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Turn Over a Town By Creating a University

Turn Over a Town By Creating a University


I was a professor of art and education at Columbia University living with my wife and children in a lovely house backing on a bird sanctuary in Teaneck, two blocks away from a synagogue, and a short drive across the George Washington Bridge to the art center of the world. Although my life seemed like the American dream fulfilled, my wife and I dreamed the Jewish dream of making our life in Israel.

For an American Jew, however, aliyah (ascent) can seem like yeridah (descent). Tel Aviv is a city like New York, but far less. Tel Aviv University where I had taught isn't Columbia. I talked about this dilemma with the former director-general of Israel's Ministry of Education who was a doctoral student at Columbia at the time. I asked him, "You know where I live and work. What place in Israel is the opposite?"

Welcome to Yeroham! (Photo: Melissa Holcomb)
Welcome to Yeroham! (Photo: Melissa Holcomb)

"Yeroham!" he responded. "It is an out-of-the-way town in the Negev desert mountains, isolated from Israel's academic and artistic life, and burdened with deep social and economic problems."

My wife, Miriam, and I discussed the wild idea of moving to Yeroham as a way of not feeling yerida. Living there would be so radically different from our life in Teaneck and Manhattan that there would be no basis for comparison.

"Yeroham!" he responded. "It is a town isolated from Israel's academic and artistic life, and burdened with deep social and economic problems."

Before making such a major decision to so greatly change our way of life, we sought the guidance and advice of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory. The Rebbe listened to me explain my theory that making such a drastic change would give us a feeling of living in an extremely different world rather than a lesser one.

The Rebbe thought for a while looking deeply into my eyes and Miriam's. He told us that it was a "chalutzic," pioneering, idea if I used my educational background, creative abilities, and academic connections for the benefit of the people living in Yeroham.

The Rebbe explained that in the United States there is the concept of a college town. The University of Florida, for example, has thousands more students than the entire population of Gainesville where it is situated. He said, "Build a college in Yeroham. It would transform the image of Yeroham as a town that people longed to leave to a place where people from across Israel and abroad would come to live and learn." With a twinkle in his eyes and endearing smile, he gave his blessing for our success in Yeroham.

In the summer of 1977, we sold our house in Teaneck and moved to Yeroham sight unseen. Our new neighbors in this dusty underdeveloped desert town, mostly Jews from North Africa, welcomed us warmly. Landing there felt like going back decades in time, to the days when the state was established.

We sold our house and moved to Yeroham sight unseen. Our new neighbors in this dusty underdeveloped desert town, mostly Jews from North Africa, welcomed us warmly.

Exploring our new town, Miriam and I came across a building in the final stages of construction isolated on a hill in the desert on the southern edge of Yeroham. Looking through the widows, we saw classrooms and offices – obviously a school building. When we asked townspeople what function this building was to serve, they all responded with a shrug of their shoulders. No one had a clue.

The next day, I went to the local municipality building and introduced myself to the mayor as a new citizen of Yeroham from New York. He welcomed me. I asked him about the school building. He placed his hand on his forehead, and responded "Oh, that building. It's a mistake. We were ordered by the Ministry of Education to build a school for children with special needs and funds for its construction were deposited in the municipality's account. I phoned them to explain that we had no need for such a school. I told them that we provided transportation for the five special needs children in Yeroham to go to a school for special needs children in nearby Dimona. The Ministry of Education demanded that we build the building that was authorized by their committee on special education."

Mayor Moshe Peretz continued, "Now that the building is nearing completion, they discovered their error. It seems that a Ministry clerk who had never been to the Negev and didn't know one town from another wrote on the order to build a special education school in Yeroham instead of Netivot. Although it was their mistake, they are extremely angry at us for building a building for which we have no use. They accused us of moving to Yeroham from Chelm."

"Give me the building," I said. "The Lubavitcher Rebbe advised me to create a college in Yeroham. It will be the first building of the college campus."

The mayor excitedly phoned the town engineer. "Come quickly with the keys. There's a Jew here who wants the building!" The engineer ran into the mayor's office, threw the keys on his desk shouting, "Take the keys. Take them! The building is yours."

Professor Alexenberg sending digitized Rembrandt's angel around the world using AT&T satellites. (Photo from AT&T's annual report mailed to its three million shareholders.)
Professor Alexenberg sending digitized Rembrandt's angel around the world using AT&T satellites. (Photo from AT&T's annual report mailed to its three million shareholders.)

Mayor Peretz then asked me to do him a favor. He explained that the Jewish Agency had matched up Yeroham with the Jewish community of Montreal as part of Project Renewal. Since he spoke no English, he asked me to be the interpreter for the first delegation of Canadians that would visit Yeroham later in the week. I gladly agreed.

The Canadians were surprised to find an American living in Yeroham. When they asked me what I was doing here, I told them I came to open a college as a way to develop this depressed town. I explained that although I had a building, I had no funding. They thought that creating a college there was a great idea. Incredibly, they immediately offered to cover the college's startup costs

I now had a building and financing, too. But how do I open a college without accreditation and professors?

I sought the advice of Dr. Tuvia Bar Ilan who was in charge of the branch campuses of Bar Ilan University. "I always wanted to write the Uforatzta verse from the Torah on the catalog of the university's branches," Bar Ilan responded referring to the verse in Genesis 'And you will burst forth westward, eastward, northward and southward (negba).' We have branches in Ashkelon in the west, Safed in the north, and on the shores of Lake Kineret in the east. We're missing a negba branch. The college that the Rebbe advised you to open in Yeroham will be Bar Ilan University's branch in the heart of the Negev."

I was offered a professorship at Bar Ilan University. Half of my job would be teaching two courses and advising doctoral students at the university's main campus in Ramat Gan one day a week. The other half of my job was to head the new Ramat Hanegev College in Yeroham. Bar Ilan offered to send lecturers by taxi to teach in Yeroham.

After the simchat torah holiday when studies begin in all Israeli universities, Ramat Hanegev College opened its doors with 400 students from Yeroham, Dimona, Mitzpeh Ramon, and kibbutzim in the Negev and Arava. We also opened a work-study program for students from United States and Canada that combined academic studies with social service projects in Yeroham.

Ten years of work was condensed into ten weeks.

Mel Alexenberg is Head of the School of the Arts at Emuna College in Jerusalem, and former professor of art and education at Columbia University and Bar Ilan University, head of the art department at Pratt Institute, and research fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Jewish Museum of Prague, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He is editor of Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology and Culture.
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Mel Alexenberg Ra'anana, Israel June 18, 2014

Now, 37 years later, my son Rabbi Ron Alexenberg continues to live in Yeroham with his wife Miri and their six children. Reply

Anonymous Seattle, Washington April 26, 2013

Yeroham I volunteered through the Sherut Laam program in Yeroham in 1975. I know that with all the poverty in Yeroham your university was greatly needed and probably one of the best things to happen to Yeroham. Thank you for you and your family's generosity. Reply

Julius Romanoff, Newtown, PA Newtown, PA / USA March 3, 2011

Faith can do wonders The move to Israel from a comfortable life in the United States is scary, but the encouragement of the Rebbe gave meaning to the decision. Many of our young adults question the existence of G-d, and believe it was the myth of superstitious people, who used it to allay anxiety of problems arising from life. To establish a branch of a University in a pioneering community by a newcomer to Israel is truly a miracle of faith. Best wishes for continued success. Reply

Sue Marshall Masham, North Yorkshire, England June 23, 2010

As a non-Jew who has a Jewish daughter -in-law and who reads your magazine to gain an understanding of Jewish culture and religion, this article moved me deeply. It takes tremendous courage andfaith to uproot one`s family from a very comfortable life in America, to take on such a huge undertaking. What a challenge and well done for meeting the challenge and my best wishes for the future go with you. Reply

Yehudis June 18, 2010

Terrific Story Terrific story from your unusual choice of where to live to the Rebbe's guidance to the amazing divine providence. Reply

dvd Yacolt, WA via June 16, 2010

Stepping out Your wife and yourself stepped out with trust in G-d. This must be continued and understood in all Jews. One must step out. Of course G-d will further your steps. Remember that uncertain feeling, which is normal, you must continue, even now, to step-out. G-d will do even more - just continue to step-out; this vacuum is then filled with H-s might. Jews! Step out. Reply

happyminyan los Angeles, california May 30, 2010

What a demonstrative example of divine providence.

I intend to find out more. Perhaps me son can attend?

Abie Weiler Pardes Hana, Israel May 29, 2010

What an amazing story! And after reading this story, I am very inspired. Reply

Mary Lamblin Vancouver, canada May 28, 2010

vancouver, bc what an incredible story, i love it when things come together in such miraculous ways, it was destined from the beginning, for you to take this great project on. blessings to you all. Reply

allan lowenthal Perth, Australia May 28, 2010

miracles And people still in my life time dont believe that miracles happen in in the modern world Reply

Anonymous Sydney, Australia May 27, 2010

Bar Ilan University I am a Professor of Veterinary Science, and a Specialist Veterinarian of Parasitology in Australia. I was teaching at the Veterinary Shool in Budapest, Hungary, Research work at CSIRO and the Dep. of Agriculture in Sydney and The Uni. of Zurich, Switzerland. I am 84 years old, still working but I am sorry that I did not go to Israel to do something special. I have relatives there. It is now too late with a heart problem etc. Good luck to the brave. If somebody does not believe in miracles he or she is not a realist (Ben Gurion). Reply

Chana D'vora, Chabad at Arizona State University Tempe, AZ, USA May 27, 2010

Great story! Mazal tov on your journey & your courage! Loved the part about the Rebbe's twinkling eyes & smile... Reply

miriam rhodes bat ayin, is May 27, 2010

INSPIRING! so much can be accomplished with the rebbe's blessing. Reply

izzy ny May 27, 2010

absolutely amazing! all i can say is wow! Reply

Anonymous Miami, Florida May 27, 2010

Turn over a town.... Although personally a bit late in my life in encountering the Rebbe's existance and legacy, I cannot stop running into so many stories of miraculous wonders that his advice and wisdom brought to our Jewish life. A couple seeking a destiny for their lives, a Rebbe waiting patiently for them to come to him for advice and blessed Israel receives a gift from all these three good souls. Could there be any more need or proof of the goodness of G-d? Reply

rhonacorinne North Miami Beach, Florida/USA May 27, 2010

already prepared it is remarkable that the school was already prepared for Professor Alexenberg even before he got there... an entire school without use... the whole story is complete Divine Providence... with the Rebbe's blessing as the finishing touch... this story is fantastic! Reply

Meira Hartman S Paul, USA May 26, 2010

This story is indeed a "kiddush HaShem" (Sanctification of G-d's Name)! Only He can make a way where there would in the natural be no way for this miracle story! But it takes faith to walk out such a wondrous thing! For all the students, individuals who will benefit from this Negev branch of Bar Ilan, I rejoice. Much good will emanate through here in coming decades. Reply

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