Part 6 of a series by Paul Harris on JNF UK and the diverse Israeli projects it supports, particularly its determination to help the Negev flourish
THIS was the view from the terrace of Yehelim, a super boutique hotel in Arad, as I enjoyed breakfast in the glorious sunshine.
I could see the Dead Sea less than 16 miles away.
Owners Gili and Gali had prepared a feast, as they had dinner the night before, which was complemented by tempting local beers, ciders and wines.
I was sharing the moment with Tali Ploskov, the no-nonsense, effervescent mayor of Arad, a city in the eastern Negev, best known as a stopping point for the Dead Sea, or somewhere asthmatics can benefit from the dryness of the atmosphere.
There are some who believe that the word ‘arid’ actually derives from the city’s name.
Arad is almost 40 miles from the Gaza Strip and as such was unaffected physically by November’s rocket attacks which had occurred a week or so before my visit.
But the missiles made their mark in another way — the people of Arad took in hundreds of families from Beersheba and Ashkelon and their children attended local schools.
The city though is well used to being seen as a safe haven. It happened during both Gulf wars and during Operation Cast Lead.
Arad is designated one of Israel’s official evacuation areas.
“The army thinks about Arad as a safe place to host everybody,” said Tali.
“There’s a permanent thing in terms of volunteers for emergency.
“A woman on the city council is in charge of volunteers in emergency times. It’s all community centred.”
Half a century ago Arad was founded as a development town. Today its population is 28,000 and rising.
There’s actually a waiting list to move there, Tali points out proudly.
When she arrived as a Russian immigrant in 1991 (“with a husband, two boys and $10”), the population was half what it is today, and decreasing.
Tali had a masters degree in psychology but her first job was as a chambermaid in a Dead Sea hotel before becoming housekeeper inside three days.
“I told my family in Russia I would be prime minister,” she said.
“I knew even then what people needed to come here. I put other people in my place.
I understood that they needed education for their children, security, culture and work.
“These are the things I work on now — and people stay.”
Forty per cent of the population are immigrants from Russia, 15pc are ultra-Orthodox and others who arrived from kibbutzim and moshavim to help build the city.
Things are booming in Arad today. Big industry and hi-tech companies are relocating there and there is only eight per cent unemployment against the national average of 10-11 pc.
The Negev region suffers even higher jobless figures.
The city is planning to expand as a tourist destination in its own right and, says Tali, if the Ministry of Tourism “does this right now, it will make Arad the capital of the Dead Sea”.
One projects is a new culture hall which will help Arad to become the cultural capital of the region.
But, points out Tali, Arad has no budget to improve the quality of life.
“We get little from taxes unlike Tel Aviv,” she observed ruefully.
But JNF UK has taken on the responsibility of helping the municipality to help refurbish its shabby but vast cinema and turn it into the 750-seater cultural centre of which Tali dreams.
JNF will contribute two million shekels (about £330,000) of the 17m shekels (nearly £3m) total cost.
“It will be particularly useful,” Tali says, “because of the large number of Russians who are cultured.”
A theatre cafe will open in the basement.
There are also plans to build 10 new villages around Arad.
“Right now,” says Tali, “it’s a city with nothing around it.”
As well as Yehelim, she points to the Mantur Hotel which is also receiving rave reviews and the artists’, dolls’ and glass museum, managed by her spokesman Oren Amit.
These and the annual summer music festival are all factors she hopes will encourage visitors to Arad.
Tali has been mayor for just three years.
But, judging by her determination, you wouldn’t bet against her putting Arad firmly on the tourist map, with the new cultural centre attracting interest from throughout Israel and further afield.