Local rabbis want Negev project to be responsible

Several Northern California rabbis have endorsed a resolution to ensure a massive development project in Israel’s Negev Desert doesn’t steamroll everything in its path.

Spearheaded by the Jewish National Fund, “Blueprint Negev” aims to make the desert bloom as never before. With its proposed array of parks, lakes, riverfront promenades and commercial development, the project would create jobs and make the Negev — 60 percent of Israel’s land mass — a more attractive place to live.

Ohalah, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal, adopted a resolution that urges JNF and its Israeli partners to consider the social and environmental impact of Blueprint Negev.

At least seven local rabbis signed on, including Pamela Frydman Baugh, Ohalah’s administrative director and its former president.

According to Frydman Baugh, Ohalah’s main concerns about the proposed $650 million project are environmental and social, especially regarding the Negev’s Bedouin population. So far, she says, JNF has responded well.

“We led with a kvetch, a negotiated kvetch,” she said, adding, “We are supporters of JNF and will continue to be. They walk the talk.”

For its part, JNF has no argument with Frydman Baugh.

“JNF is committed to create an environmentally sustainable Negev,” said Rabbi Eric Lankin, JNF’s chief of institutional advancement and education. “Top Israeli environmental organizations have helped us think through our development activities.”

Ohalah represents close to 200 rabbis and cantors worldwide, affiliated with many denominations of Judaism. The association is under the auspices of Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

The local rabbis signing on to the Ohalah resolution include Eli Cohen of Chadeish Yameinu, a chavurah in Santa Cruz; David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont; Dan Goldblatt and Chaya Gusfield, both of Danville’s Beth Chaim Congregation; Lori Klein of Stanford University Hospital; and Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El in Aptos.

One of the bullet points in the Ohalah resolution urges JNF and its Israeli counterpart to “ensure the social and political rights of the Bedouin population” and to “refrain from destroying Bedouin communities to make room for new Jewish towns.”

Lankin asserts that no Bedouin villages will be affected by Blueprint Negev.

“There will be no demolition,” he said. “We only build with cooperation of the Bedouin themselves. We turn to them to articulate their needs.”

Lankin added that throughout its 100-year history, the JNF has sought input from responsible Jewish organizations. “The JNF is a project of the Jewish people,” he said. “Every Jew is on the inside. We’re thrilled to hear from Ohalah and other movements. JNF welcomes all partners.”

Added Rabbi Goldblatt, “What’s wonderful is the response. JNF wanted to listen, wanted to respond, know our concerns. They wanted to collaborate with others that care about the same issues.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.