By: Allison Levine
Kibbutz Erez isn’t a place on most peoples’ itinerary of places to visit when they come to Israel. It may be because this lush, green, and inviting kibbutz sits just a stone’s throw away from the Gaza border. There was even a time when parts of the kibbutz were considered “off limits” during the last Gaza war, “Protective Edge.” But Kibbutz Erez is home to a community of 120 families, one-third of whom are retirees or of retirement age. And yet, something incredible is happening here: Growth.
“Over the past three to four months, we have had 20 young families join us and we anticipate another 16 to arrive in the coming months,” says Roni Levine, chairman of Kibbutz Erez. “We aren’t just talking about ideology, although deciding to move to the Gaza border is pure ideological, but when you have established young families moving here, they are coming because of the community life it affords.”
Kibbutz Erez relies on agriculture — growing fruit, chicken, and dairy — as well as a factory where life jacket materials are produced and exported throughout the world. Kibbutz members work within the community or have jobs in Israel’s south, though some also make the long commute to the center of the country for work.
What’s notable is that even with the constant undercurrents of the security situation currently rocking the country, people are looking to make the move to Erez, and there’s even a waiting list for housing.
Thanks to a project supported by Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) Housing Development Fund Task Force, new homes are being built in Erez to accommodate the influx of new families.
Rubin Pikus (in photo at left), of Palm Beach Gardens, FL traveled in mid-March to Erez on JNF’s Billion Dollar Roadmap Tour with his wife Sharon and other task force members. With a background in real estate, his work on the housing task force is a natural extension of his experience. “Israel is in a bit of a bad neighborhood, but it exists because of Israelis and the U.S. commitment to advancing a dedicated people.”
Similarly, Evan Roklen, of Los Angeles, CA has been living in Los Angeles for about 30 years, is married to an Israeli, works in real estate, and keeps an apartment in northern Tel Aviv.
“It’s really hard to make a living in Israel, and we need to help people to find housing, we need to create more housing and bring down housing costs,” said Roklen. He chose the housing task force because he felt it was the most direct way to be involved with communities, by building infrastructure. He credits JNF for helping him expand his understanding of Israel and allowing him to see places he would have otherwise never gotten to.
On the same visit to Kibbutz Erez, Rick Krosnick, JNF’s chief development officer, said that “It’s critical for JNF to help provide a better quality of life for Israelis living in the country’s northern and southern regions. The truth is that lots of people, given the right opportunity, will leave the center. There isn’t the same sense of community in the big cities that you see in places like Kibbutz Erez.”
Accompanying Krosnick was his 19-year-old son, Danny, of Deerfield, IL. Born into what he describes as “the JNF family,” Danny recalled that his Bar Mitzvah project supported JNF’s Sderot Indoor Recreation Center, a safe place for Israeli children and their families who live near to Gaza and under constant Hamas rocket fire. “This is my fourth trip to Israel, but the first with JNF. I hope to be back and more involved helping the people of Israel succeed, and to strengthen the homeland.” A student at Butler University, Danny Krosnick studies engineering and physics and plans to work in automobile engineering.
In another community nearby, a similar story is taking shape in Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Similar in size to Kibbutz Erez, Nahal Oz is picturesque with its scenic vantage points, and of course, with its clear view right into the heart of Gaza.
“We try to live a full life, a normal life,” says Ayelet Glass, manager of Kibbutz Nahal Oz. For example, the community recently established a small petting zoo for the community’s children, a normal project found anywhere else. However, here, they are only 800 meters from the Gaza border.
With the cost of buying houses rising across Israel, providing affordable housing for young couples is a challenge. JNF has been integral in helping a new housing project get off the ground in Nahal Oz by creating opportunities for families looking to leave the congested and overpriced center of the country.
The fact that housing options can be found here helps strengthen the community, as well as giving an option for young families seeking a place to lay down roots.
“In May, we’ll be celebrating the arrival of 24 new young families to Nahal Oz,” Glass adds. “We have new housing construction happening because of JNF’s initiatives, and we have families coming because they want to be here. Community is so crucial in a location such as ours — you need to know your neighbors, be together, and be strong together. This is about Zionism as much as it is about community life.”
While JNF has an established record for supporting innovative projects near the Gaza border area, JNF and its donors are helping to establish and create new communities and housing in this important area. JNF’s work will ultimately enable young, pioneering families to make their home in Southern Israel.