once was of Yerukham is no more and the roundabout in at the entrance of the town is a testament to the change that has occurred and is to come.