Ofakim Mayor Zvika Greengold came to the United States for a May 17-18 conference on developing the Negev in Miami, followed by a two-day visit to New Jersey.
Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
May 28, 2009
Zvi “Zvika” Greengold is a household name in Israel. The IDF lieutenant, son of Holocaust survivors, is famous for his heroism in the Golan Heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when he held off five divisions of Syrian armor with just two tanks. For that act of military prowess, he won Israel’s highest medal of honor.
Now Greengold has ahead of him a different sort of formidable challenge: As mayor of Ofakim, he hopes to turn around the hardscrabble Negev town and help develop the entire desert region in the process.
Greengold was in the United States for a conference held in Miami on the future of the Negev, followed by a two-day visit to New Jersey. There he met with leaders at United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, Ofakim’s sister community, along with nearby Merchavim, under the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 umbrella.
NJJN caught up with the mayor at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, where he met with Rabbi Alan Silverstein. In a brief interview, he offered his thoughts on the conference and on the importance of developing the Negev.
He said he has two broad goals for Ofakim: “to be a town with at least a normative level of services and composite of people, and to be part of the huge move to develop the Negev, to double the Jewish population in the Negev with the aim to make sure that nobody else will be the ba’al habayit, the owner of the Negev,” that only Jews will control it.
Greengold said the biggest challenge facing Ofakim is its current demographic status as a town of immigrants. “Israel, as you know, is an immigration country; Ofakim is part of that. Unfortunately…a very strong stream of newcomers changed the demographic profile of the town and brought some difficulties,” he said, referring to the combination of elderly residents and unskilled workers.
If he can begin to attract educated and talented people to settle in the area, he said, “I believe the youth of Ofakim will follow them, and instead of leaving Ofakim — which is the trend today — they will stay, and all together we will change the demographic profile, which is problematic today.”
The people he hopes to attract?
“People with a Zionist ideology. We are ready to take the initiative to develop such a group to bring them to the Negev in general, to Ofakim in particular.”
‘Create the vision’
The Miami conference, held May 17-18, drew over 50 people, including professionals from North American Jewish federations — including UJC MetroWest — lay leaders, experts, and politicians from the region.
At the Miami conference on the Negev, Ofakim Mayor Zvika Greengold, center, meets with UJC MetroWest leaders, from left, Lisa Lisser, board member and Partnership 2000 chair; executive vice president Max Kleinman; and Amir Shacham, director of the Israel office.
The conference was initiated by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
The task of preparing a blueprint and budget outline for a binational steering committee was assigned to the federations of Central New Jersey, MetroWest, and Miami.
UJC MetroWest executive vice president Max Kleinman said the coalition of three federations working together on a particular issue is “rare,” although not nonexistent. He believes the work of such a partnership will strengthen the Negev region as a whole, since each community brings its particular assets and experiences to the table.
“One of the positive things coming out of this conference is that it’s broadening our vision to go beyond our own partnership communities — although they are critical to what we do — to focus on those overall strategic factors that affect all of us. For example, to the degree that employment opportunities in Beersheva are upgraded, that’s good for Merchavim and Ofakim because people will have jobs to commute to from Merchavim and Ofakim.”
Also attending the conference was the director of MetroWest’s Israel office, Amir Shacham. “For 61 years the governments of Israel have not done enough to fulfill Ben-Gurion’s dream of developing the Negev,” he said. “The Miami conference might become the point of change.
“As a native of the Negev and after so many years of working in MetroWest’s partnered communities of Ofakim, Merchavim, and Sha’ar Hanegev,” said Shacham, “I was very impressed to see so many committed people from both sides of the ocean working together toward this goal.”
Greengold said the Miami conference was effective in terms of creating a unified vision and a coalition that could exert enough influence to shape the future of the region.
“The challenge is not so easy,” he said, “but I believe first you have to create the vision. When you have the vision you can start working on the way to reach it.
“I believe the political power of the federations, of the UJC, of all these municipalities presented in the conference is good enough to bring the government to create some effective programs.”