Choosing Tomorrow students Noa Gottesman (left) and Ido Brami (right) with coordinator Osnat Halachny Nir (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
Choosing Tomorrow students Noa Gottesman (left) and Ido Brami (right) with coordinator Osnat Halachny Nir (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

East Bay-backed nonprofit noodges college students to stay in the Negev

Arid, dusty Beersheva in southern Israel is a place many young people leave. But with help from the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, one organization is trying to turn that around by convincing students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev not to give up on the desert city.

“We want to try to reverse that,” said Osnat Halachny Nir, program coordinator of the nonprofit Choosing Tomorrow. “We want to say, ‘Hey, guys, there’s so much happening here.’ ”

To that end, Choosing Tomorrow encourages students attending the large and bustling university to solidify local bonds, not only with other students but with the region as a whole, by committing to a program of discovery and volunteerism in return for scholarship money.

Students who sign up agree to meet once a week in small groups over a two-year period. Choosing Tomorrow offers interest groups for medical and engineering students, for students working with Holocaust survivors, and for “lone soldiers,” young people from outside Israel who join the Israel Defense Forces.

Besides weekly meetings, the groups also tour the Negev to become familiar with the region — most are from other parts of Israel — as well as to learn about trouble spots and think about how they might help. A major component of the program is providing service in areas the students determine to be important or pressing, with projects planned and implemented by the students themselves.

“This might sound a bit weird at first,” said joint medical and Ph.D. student Ido Brami, who decided to set up a shelter for older prostitutes.

He’s always been interested in the medical and social problems linked to prostitution, and saw a real lack of services in the city.

“Here in Beersheva there’s actually nothing except a small shelter for youngsters,” he said.

With aid from his Choosing Tomorrow group, he helped take a rudimentary service center and turn it into a place offering yoga and computer classes, as well as beds and access to hygiene.

For the medical students, they learn how to be better doctors.

Participating in the program isn’t just about helping others; it’s about developing empathy, according to Noa Gottesman, also working toward her M.D. and her Ph.D.

“For the medical students, they learn how to be better doctors,” she said.

Students in the small groups of 15 also become close with one another. Choosing Tomorrow hopes that bonding experience will help motivate students to stay in the south.

The Jewish Federation of the East Bay is supporting Choosing Tomorrow through the Jewish Agency with a grant of $129,000 over a three-year period that began in 2016. The Federation also supported the program with a three-year grant in 2012-2014.

The program was launched eight years ago when Beersheva was even less developed. The goal was to reach medical students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who interned at Beersheva’s Soroka Medical Center teaching hospital before heading for literally greener pastures.

“When they finished their sixth year, most of them left for other hospitals,” Nir said.

At first, the program had to actively recruit. Now it’s popular enough that 70 candidates applied for 12 spots, according to Nir. And it’s spread beyond Beersheva, with 15 groups in 10 locations across Israel.

Even if students decide not to stay with their group in Beersheva or other locations, Nir said, the broader aim of Choosing Tomorrow is to create active, involved citizens who care about their country and try to fix the problems they see.

The message isn’t “Don’t do it by yourself,” Nir said. It’s “Do it with other young adults like you.”

J. staff writer Maya Mirsky was in Israel earlier this month to report on robotics innovations at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev as part of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev‘s 13th Annual Murray Fromson Journalism Fellowship.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.