July 10, 2008
NJ friends of Israeli town lament decision to relocate WUJS
By Gil Hoffman
The Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey funds several projects in Arad, including the Ethiopian Youth Center, where mission participants and youth created an art project with the theme Friendship, above. Federation officials were saddened by the relocation of the WUJS post-college program. Photos by Amy Cooper
ARAD, Israel — For 40 years, post-college students from abroad with interests in the arts, Hebrew, and Jewish learning would gather in the desert town of Arad. The World Union of Jewish Students, or WUJS, program regarded the relatively remote town as a sort of “Israel laboratory” that would allow young people to study Israeli society in an intimate, distraction-free setting.
Starting this fall, however, WUJS, now run by Hadassah, will move the program to central Israel. And according to supporters of Arad, including New Jersey participants in the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 program, the move is a major loss to the Negev development town.
Arad is a sister community to the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey and a cluster of other federations in New Jersey and Delaware.
The move follows closely a decision by the Jewish Agency to close Arad’s absorption center, which eliminated WUJS’ housing and forced the program’s administrators to rethink its future.
Central New Jersey Jewish federation executive vice president Stanley Stone, who lobbied to prevent WUJS’ departure and the absorption center’s closing, said losing both was a “psychological blow to the morale of Arad and the entire Negev region.”
Stone said he was willing to raise funds to keep WUJS in Arad, but WUJS and Hadassah decided to leave nonetheless.
Arad Economic Development Unit director Lily Shefi said the losses were “a big hit to the city, because the young people from abroad gave spirit to Arad.”
Arad interim mayor Gideon Bar-Lev said he would do everything possible to prevent WUJS from leaving. He sent a letter on Monday complaining about the decision to President Shimon Peres, WUJS, and Hadassah.
“It is anti-Zionist to take WUJS away from the Negev and move it to the center of the country,” Bar-Lev said. “At a time when everyone is talking about strengthening the periphery, they are doing the opposite. It’s a mistake and it has to be fixed immediately.”
Officials at WUJS and its administrators at Hadassah lamented the end of WUJS’ connection with Arad. But they acknowledged that the real reason why they rejected attempts by Stone and Bar-Lev to keep the program there was that their market research indicated that the program would attract more participants if it were moved to the center of the country.
“We’re very sorry to be leaving Arad, which has been synonymous with WUJS for 40 years,” said WUJS’ new director, Mike Mitchell. “But sometimes circumstances provide opportunity. The program has a brighter future now that we will be based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where its participants will have more of Israel at their fingertips.”
Mitchell said he intended to improve WUJS’ quality and double its participants, appealing to what he believes is an untapped market of post-college students who want a program with a strong emphasis on Hebrew and Zionism.
Arad “doesn’t speak to” young Diaspora Jews anymore and the program could not have survived with the small number of people who were willing to be isolated for six months in the desert town, Mitchell said.
WUJS alumni — who number more than 8,000, a quarter of whom have made aliya — have expressed outrage at the program’s abandonment of Arad. They said the serenity of the desert and its location in such a typically Israeli environment — far from the comforts of the cities that have become so much like America — was the key to its success.
Yehudit Cohn, who moved to Israel from West Virginia after attending the program in 2000, recalled how the lectures about Moses made her realize that she was home.
“Until I lived in the desert I had no appreciation of it,” Cohn said. “I felt a connection with my ancestors in the Bible. Arad is a lonely place where there is nowhere to go, which helps you concentrate. I was able to focus on the things I was learning and what they meant to me and the beauty of it all. If you’re in Tel Aviv, you might as well be in New York — what’s the point?”
Mitchell confirmed that he had received similar complaints from alumni, but he said there were also many positive comments praising the move. He said many former participants told him that they wished they were given the opportunity to attend the program in a different location.
Hadassah spokeswoman Barbara Sofer said all 50 of the participants who had registered for the program that starts in September had been contacted, and they all agreed to the move. She said it was possible that the program could move back to Arad in the future.
“This is a temporary measure that we hope will work out well, but we don’t know what we will do long-term,” Sofer said. “We like Arad and we are interested in further cooperation with the city. We’re taking this one step at a time and finding the best solutions we can. We’re making lemonade out of lemons. That’s the attitude of Hadassah.”
To make up for the loss in student population, Hadassah said it will be tripling the number of students between high school and college who come to volunteer in Arad from its Young Judaea year course, from 12 to 36.
Shefi herself met with Jewish Agency officials on Sunday to try and expand the number of Diaspora youth who come to the city.
A town’s ‘renaissance’
The news of WUJS’ departure from Arad came as a leadership mission sponsored by the Jewish Federaion of Central New Jersey visited the Negev development town July 1.
And yet despite the program’s departure, Arad Economic Development Unit director Lily Shefi told mission-goers that the town was undergoing a renaissance.
She said that thanks to the federation-sponsored Economic Development Unit, some 500 new jobs had been created and it had recently won a tender for an industrial incubator that would bring even more. Unemployment is down to only 4.5 percent from 11 percent just a few years ago.
“We actually have a shortage of workers in Arad and we have to bus people in,” Shefi said. “We have a new branding campaign to create a positive atmosphere in the city that was created by the ad agency McCann Erickson. The slogan is ‘In Arad there is magic in the air,’ and it’s true.”
Arad’s interim mayor, Gideon Bar-Lev, said the economy in Arad would continue improving and that he had not given up hope of keeping both WUJS and the absorption center there. He will meet with Jewish Agency director-general Moshe Vigdor next week to try to save the latter.
Federation executive vice president Stanley Stone said the absorption center was closing because of a budget shortfall at the Jewish Agency and because fewer immigrants were coming.
The leadership mission visited the absorption center and saw how it was helping a family that had recently come from Ethiopia.
“At a time when the aliya coming in is aliya by choice, there is less need for absorption centers,” Stone said. “But understandably, the people in Arad are very upset.”