Sha’ar Hanegev—partnership region of San Diego’s Jewish Federation—ponders an economic mystery
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO – There is a big mystery in Sha’ar Hanegev, Israel, that has its ranking officials scratching their heads – with pleasure.
Notwithstanding that the municipality is located adjacent to the Gaza Strip, from which Kassam rockets are fired indiscriminately at Israel’s agricultural villages, and despite ever-present rumors that there might be increasing violence from the Arab side of the border, something strange has been going on in Sha’ar Hanegev.
The municipality is growing, practically booming, according to its mayor, Alon Schuster, who visited San Diego last week in connection with the Jewish Federation of San Diego’s 75th anniversary celebration.
Further, said Schuster, Sha’ar Hanegev’s schools have climbing enrollments. There is a queue of potential buyers of homes in the municipality, with housing demand far outstripping supply. As a result the prices of homes have gone up dramatically, in some cases even doubling in the last five years. From a municipality of nearly 6,000 people when Schuster took office at the beginning of the previous decade, Sha’ar Hanegev’s population has grown to over 7,000.
What is responsible for these symptoms of economic success? Schuster asked. Wouldn’t you expect people to be scared away by the “meshugenahs” (crazy people) of Hamas, who are running the territory next door? Shouldn’t development be depressed in the Israeli countryside located next door to Gaza?
Schuster visited San Diego with Sha’ar Hanegev’s high school principal Aharale Rothstein and the municipality’s planning director Oded Plut.
The mayor suggested that a new ruach, or spirit, blows through Sha’ar Hanegev, one that is reminiscent of the idealism that used to motivate the first Zionist pioneers who settled in the area. But it is not only that, he adds, it is the fact that in Sha’ar Hanegev, a balance has been struck between the socialist philosophy that the founders of the kibbutzim espoused and the capitalism of the region today.
“We try not to forget what the community is all about,” Schuster said during an interview in the office of Shoshi Bogoch, the Israeli shlicha (emissary) stationed at the Jewish Federation “The individual has the privacy to do whatever he wishes to do, but at the same time he has a commitment to the society and the society has one to him.”
Plut, Shaa’r Hanegev’s planning director, said people are attracted to the area because there are fine schools – modeled in some ways after San Diego Jewish Academy and San Diego’s High Tech High School—and because the municipality has a good working security plan for its residents. Additionally, there are cultural offerings, environmental consciousness, and partnership efforts between the municipality and start-up businesses.
Rothstein said the resilience in the spirit of Sha’ar Hanegev residents makes him feel that the relationship between the Jewish Federation of San Diego County and the Sha’ar Hanegev municipality has evolved from one of a benefactor and beneficiary to one of co-equal partners, each with something to offer the other.
“I remember 12 years ago Dick Katz (who was then president of San Diego’s United Jewish Federation) standing on the stage in Ibim (a community for immigrant students) and taking off the T-shirt of San Diego and putting on a Sha’ar Hanegev shirt and saying ‘Sha’ar Hanegev, San Diego, are the same; we are one,’” Rothstein reflected. “We felt very lucky that such a place as San Diego adopted us. After 12 years, we realize that they are not so strong and we are not so weak, that we need each other. It is not one way. To survive these past five or six years (of attacks from Gaza) and to grow up, it is a big, big deal. And now we want to show our success to the Jewish community of San Diego; it is not only a success of existence, it is a success in spirit.”
“I feel very good because now I have the ability to give as well as to take,” Rothstein added.
Schuster and Bogoch said that Sha’ar Hanegev and San Diego’s Jewish Federation both are seeking ways to strengthen and energize the partnership between San Diego and the Israeli municipality. Both communities are interested in developing person-to-person programs that bring San Diegans and Sha’ar Hanegev residents together face-to-face and produce synergies.
Joint cultural and educational programs can build the relationship, Schuster said.
“We want the people of San Diego to be sure that Sha’ar Hangev is their home in Israel,” he added.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World
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