Four childhood friends who grew up in Tel Aviv made a decision while serving in the Israeli Army: If they survived, they would devote their lives to a cause.
At age 17, they weren’t sure what that cause would be, but after they returned from a trip to Poland for March of the Living, they knew they wanted to someday establish an organization that would help ensure that atrocities like the Holocaust would never happen again.
They also wanted to promote unity among Israelis and strengthen their country’s future.
“Why in the army, can we fight together but once we go to the city life, we start to fight each other?” asked Roni Flamer, during a recent interview with Jewish News, while he was in the Valley to speak to Jewish National Fund board members and supporters. “What is going on there?”
Flamer recalled that when he and his three friends left the Israeli army at age 22, they remained devoted to finding that cause, but still weren’t sure what it should be – education, culture, housing, the economy?
They soon found their answer.
After traveling throughout Israel, they learned that the Negev and the Galilee represent 75 percent of the land of Israel, but only 24 percent of the population lives there. And the Negev itself represents 60 percent of the land, with only 8 percent of the population living there.
“We didn’t think about the importance of the Negev and the Galilee at the beginning, because we knew nothing,” Flamer said. “But we looked at them as a platform for the young generation … ‘Go south, go north, let’s build a nation. It’s not done yet.’ ”
The friends felt so inspired by their plan that they anticipated that everybody would be ready to assist them in their efforts, but that wasn’t the case. They were told, “Take your dreams, it’s not going to work,” Flamer recalled.
This plan was to develop and populate the Negev and the Galilee by relocating companies and creating infrastructure such as roads and energy systems. “Like a real country,” Flamer said.
“People just laughed at us. No doors opened for us.”
In 1999, they were granted five minutes to meet with Ariel Sharon, who at the time was the country’s infrastructure minister. They persuaded him to permit them to develop 150 acres of land on a hill in the Negev Desert next to a Jewish National Fund forest and on the border of Judea; their neighbors were Beduoin, residents of a left-wing kibbutz and a wealthy community. “With the unity that we were trying to achieve, it was a perfect location to be among the society,” Flamer said. “We will create life, and we will achieve quality of life together and, once you do it, this is peace.”
Shortly after meeting with Sharon, the friends developed their first community – Sansana – and lived in a caravan of trailers on this plot of land in the northern Negev. Two of the friends were single at that time, and two were in the process of getting married. “It was a whole mess, this period of time,” Flamer said. Their energy was supplied by a generator and their water came from a water truck.
“The first four months was like the real pioneers of the beginning of the establishment of the state of Israel,” he said. Sansana “was the beginning and this was our school.”
In the first few months, the number of families living in Sansana grew to 12, and by the following year, there were 50 families.
Then, they realized that they couldn’t continue like that without further strengthening the community’s infrastructure. They began creating jobs – “in a caravan of trailers, you saw people building software” – and opened schools and day-care centers. He and his wife lived in a 400-square-foot trailer for eight years, with three children by the time they moved to another OR Movement community (they now have five children).
Today, around 80 families – more than 500 residents – live in Sansana, according to the OR Movement’s website, en.or1.org.il.
Soon, others began taking notice of what they were doing and other young Israelis expressed interest in joining them after finishing their army service.
By 2002, a total of three communities were established and the OR Movement was officially formed, with the mission to develop and build up the Negev and Galilee.
OR means light in Hebrew. “We don’t fight the darkness, we add light,” Flamer said. “This was our feeling right after the March of the Living trip to Poland at the age of 17. We’re not going to fight. We will fight in the army. Once we are out of the army, we just add light. We don’t waste any minute fighting someone or something, just build and build and build.”
By 2002, they had helped build three communities but were not taking any salaries and needed funds to continue their work. After a few months of trying, they managed to schedule a five-minute meeting with Ron Lauder, who was president of Jewish National Fund at the time, and JNF CEO Russell Robinson. They looked at the OR Movement plan and told the partners, “we wrote the same plan,” Flamer recalled. “Literally. They said, ‘We share the same vision.’” The five-minute meeting turned into a three-hour meeting.
“We were standing there dreaming, understanding that we found each other,” Flamer said. “We don’t know each other, but we’re doing the same thing.”
An official partnership between JNF and the OR Movement began in 2005, according to the organization’s website, and together they continue to build communities — both creating new communities and expanding existing communities in the Negev (through JNF’s Blueprint Negev initiative) and the Galilee (through JNF’s Go North Initiative).
The OR Movement also serves as a franchise of the Negev and Galilee Information Center through a partnership with Israel’s Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, which was established in 2005.
Today, the OR Movement has helped establish nine new towns and has helped more than 60 communities expand, Flamer said, with more than 30,000 people being a part of the different projects.
“We feel that this is just the beginning of the beginning,” Flamer said. The organization is now working on “the vision of how Israel will look on its 100th anniversary and this is the 2048 plan.”
Today, there are 700,000 people living in the Negev and 1.3 million in the Galilee, he said. OR Movement’s goal is to have 1.4 million people in the Negev and 2.3 million in the Galilee by 2048.
He estimates that Israel’s population, now 8.5 million, will double by 2048.
“Where are they going to live? This is our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create new centers of life in Israel. It sounds big and crazy. It is big and crazy.”
But Tel Aviv and Jerusalem can’t accommodate the influx of people so this plan is necessary. “In a way, we look at the Negev like Phoenix is today,” he said. “We are right now writing the business plan of Israel.”
Today, Flamer is the CEO, co-founder Ofir Fisher is the vice president, and they have a total of 46 people on their team. The other two friends who were originally involved eventually moved into the business world.
In 2010, Flamer received the Prime Minister’s Prize for Initiative and Innovation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week at the Technion in Haifa.
“Roni Flamer is one of the greatest visionary idealists that I’ve ever met,” said JNF CEO Robinson in a press release about the prize. “JNF’s partnership with the OR Movement is built upon a shared vision for the future of Israel: a thriving, prosperous Negev, and in a short amount of time we have begun to change the face of the Negev – with energy, determination and an entrepreneurial spirit.
“We look forward to all of the accomplishments yet to come. Thanks to Roni’s vision and dedication, our next generation is in good hands.”
“Israel is on the way,” Flamer said. “I think that there is something huge that is really happening in Israel. We look at the situation in the Middle East as an advantage to build models for impossible missions.”