Bronfman Big Idea Series: “Renewing the Jewish Pioneering Spirit by Volunteer Work in the Negev”

Western Negev After Rain
Photo by Yaniv Ben-Arie, Western Negev a Week After the Rain

How can we re-awaken the Jewish pioneering spirit with strengthening Israel and helping to make the Jewish future more secure? Dr. Jason Goodfriend’s proposal for the Bronfman Big Idea contest presents the possibilities.

This is the 6th entry in the Bronfman Big Idea Series.

About the Author

DrJasonGoodfriendJason H. Goodfriend is a senior forecast analyst for a major corporation. He holds a PhD in Systems Engineering (decision sciences) from the University of Virginia. He has held a variety of posts in industry, government, and academia, and he is the author of the textbook A Gateway to Higher Mathematics .

Dr. Goodfriend has volunteered within the Jewish community on numerous occasions. He has always been deeply concerned for the Jewish people and for Israel ever since his parents played Yiddish and Israeli folk songs to him when he was a young child.

The Executive Summary

The goals of the proposal for “Renewing the Jewish Pioneering Spirit by Volunteer Work in the Negev” are the following:

  • Establishing a large-scale volunteering program for Jewish young adults and teens to help the Jewish National Fund, the Daroma Association, and other organizations working to develop the Negev region of Israel
  • Creating programming for and trips to biblical sites in the Negev and other parts of Israel as part of the volunteer experience
  • Designing a marketing and outreach program to the Diaspora to promote the Negev volunteer experience and to make the Jewish community worldwide aware of the efforts being made to develop the Negev
  • Creating programming that focuses on the central importance of the desert and the pioneering spirit in Judaism

The Proposal by Jason Goodfriend


The Desert as a Place of Spiritual Rebirth for the Jewish People–
The desert has played a central role in the history of the Jewish people. The patriarchs and matriarchs sojourned in the Negev. The Israelites received the Torah in the desert, and then wandered there for 40 years as they fused into a people. Moses and Elijah, as well as countless others, fled to the desert to “find” themselves.

The narrative history of the Jewish people is infused with stories of the desert as a place for finding ourselves and developing our connection with G-D. There is something about the desert that fosters a spiritual reawakening.

In the modern day, the desert provides an opportunity for reigniting the Jewish pioneering spirit, the kind that lead to Israel’s miraculous rebirth 60 years ago.


Developing the Negev–
The Israeli government and a number of major Jewish organizations have recognized the importance of building an infrastructure in the Negev that will attract new residents to this vast land that constitutes 60% of Israel’s land mass, but where only 8% of its population is settled.

In an effort to achieve the Negev’s development potential, the Daroma Association in partnership with the Jewish National Fund and the OR Movement released The National Strategic Plan for the Development of the Negev.

While the plan recommends participation by Jews in the Diaspora, it is unfortunate that most people in the Diaspora are not yet aware of these efforts. One of the central aims of this proposal is to change that. I seek to communicate to the Jewish community how development efforts will make the Negev into an attractive place to live and work, while simultaneously providing a physical locale where the Jewish community can rejuvenate its spirit while helping make Israel stronger.

This proposal is designed to further the following goals:

  • Helping Israel achieve its critically important goal of developing the Negev
  • Reinvigorating the Jewish pioneering spirit
  • Enabling Jews to experience how volunteerism and service to Israel can change their lives
  • Helping Jews reconnect with their biblical desert past
  • Working to ameliorate the demographic imbalance in the Land between Jews and Palestinians

Components of the Proposal: Actualizing Our Goals

Part 1. Creating a Large Scale Volunteering Effort in the Negev–

The first step is to establish coordination between the Daroma Association, the Jewish National Fund, and other stakeholders in order to develop a volunteer program for teenagers and young Jewish adults in the Diaspora to work on development projects in line with the organizations’ and the Israeli government’s goals.

For example, volunteers could engage in construction work, ecology projects, and assisting Bedouin families. Different volunteer tracks would be developed to suit preferences and interests among volunteers.

Different time intervals could be available so that high school students could volunteer during their summer vacation, and young adults (college or post-college) would have the opportunity to volunteer longer periods of time to deepen their impact. Room and board would be provided, but the volunteer would have to pay for airfare and any additional expenses.

Part 2: Visits to Biblical Sites to Enhance the Volunteer Experience

NegevThe leadership would create programming and host trips for the volunteers to Biblical sites in the Negev as well as in other parts of Israel. They could follow in the footsteps of the patriarchs and matriachs. For example, they could camp under the stars at historic locales.

They could visit industrial and agricultural sites in the Negev to understand Israel’s ingenious breakthroughs in drip irrigation, desalination, and other technologies that enable life in the Negev.

Part 3: Reaching Out to Jewish Communities

Speakers will be sent to Jewish communities around the world to introduce Diaspora Jewry to the importance of the Negev for the Jewish future, raise funds for the volunteer program, and make contact with potential new volunteers.

An important aspect of this outreach program will be to generate excitement about the miracles that Israeli technology is achieving in water resources for alternative energy. Israel is now a world leader in desalinization and drip irrigation.

These speakers will additionally work with Jewish organizations to generate interest in Negev investments and aliyah to the Negev.

How the Proposal Supports Our Goals

Over the last one hundred years, the Jewish people have been energized by the heroic acts of the Zionists in their successful efforts to rebuild the Jewish homeland in Israel. Today, there is a new frontier that needs to be tamed– the Negev.

Allowing Jewish young people to actively participate in making the Negev thrive will help to reawaken their Jewish spirit, as they emulate the early Zionists. It will also provide young people with the volunteering opportunity of a lifetime, while they connect with sites that are important to Jewish Biblical history.


Volunteering in the Negev will serve two purposes: to strengthen the volunteers’ feelings of identification with the Jewish people and to help them make a real contribution to developing the Negev, which in turn will positively impact the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

Points of Impact–
Outreach for the volunteer program will therefore focus on these two points of impact. It is critically important for the Jewish community to understand that too much of Israel’s population is concentrated in a small land area in the center of the country. Attracting people to move to the Negev will help ameliorate this problem. In order to do so, we must build up infrastructure and create high paying jobs in order to entice people from the center of the State to Israel’s periphery.

Demographic Threat to Israeli Democracy–
There is another important reason why Negev development is important to the Jewish people. At the time of this writing, Jews constitute only 75% of Israel’s citizenry and only about 67% of the population of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (not including the Gaza Strip). Even optimistic demographic studies admit this.

The Jewish community at large must be warned of the danger of a future Israel having to choose between staying a democracy and staying a Jewish State. There are many who think that Israel should not withdraw from the West Bank, or will be unable to due to an inability to reach a settlement with the Palestinians.

Under this scenario, if West Bank Palestinians demand voting rights, then Israel will have to choose between staying a democracy and staying a Jewish state. The Jewish people have waited more than 2,000 years for the restoration of the Jewish State. It would be more than a sad irony if we were to lose the state because not enough Jews wanted to live there.

The lure of low cost housing and high paying jobs can assuage the demographic situation by attracting more Jewish immigrants to Israel. The speakers who visit the Jewish communities to generate support for the Negev volunteer program can help ignite excitement about the advantages of moving to the Negev. These speakers can also make Jews aware of the investment opportunities that Negev development creates.


Jewish Community Speakers–
Finally, the speakers who visit Jewish communities can increase Jewish pride through education about the work of the Negev’s Jewish pioneers in the areas of science. Israel’s scientists are world leaders in desalinization, drip irrigation, medical technology, and alternative energies. Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is a major leader in the world’s effort to combat desertification.

While much of the world that faces the advance of the desert looks to Israel for help, Israel’s role in cutting edge technologies in this area is not sufficiently known or recognized by the Jewish community. The Jewish community needs to know that they truly are “a light unto the nations” with respect to critical issues affecting the Negev desert region (and many others).

Your Contribution

So what do you think of these ideas? Are they valuable? How could these plans be further developed to meet your needs more fully? What are your reactions and thoughts?

We can’t wait to hear your comments.


All photographs of the Western Negev taken by Yaniv Ben-Arie, with thanks.

Recommended Reading about the Negev



Like what you are reading? Please subscribe by e-mail or feed reader by clicking the sidebar icons.

11 Responses to Bronfman Big Idea Series: “Renewing the Jewish Pioneering Spirit by Volunteer Work in the Negev”

  1. […] “Renewing the Jewish Pioneering Spirit by Volunteer Work in the Negev” by Dr. Jason Goodfriend– UPDATED! Read the post here […]

  2. Shai says:

    Fascinating idea, in the spriit of the great projects of the JNF and Jewish Agency in years past. Kol hakavod!

    Some of the ideas are in some ways and smaller scales being implemented already. I think that the linkage of the south with the north via Highway 6 and improved railway linkages will help enormously, and was even a prerequisite for your plan to succeed. The direction is clearly the right one. But there are some structural issues that remain in need of tweeking, I think. I’ll bring up a few issues and see what you think.

    I think that a difficulty with it is that a lot of the ability of government to influence how development occurs is proscribed by a complete change in land use policy/ ideology since the early 1990’s, where today the Israel Land Administration sees land primarily as a national resource and asset to be harvested to the advantage of the budget than it does a tool of Jewish settlement. The Housing Ministry remains a venture that sees builders as a national asset and spends a lot of its effort protecting their interests, rather than seeking ways to make housing more affordable, a consumer interest. Changing back to a socialist “view from above” land planning ethic from the current capitalist one is a politically risky move now that all the “interests” have realigned to take advantage of the current system. I’m not sure there’s anyone who would back it under the current political constellation.

    To achieve some of your ideas, “the Negev” has to have a line drawn around it. That itself is a political hot potato – everyone wants in on the benefits. Is Sderot the Negev? Is Kiryat Gat? Are the benefits a line item in the budget or merely a tax moratorium, say? Do the benefits travel with those who move to the Negev, or is it an overlay on the area of the Negev? Even people who agree with your values and observations have been arguing about this for years, and nothing’s been done, because at the end of the day there’s a political dimension to the proposal and while our political system probably has greater flexibility built in to its structure than others, voting patterns in Israel rarely permit any party’s strength to be solid enough to gain access to that flexibility.

    Just one example of how affordable housing can be created, but which requires political decisions to permit, when you do the calculations, even conventional housing (there are some affordable/pre-fab housing alternatives floating around that don’t even require hookups to the electric grid – see “realhousing’s” web site) prices consist of about half taxes (VAT, recording fees, selling fees, purchase fees, permit fees and the like) – housing can be made more affordable even by cancelling all or some of these taxes, any place in the land. The government’s attitude is that by doing this in the Negev, they lose money because the same purchasing family didn’t buy a tax-paying property outside the Negev. I’d claim that these are families that wouldn’t have been able to afford housign at all otherwise, and that there is a win-win by dropping these taxes, or at least providign subsidized mortgages for teh tax portion so that the payment on the tax can be amortized over years rather than up front.

    And the Ministry of Industry has been trying to get industry to locate in the south for decades. The greatest success in this regard was Intel, but it required a fortune of tax breaks. Probably worth every cent. But most industries are not as big as Intel, adn their benefits for the country are not as clear, and it’s hard to get political backing to support them. Yet, similar to the idea of reducing taxes on housing, reducing income taxes on jobs in the Negev would have the similar result of increasing wages. But wouldn’t costs simply rise within the market at the same time, since people can afford more? There’s a certain amount of tail chasing going on in these kinds of ideas that impacts on their political populatrity to the negative. It’s hard to make sure that the people you want to benefit, benefit, and the people who don’t need the help don’t get it. With all the arguments that have gone on about this for years, nothing’s been done.

    But even under ideal conditions is the “lure of high paying jobs and cheap housing” really what motivates foreign Jewish immigration? I’ve heard this assertion before, but I don’t think this has ever been proven. I’m also not sure if the current generation of Jews will find the idea as alluring as past generations might have, for all sorts of reasons that there’s no point getting into now, and about which everybody’s debating anyway. After all, look back and see when the greatest western aliyahs were, what drove them here. Are those conditions replicable just by providing high wages and low cost housing? I’d like to see more detail about why you think this idea would excite them as much as you think it would, even to the degree that they’d volunteer their time and contribute to the venture, and even make aliyah.

    And, I don’t think that Arab populations in the West Bank and Gaza are nor should they be even a consideration. If these populations are unable or unwilling to establish a Palestinian state, their demand for democracy can more appropriately be fulfilled by aligning their populations with the states that occupied the territories the live upon before 1967 (this almost happened with the W. Bank when Shimon Peres gained the agreement of the Jordanian King, but PM Shamir nixed the idea) – which is to say, it is as reasonable that these territories become Jordanian and Egyptian than Israeli (with whom we already have peace agreement), and the whole threat to Israeli democracy would be displaced. The “demographic threat” does not demand that Israel own responsibility for it, and I think the ideas you mention have merit enough that this matter need not be a driving force for it. On a parallel point, the Beduin of the Negev are yet another issue you’ll have to confront. There are massive farming tracts that are legally Beduin owned, and many lands that the state says are legally public lands that the Beduin settle upon, claiming as their own, the so called “unrecognized villages”. I wonder what you mean by “assisting the Beduin” in this regard. I am not naive enough to believe the state is right in all their claims, but surely the Beduin have some obligation of proof that those lands are theirs when the state claims otherwise, and this matter of Beduin tent-cities has hugely impacted large potential housing tracts close to national infrastructure like roads, gas lines, rail lines etc. that would be used for your projct. Eventually your ideas would have to deal with this, but how? The government has proposed large re-settlement packages per Beduin family to concentrate them in cities like Rahat. As far as I know though, the impact has not been felt. Not sure why.

    That’s it – good work, Professor. I enjoyed reading about your ideas.

  3. thenewjew says:


    What Shai didn’t tell you in this comment– all though it is pretty obvious– is that this kind of planning and community development is his expertise.


    A number of these issues are ones that Jason and I have already talked about. I am interested to hear his thoughts and reactions in relationship to your questions.

    Although I think the idea of forming a Negev volunteer corps is a great one, I think we get a little lost here when talking about movement about population, housing, and business because the issues get so technical and complex.

    The whole issue about the Bedouins in particular– which there has been a lot about in the news lately and I can get you some links if you want them– is a complete quagmire. As a Negev resident, I have very mixed feelings about the Bedouins. Their living conditions in the unrecognized villages are pretty much abject poverty, but I understand they are better in towns like Rahat and Lakhish.

    My friends who are long time Be’er Shevaim came to live here because their grandfathers who fought in the Negev in the War of Independence were paid in conquered tracts of land in the desert. Although B”S is still thought of very much as a desert city, life here is vastly different and far more developed than in the villages, who aren’t living so differently than they have lived at any other point in history (except now they have generators to compensate for the lack of electricity).

    While I want to say that I consider water pipes and electricity wiring a basic human right at this point, it is not that simple. There is still a lot of violence in the Negev around these issues.

    I don’t want to say too much more because it is not an issue I am particularly knowledgeable about, but I would like to learn more if anyone who reads this (Shai and others) do know more and are willing to share.


  4. Shai says:

    I agree that the focus of the project should be less global, more focused on the impacts on individuals – because it’s just not possible to control much with a project like this on the “macro’ scale with the Israeli government at the helm, unless you’re prime minister. And even then….

    The reason I thought it resembled the projects of JNF and the Jewish Agency years back is precisely because the Professor’s is a “big” plan. Such plans have ill-received connotations in Israel today; they are not trusted, because they have in the past consumed a lot of resources with, Israelis feel, inadequate results. The impression is that projects like this depend a great deal on “the powers that be” to play honestly with the enormous power they’ve been given and time and again, disappointment sets in. So anything that works primarily through government is for now going to make your project less implementable. I know it might sound rough, but lots of politicians show their power by preventing you from achieving your vision, not by helping you achieve it. So unless the timing is exactly right, projects that can be done largely within the 3rd sector are going to be more satisfying. I wish it were different.

    Anyway, Maya there are zoning maps for how development is to be achieved in all of Israel. There are also long-range plans. Places that are mapped as grazing lands or agricultural lands do not get the same infrastructure as lands zoned “residential”. When squatters squat on agricultural land or nature reserves and build small villages, it is prohibitively expensive per capita to get the infrastructure to these places. This is one significant reason why the government wants the Beduin to be more concentrated, becasue they DO want to supply services but they want the services to be supplied on a reasonable per capita cost basis.

    Some reasons are defense oriented – areas for military training are off limtis. Some are safety limitations – like near the Dimona nuclear reactor. Other reasons are aesthetic – the equivalent of not wanting the building shanty towns on parkways. Other reasons are related to lands that are designated as a land bank for residential development in the future, after infrastructure like roads and railroads are in place (in a place like Israel where more than 90% of land is government controlled – like Alaska – government defines when areas of land are “ripe” for development). Sometimes these encampments end up on these future rights of way and it takes years to clear the legal way to permit construction to continue, at great cost and inconvenience to the rest of the population. So though it may be a human right to get these utilities and services, I think we all as taxpayers have the right to be able to deliver those at a reasonable cost, and the compromise this requires is either that Beduin settle in non-utility served encampments designated as such, or move to places like Rahat and Lakhish (cities with large ARab populations in the Negev). From there they can be provided better services like schooling and health services for less money.

    But they won’t cooperate. So then what? No answers. There is progress at a glacial pace, but it doesn’t satisfy anybody. It’s a real problem.

    I can say that I know first hand that in the areas of the railroad I’ve been working on the environmental rehab in the south, disputes with Beduin have significantly delayed work. The police do nothing about their threats to damage the persons or equipment of the contractors and demands for protection payments, any demarcation lines like fences or stakes are simply stolen which further delays work, and they have become adept at holding whole projects up for ransom payments from the government, quasi government institutions like the railroad and electric company, and contractors. Their attitudes to Arab contractors are not different than those to Jewish contractors – they are fiercly tribalistic (they don’t see all Arabs as “of them”), and respect laws based only on their system of mores, which dates back hundreds if not thousands of years to a time before Islam governed the desert nomads.

    So, yes it’s problematic – I don’t know how to resolve the problem in a gentlemanly fashion. A lot of people in the south are fed up with it and want the police to enforce the law but for some reason they don’t. I’m puzzled.

  5. I have seen a bunch of JNF and other ads in the local Jewish news advertising programs to work in the Negev, and soliciting donations for Negev development, so obviously more work needs to be done there. I tend to believe that as the Israeli population grows, people will need to expand somewhere, and the Negev is the logical place for that.

    A couple ideas for this project:
    1. You might try to get the Negev added as a location for service oriented spring break trips that are offered on many college campuses.
    2. Similar to a reverse Birthright, maybe Israelis can volunteer in other countries where work is needed as well. For example, some U.S. students could volunteer in the Negev, and some Israeli students can volunteer in New Orleans. This might work to ease some concerns that the project only benefits Israel.
    3. I think that some funds and/or college credit and/or grants for future education would be a good way to get more people interested, and willing to donate their time to this project. For example, City Year (a project where youth donate a year of their time to work in the inner city) gives money after completing the year of service to be used for future educational expenses. Why not offer some additional incentive for people to work in the Negev, if that is possible? To get people to stay for more than a week or two, how about offering college credit, or some type of stipend? We’re talking about some serious manual labor, in the desert. I believe that something will be needed to entice people, beyond the good cause, and the room and board, if you want people to stay for more than a short time. Especially if airfare is not covered.

    These are just a few things to think about.

    Thanks for sharing this project!

    Another great write-up Maya.

  6. Jason Goodfriend says:


    I want to thank you very much for your highly insightful comments. It is obvious that you are an expert in land use. If my proposal were to proceed, I would need to consult heavily with people such as yourself. I understand the political difficulties, and you have a done an excellent job of describing them. However, I believe that with perserverence, we can overcome enough of them to make a difference. Also, as the main thrust of my proposal is a volunteer program, I’m sure that we can find useful things for the volunteers to do, with or without political difficulties.

    I also agree with you that it is entirely possible that the Jewish community will not be as excited as I hope for about what is going on in the Negev. However, my anecdotal evidence is that many Jewish leaders are unaware of the technological miracles that are occuring there, are they are excited when they hear about them. Also, in general, most Jews are unaware of the phenomenal contributions that the Jewish people in almost every major human endeavor. I think this is an untapped real source of pride.

    With regard to the demographic issue, I was shocked when I recently learned that Jews only constitute about 75% of Israel proper. This number used to be about 86% when I was in high school. Also, Jews are shocked when I tell them. Also, if Israel does annex the West Bank, I do not think simply labelling them as Jordanian citizens is going to be an adequate solution. It is highly likely that Jordan will refuse to take over responsibilities for any of this territority.

    In any case, even if the demographic ‘threat’ is overblown, I believe that the Israeli economy will benefit from Negev development. I think Israel needs to seize the opportunity to lead the world in anti-desertification and alternative energy. Removing the world’s dependence on Saudi oil should be viewed as an imperative. Also, I believe that we can achieve Diaspora Jewry to invest in companies in the Negev, not just to help Israel, but alos because they are likely to be good investments.

    Once again, I’d like to thank you for your comments, and I hope to hear from you again.


  7. Jason Goodfriend says:

    Anti-Racist Blog,

    Thank you so much for your insightful comments. I have also read your proposal, and I am impressed with the work you are doing in combating anti-Semitism.

    I especially like your idea about offering college credits. If my proposal were to be implemented, I would indeed pursue that. As Maya pointed out to me, there already is a Spring Break program in the Negev. Of course, my proposal has a larger scope than that. As far as volunteering in other countries is concerned, I think it is a good idea, but it is not really within the scope of my proposal, as my proposal is focused on Negev development.

    Thanks again,

  8. thenewjew says:

    If anyone is having problems posting comments, please e-mail me at mayan80 [at]


  9. L. Gurney says:

    Jason Goodfriend – Did you grow up in Bangor, Maine?

  10. […] “Bronfman Big Ideas Series: Renewing the Jewish Pioneering Spirit by Volunteer Work in the Neg… […]

  11. Liz Hancock Zacharias says:

    Jason, I just briefly read through your theory. I find the idea fascinating. As a non Jew and a Christian, I find truths in what you say about the spriitual birth coming out of the desert place. I am also wondering if I went to the University of Maine at Orono with you? You came to my mind today and I looked you up on the internet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: