A heavy haze thickened the air around the small cluster of prefabricated rectangular buildings, the result of a hot Negev wind forming swirls of dust along the dirt paths of the village. The normally blazing desert sun on this day glowed only dimly from behind a dusty veil.
The chamsin, or dust storm, that occasionally drowns Israel’s southern region under waves of dust particles from North Africa rendered the picturesque student village on the outskirts of Dimona uncharacteristically deserted on a recent spring day: None of the usual boisterous singing filled the community clubhouse; the central courtyard, paved with pale-pink rough-cut stones, was devoid of students lounging and laughing; no pensive young Israeli stood under the wooden gazebo at the edge of the village, which overlooks the vast expanse of rolling desert hills.
“This is not a good day to tour the Negev,” said Dany Gliksberg, a rugged and handsome Israeli tanned by the desert sun and dressed in a loose-fitting T-shirt and sandals. “Usually the village is alive with activity, and the view here is stunning. It’s difficult after living in a place like this for three years to go back to Tel Aviv. The beauty of the desert, the peace and quiet, the closeness to nature — there’s nothing like it anywhere in Israel.”
Gliksberg is one of the founding members of a pioneering Israeli youth movement called Ayalim, which is being touted as the hardy new transformation of old-school Zionism. Students live and work together to revive the Zionist values of community building, entrepreneurship, connection to the physical land — all the while building pride in Israel as a Jewish state by constructing villages in Israel’s under-populated peripheral regions. The students live low-cost in the housing that they either build or renovate in the middle of depressed communities and are required to do volunteer work in the communities — tutoring Bedouin children, for example. The goal is to create bonds in hope that once the students graduate, they will build their own futures — and the future of Israel — in the Negev and Galilee.
“Five years ago, if you approached a young guy in Tel Aviv and told him to go live in Dimona [in the Negev], he would tell you you’re crazy,” Gliksberg, 31, said. He grew up in Jerusalem and once had aspirations of becoming a doctor but now feels that he is fulfilling a different, and much bigger, kind of dream.
“Today, for every open space in one of our villages, we have 10 students waiting in line,” he continued. “Israelis today want to be a part of something larger than themselves. There is a real desire and excitement in our generation to be a part of developing the Negev.
“Past generations had clear missions,” Gliksberg said. “They worked hard and sacrificed to build Israel and defend it. Our generation is somewhat lost because after the army, there is no framework for young people to give back to the country. So the perception is that we don’t care about Israel, we’re not patriotic, all we care about is traveling and making money, and ourselves. But it’s not true. Ayalim is proving that. Our generation’s mission has become clear: to strengthen Israel by developing areas that are underused. We’re reviving the Israeli dream, the Zionist dream, of a strong, united, flourishing country.”
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