Welcome to our newest guest blogger, Dena Frenkel, an olah chadasha living in Beer Sheva. A version of this post originally appeared in a recent edition of The English Update. As always, the content of this blog represents the opinion of the author and does not represent AACI opinion or policy.
My husband and I made aliyah at the end of November 2012. Unlike most olim from the United States who head for Jerusalem, Ramat Beit Shemesh or Efrat, we moved to the south, to Beer Sheva. I am sure you are thinking the same question everyone asks us (including people who live in Beer Sheva): “Why Beer Sheva?”
For me, there were several compelling reasons to come here. The first and probably strongest reason was Avraham Avinu (Abraham, our father). He is my personal hero, and he made his home primarily here, setting the tone of the place by his presence. Even today, the general atmosphere here in Beer Sheva is one of helpfulness and hospitality. The whole town exemplifies the spirit of its founder, Avraham Avinu.
Second, although it’s located in a desert, Beer Sheva has natural underground water – hence its name which translates as “Seven Wells.” It’s not a total desert here, more like the edge of the desert. There really is a lot of vegetation throughout the town. In fact, the mayor of Beer Sheva, who everyone seems to adore, only gets one criticism and that is he has planted so much and put in so many water fountains to beautify the place that there has been a creeping up of humidity over the last few years. (More about the weather below).
My husband’s children and most of our grandchildren live in Israel and we had been planning to make aliyah for several years. Our children live in the center of Israel which is where my husband would have preferred us to go, but I wouldn’t want to live in the center of the country. I find it crowded with too many people and too many cars and crazy drivers, and it feels to me so polarized between different groups. I feel happier and more spiritually connected when I am in the north or in the south.
We actually spent quite a bit of time in the north looking at possibilities but never found a community we thought we could live in. Also, the weather was not good for me – in the summer, yes, but the winter is damp and rainy and I am very sensitive to being cold. And, since I had always had a fantasy about Beer Sheva, we decided to have a look.
My Decision Process
We came over a period of two years, meeting people, looking at housing, and getting a feel for the place before we made aliyah last year. Beer Sheva had much of what we needed to begin our life in Israel– a group of observant English speakers who live in the same neighborhood, a great medical system, good climate, and the lifestyle was that of a small city, lower key and more laid back.
I lived for 12 years in Oregon before moving to the Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore. Baltimore is a small town/city itself and the frum (religiously observant) section is a very livable piece of that. So I wanted to move somewhere similar with less population, more physical space, and not crammed full of only apartments.
Another consideration for me is that my daughter and grandson are joining us from the States, G-d willing, this summer. She has serious chronic pain issues so Beersheva with its excellent medical care and its dry moderate climate was a good fit.
For those of you who have not been to Beer Sheva recently or never have been, it is a great town to live in logistically. It is relatively small so most places are conveniently close by foot or by bus. (We don’t yet have a car). The city is almost all flat which makes walking very easy and comfortable.
The efficient bus system makes it possible to get practically anywhere you need to go. And we have the train down here so you can get to Ben Gurion airport or Tel Aviv in just one hour without even changing trains. The train is really wonderful and now goes from Beer Sheva all the way up to Nahariya. However, if you want to go to Jerusalem, the bus is probably your best bet with buses leaving every half hour and taking one hour and forty-five minutes. The train has a long stopover in Lod so the trip takes close to two and a half hours.
In fact, the public transportation system everywhere in the country is one of the perks of living in Israel. I am a pensioneret (female retiree), and it’s half price for me. That means a city bus ride costs me two shekels and going to the Merkaz, including the airport by bus or train, is 15 shekels. Is there a better bargain than that anywhere?
Beer Sheva is the capital of the Negev and a hub of public services, including Misrad Hapanim (Ministry of the Interior), Misrad HaKlita (Ministry of Absorption), the area’s government agencies, and also ulpan (Hebrew language instruction) services. I did not realize that at first, and thought it was odd that we were in the line at the municipality and kept getting asked if we lived in Beer Sheva. I thought to myself: Why would I be standing in line if I didn’t live here? But then I realized people have to come here from Netivot and Arad and all around the south. I can walk/bus there so I realized just how lucky and convenient services were for us.
A big factor in our coming to Beer Sheva was the medical system. In my opinion, affordable national health coverage is a big plus to living anywhere in Israel compared to the U.S. Consider the following cost comparision. Health insurance for both of us here with the best supplemental policies will cost us about NIS 550 per month, plus some co-pays. That is $150-$200 per month, depending on the exchange rate. In the States my husband’s job offered him retiree health benefits for both of us that would cost $1000 per month with $2500 deductible, plus it only covered 80% of the cost. That means we would have to pay $14,500 a year before they paid anything.
Beer Sheva has excellent doctors and facilities with Ben Gurion University Medical School and Soroka Hospital and an alternative medicine college as well. My husband belongs to Clalit (one of the 4 medical insurance services available to Israelis) which is affiliated with the medical school and Soroka. I joined Maccabi (another one of the 4 medical insurance services) because an English-speaking doctor who was highly recommended to me was a part of that system. So far, we are both very happy with the service we are getting and the quality of doctors we have seen. One drawback is that the forms or signs are in Hebrew, Arabic, or Russian, but not English. That is a problem I might not have living in a strong English-speaking community in the center of the country.
Most religiously observant English speakers in Beer Sheva live either in Shchuna (neighborhood) Hey or Tet which are very close to each other separated by a small highway. We live in Tet for now, but just bought a place in Hey. Both Hey and Tet are centrally located so that the municipality, Old City, and the shuk for shopping are all about 15 minutes by bus or 30 minutes by foot.
I don’t want to sugarcoat the process of making a major move like this because it is very hard to do – anywhere in Israel. It is probably harder in a place like Beer Sheva which is actually in Israel and not in an English enclave that happens to be in Israel. Luckily for me, it turns out that I like Israelis. They like kids and seem to have a real quality of life where family is of central importance.
A phenomenon in Israel compared to the U.S. is that even people who don’t seem religious usually have a strong sense of tradition and a basis of knowledge about being a Jew. And, the English-speaking community here is very nice. This does not mean everyone is already my new best friend because that does not happen overnight anywhere new, but people are genuinely helpful and welcoming which makes a big difference.
Housing in Tet and Hey includes apartments interspersed with cottages (two floors) and patios (one floor) and attached housing. Many of the cottages and patios are in Misholim which are clusters of houses bordered by roads but with pedestrian walkways inside. If you have been to Nachalot in Jerusalem, you have an idea of what I mean. They are very pleasant and quiet with respite from traffic noise. Also the Mercaz Klitah (Absorption Center) for new immigrants is in Hey.
The cost of housing in Beer Sheva has gone up a lot over the past years (as everywhere in Israel) but is still affordable compared to the center of the country. Apartments, depending upon which shchuna they are in, can run from NIS 400,000 to NIS 550,000, with houses running from NIS 600,000 and up. In Shchuna Hey, garden space is more limited as most people have expanded their homes at the expense of the garden, but still you have something of a garden. Housing averages 85-120 meters, not including the garden.
This is a big adjustment for me coming from Baltimore where I had a large house with a huge yard of about half an acre and a gorgeous garden which I planted myself. On the other hand, if we moved to Jerusalem, we would be looking at small apartments with a lot less space that cost a lot more than we paid here.
Am Yisrael Echad
Beer Sheva itself is a mixed community which I think contributes to its sense of harmonious living. There are all different kinds of people here, religious and not, Sephardic and not, Russians and Ethiopians, all walking around sharing space in peace.
I attend ulpan which has also made a big difference in easing my transition to living in Israel. I am in the pensioner’s ulpan which meets three days a week for three hours each time for 10 months, as compared with ulpan for younger folks which is five hours a day, five days a week for five months. I am the only American in my class but there are five other English speakers, a couple from Brazil, a couple from England, and a man from France. The rest are from Russia, the Ukraine, and Belorussia. My friends at ulpan are beside themselves with joy at living in Israel and especially living in Beer Sheva. I can see that they are going to be very good citizens with much dedication and appreciation for their adopted country.
Ulpan has given me heartfelt relationships with other people as we experience the same language and cultural hurdles. I love being there and come home feeling happy and cared about and I think everyone in the class feels the same way. Thank you, Israeli government.
The Biggest Challenge We Are Working On
Eating in Beer Sheva is difficult as we keep a stricter (kashrut) standard than Rabbanut. The idea that keeping kosher in Israel is a trillion times harder than in America really bothers me. We can’t go out to eat much here in Beer Sheva and finding a hechsher (symbol identifying who is certifying that the item is kosher) for meat and chicken is a challenge. Fruits and vegetables also require closer scrutiny. Fruit is more of an issue due to orla (prohibition from eating the fruit of a tree during the first three years), but we are managing. It just requires planning. Compared to the benefits of living here, the hassle of finding produce seems small to me. And the longer we are here, the more we discover shops for produce that is okay.
Adapting to life in Beer Sheva has been harder for my husband. First, he is not in ulpan since he would need an advanced level class which they don’t have, so he does not have the opportunity as I do to make heartfelt connections with other immigrants. Also, he is still looking for a kehilla (community) where he feels comfortable davening (praying) and learning. This is the biggest problem facing us here and it is not a small one.
It seems that Beer Sheva actually has hundreds of shuls (synagogues), but most are Sephardic with the majority being Moroccan. My husband found that he likes the davening in a Moroccan shul but he feels the language and cultural barrier interfere with real connection and friendships. On the other hand, most of the shuls where you find English-speakers are Mizrachi (Religious Zionist) and Young Israel (synagogue-based Orthodox Jewish organization) and he finds the davening does not suit him either. He has found a chassidic (branch of Orthodox Judiasm) shul down in the Old City where he likes the davening, but it’s a 20 minute walk, so right now he only goes on Shabbat (Sabbath).
This is a serious issue for him because he spends a lot of time each day in shul and he expects to find connection there on a personal level as well. Some of that is probably just being in a new place after living 20 plus years in a community where he had time to develop very deep friendships.
I might add that another drawback to living in a place like Beer Sheva is the fact that there are virtually no shiurim (lectures/classes) in English. Now I am personally a bit of a recluse and I need quality of life over access to English shiurim, but I can see that it could be an issue for another kind of person. Even I feel the lack when I read notices of shiurim being offered in Jerusalem.
AACI runs the largest English library in the whole country in Beer Sheva which is a big plus for me. Granted it’s not like the library I left behind in Baltimore, but having access to any kind of English reading material on a regular basis is a huge help.
I have to admit the winter was shockingly cold to me this year. I actually gave away my warmest clothes before coming, on the assumption that we’d have warm weather all year long. During the winter months, it’s mostly very pleasant during the in the 50s to 60s F, but it cools off considerably at night. Like everywhere in Israel, houses lack insulation and good windows, and it’s cold. But by mid-February, the weather starts getting nice, and in the spring and fall the weather is fantastic.
Even when it gets hot during the day, it’s dry heat which means houses stay cool, sitting or walking in shade is cooler, and at night it cools off to the 50s F in the spring/fall and the 60s F mostly in the summer. So far we had a couple of heat waves but we just used fans, closing up the house during the hot part of the day and opening it back up during the evening. Mornings here are very comfortable and it really starts to cool off by about 4:30 p.m. when a nice wind comes up. What I was told by long-time residents was that I should stay indoors during the afternoon when it’s really hot.
Beer Sheva and Beyond
As I mentioned, we don’t yet have a car so we have not done a lot of exploring in the areas outside Beer Sheva. However, on previous trips we went to Mitzpe Ramon which is an hour south, and it is well worth the trip. Also my friend lives in Midrasha Ben Gurion where the BGU (Ben Gurion University) has an environmental studies campus, and it is right next to a wonderful nature reserve that we hiked in a few times. It has breathtaking views like looking at the Grand Canyon where it seems more like a photograph than a real place. Beer Sheva is also about an hour away from Massada, the Dead Sea, and Ein Gedi which is my favorite area in the whole country.
This is my personal view of life in Beer Sheva, and I hope it gave you a sense of the city. For those of you who are looking for somewhere besides the usual places to settle, it’s worth checking out as an affordable alternative. You might just fall in love with it like I did. I would be happy to answer any questions if you would like to leave a comment below.
A version of this post originally appeared in The English Update and can be viewed by clicking here.
We welcome you to be in touch with our Southern Branch office in Beer Sheva:
Miriam Green, Southern Branch Counselor
AACI–Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel
Matnas Yud-Aleph, 11 Mordechai Namir St., Beer Sheva
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For more information about the Southern Branch in Beer Sheva click here.
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