We hadn’t planned to start a new community in Beer Sheva, Israel. Our original aliyah plan had us joining a large group of new immigrants from the United States moving to Carmit, a new mixed secular-religious yishuv 20 minutes northeast of Beer Sheva. As liberal Zionists, we wanted a diverse community inside the green line. As products of suburban Jewish America, we wanted a nice home, with a yard, and good schools. But as Jewish educators of limited means, we needed a relative bargain. Carmit seemed to fit the bill on all three accounts. There, in eco-friendly home on a half-dunam of land, we planned to be the liberal fringe of a diverse Orthodox community led by a well-known and well-regarded American rabbi.
Too many obstacles scuttled that plan, but we kept moving forward, albeit with different goals and lowered expectations. We coordinated plans with another couple we knew via Skype, choosing to live in Beer Sheva, in an area with a high concentration of both religious families and English-speakers. Figuring that it might take years to build the community of our dreams, we followed the path of earlier olim, joining their shuls and sending our children to their schools. While it felt like a compromise, it turned out to be a blessing.
By becoming part of what already existed, we got a clearer picture of what we needed, and we developed connections with others who felt the same. We found a group of parents who had tried a number of years earlier to develop a pluralistic religious elementary school. They abandoned it eventually, but they were still dissatisfied with the status quo. We also found a number of parents who wanted their shul to be more “child-friendly.” At the existing shuls, parents of small children were often literal outsiders because their children were not welcome inside. And we found organizers of an annual women’s Megillah reading who wanted a more permanent home where they could take more substantial roles in synagogue life.
Using our social networks, we found other new arrivals that had dreams similar to ours. Two couples had just relocated from Modi’in, where they had been active members of a partnership minyan. And among the Ben-Gurion University student population, we found alumni of Jewish day schools, the Pardes Institute, and Camp Ramah who had been unable to find a suitable religious community on campus.
We had been told that Beer Sheva, a city in Israel’s periphery, with its large population of secular Russians and traditional Moroccans, would be one of the last places we’d find people who shared our religious sensibilities. But Beer Sheva is also the capital of the Negev, with a population of 200,000, a major university, and a growing high-tech sector. If you draw a large enough circle, a critical mass of likeminded people are certain to fall within it. Given the city’s population density, that circle only needed to be a few kilometers in diameter, a distance that the religiously observant could walk on Shabbat.
We were few in number, and we were not neighbors by any means, but we had the makings of a community. We organized a shabbaton so that people could get to know each other, discuss individual needs and desires, and identify shared values such as innovation, inclusivity, education, and communal involvement. A group of leaders emerged, a location was found, and a Torah was procured. We set up a mailing list, a website, and a bank account. People paid dues and we quickly secured outside funding. Less than four months after our move to Beer Sheva, Kehilat Be’erot was born.
While prayer is our central activity, the communal calendar is filled with social events, classes, hikes, and activities for children. At a local immigrant absorption center, we created a community garden and launched a special children’s Kabbalat Shabbat program. More recently, we began working to help a struggling local religious school. We enrolled our children there, joined the parent council and organized learning programs such as a parent-teacher beit midrash.
We have had our periods of contraction and growth. Many of the people connected to the university come to Beer Sheva for only two-to-five year stints. Some stick, but most return to the United States or Israel’s center. And yet, a number of us have taken the plunge and purchased homes in the neighborhood.
Though there is a pressing need to recruit new members, we focus most of our resources on nurturing the existing community and not the theoretical others who might join if we did this or that. We worry about the balance of English-speakers and Israelis, and the mix of students, young families, and older adults, but we have come to accept that we will attract whom we attract.
As the bonds between us strengthen, there is a danger of insularity. But for the time being, we are still too small not to notice and appreciate new people. We don’t anticipate adding more than a few families each year, but like Beer Sheva’s own patriarch, Avraham, we sit outside our figurative tent, ready to welcome travelers who may be heading our way.