Those visiting Be’ersheva 10 years ago would have seen a run-down neighborhood with a dry river bank littered with trash, old appliances and tires.

Today, the capital of the Negev Desert is being transformed into the centerpiece of Jewish National Fund’s Blueprint Negev campaign, an initiative to revitalize Israel’s southern region.

JNF has a vision for Israel: to improve the quality of life of every Israeli, says Marc Kelman, a local JNF board member since 2000 and, as of last month, the national vice president of Blueprint Negev. “All of our projects make up that vision.”

Through Blueprint Negev, JNF’s goal is to bring a half-million more Israelis to live in the south because the center of the country is densely populated and economically a tough place to live, says Rick Krosnick, JNF’s chief development officer, who visited Phoenix last week to meet with board members and donors. “To do that, we really have to put a lot of energy into Be’ersheva.” 

Although the Negev Desert represents 60 percent of Israel’s land mass, only 8 percent of the country’s population lives there, he says. 

The area is not unlike Phoenix decades ago, notes Krosnick, who, during his recent visit, met with people whose families moved to Phoenix in the 1950s. “The parallels are very interesting,” he says. “We actually view what we want to happen in Be’ersheva and in the Negev in a very similar context to what happened in the American Southwest.” 

However, it’s difficult to convince someone to move from Tel Aviv – which was recently ranked the world’s second “Most Innovative City” in an Internet poll sponsored by the Wall Street Journal – “down into the south unless they have the opportunity to enjoy a good quality of life in the south, even beyond the economic factor,” he says. “They want to have great cultural opportunities and cafes and restaurants and the wonderful quality of life that we all want to enjoy. 

“In order to really accomplish our goals in developing new communities and new towns in the Negev, we wanted to invest tremendously in the redevelopment of Be’ersheva.”

JNF’s principal project in the Negev is the Be’ersheva River Park. “It’s the largest community capital project in Israel since the foundation of the state,” Krosnick says, with a price tag of $300 million. JNF was the catalyst to push this project forward and secured additional funding from the Israeli government.

The 1,300-acre river park includes a five-mile promenade alongside a 23-acre man-made lake, a pedestrian bridge that lights up at night, parks, recreation areas, bicycle paths and an outdoor amphitheater that seats 13,000 people, making it Israel’s largest outdoor concert venue.

Another major development in Be’ersheva involves Abraham’s Well, an ancient biblical well that had been located in a run-down neighborhood. 

According to the Torah, Abraham dug this well in Be’ersheva. “We saw this as an opportunity to really create a visitor’s center welcometo the city of Be’ersheva,” Krosnick says. 

Years ago, longtime Phoenix resident May Mann bequeathed $1.3 million to JNF; her donation became the lead gift for the Abraham’s Well Visitor’s Center, which was dedicated nearly seven years after her death on Oct. 26, 2006. 

David Frazer, a retired Phoenix attorney and former local JNF board member, represented Mann in selecting a JNF project, at her request, in the name of Mann and her late husband, Howard.

Frazer attended the Oct. 9 dedication of the Abraham’s Well Visitor’s Center, a multimedia project where visitors walk in the footsteps of Abraham as he enters the land.

Before the visitor’s center was built, the surrounding neighborhood was run-down and unimpressive, Frazer says. “People who visited Be’ersheva probably didn’t even know about [the well].”

Krosnick estimates that the attraction will draw about half a million visitors – both foreign tourists and Israelis – each year.

JNF has also built dozens of communities in the Negev over the past decade, Kelman says, creating job banks, providing incentives for businesses to move into the area and establishing a housing development fund. 

The next step in the river park’s development is to fill the lake with recycled water.

“Believe it or not, Be’ersheva, in the desert, is going to have the second-largest lake of all Israel, next to the Sea of Galilee, the Kinneret,” Krosnick says.

“The lake is actually going to have another benefit of being able to recycle the community’s water and flow it into a man-made lake for recreational purposes,” he says.

The Arizona region has raised funds for several projects in the Negev, most recently for the Central Arava Medical Center, which will replace a dilapidated clinic for residents of the area. 

The Arizona region’s recently launched JNF Women for Israel group held two events on Nov. 6 – a luncheon and an evening program featuring author Lisa Alcalay Klug – and raised $85,000 for the medical center, according to Deb Rochford, associate director of the Arizona region.

In the past decade, donors in Arizona have collectively contributed approximately $8 million to projects in Be’ersheva and surrounding communities as part of JNF’s Blueprint Negev program, according to Krosnick. About half of that went toward the river park, he says. 

“Phoenix has been a part of it every step of the way.”

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