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Eran's Israeli Journey- Mitzpe Ramon: A Cooperative in the Desert!

Although the journey down to Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev desert is long, I have been really enjoying my time on trains and buses in Israel. The transportation system can be a bit confusing, but well worth the effort. One of my favorite things about Israel is how quickly the landscape changes. Mitzpe is located in what feels like the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rocky desert and situated in a beautiful canyon. In my town back in New Jersey we have squirrels and deer running around in peoples’ yards but in the streets of Mitzpe, they have ibexes.

In Mitzpe, members of Dror work on many different projects and elements of the community. They run a high school/boarding school there, where many kids stay during the week and occasionally visit home on weekends. The kids who sleep there live in dorm-style buildings together. Each cohort has an opportunity to design their communal room however they want, and create a place inside their home where they can relax and hang out together.

Students at Dror Israel's boarding school in Mitzpe Ramon enjoying the desert.

In a future post, I will discuss more about education and the Dror high schools. For this post, though, I want to focus on two intriguing aspects of Dror’s work in Mitzpe that speak to different facets of what defines Dror as well as how Dror can profoundly impact the communities it serves.

The first example of this impact is a pre-k, or Gan, that members of the Dror movement recently opened in Mitzpe. In Israel, it can be very difficult for young parents to find a Gan that is both available and affordable. This is especially true in isolated places like Mitzpe, where the options are even slimmer. I am also told that in Israel many Gans are low on staff and may only have 2 teachers for a class of 30 students. A few members of Dror’s community in Mitzpe decided to get together and give more options to the parents of young children in their community. They are making a concerted effort to grow slowly and limit the number of kids enrolled to ensure that there is a reasonable ratio of teachers to kids. One really interesting part of this project is the relationships the Gan is building between the parents of the children who attend. The teachers of the Gan hold activities designed for the parents to get to know each other by spending time with one another. A teacher who works there explained to me that they are not just trying to create a place where parents can leave their kids while they are at work. Instead, they are trying to provide childcare for families in Mitzpe, while also creating a community where parents can feel comfortable and welcome.

Dror educators in Mitzpe Ramon work to create a thriving community. (Credit- Makor Rishon)

The second project I’d like to highlight is a food cooperative in Mitzpe called The Agalah. In Mitzpe, there is only one supermarket called Shufersal. If you have been to Israel you are likely aware of this chain of grocery stores. Shufersal has several different sub-brands: Shufersal Deal, Shufersal Big, and Shufersal Sheli. Each sub-brand has different pricing, based on the size of the store and its location. Shufersal Deal is the least expensive brand and Shufersal Sheli is the most expensive. Mitzpe’s only grocery store for a long time had been the most expensive sub-brand of Shufersal: Shufersal Sheli. In fact, Mitzpe’s grocery store had long been considered the most expensive in the entire country, even when compared to other Shufersal Sheli stores. For years, members of the Mitzpe community tried to get another chain to put a store in town in order to introduce some competition and help lower prices. All the major supermarket chains in Israel refused, arguing there were not enough people in Mitzpe for two stores, effectively giving Shufersal a monopoly in Mitzpe. People in Mitzpe eventually became fed up and several families, many of whom are part of the Dror movement, decided to come together and do something about it. They founded the co-op called HaAgalah and began to sell basic foods like olive oil and rice two hours a day. Each family volunteered their time and worked together to sell less expensive food to families and individuals all over Mitzpe. Over time, the Agalah grew. Today, it is open every weekday from the morning to the afternoon. They have expanded their selection, selling fresh vegetables, refrigerated foods and more. The Agalah is staffed by members of the cooperative who all volunteer 2 hours of their time every month. In exchange, members get a discount on the food they purchase there.

The Agala cooperative broke Shufersal's grocery monopoly!

Soon after they opened, the manager of the Shufersal stopped by to look around and check their prices. Before he left, he wished them luck. The next day, Shufersal began advertising new discounts on all the products that were also being sold by the Agalah. As a result of all of this, the Shufersal in Mitzpe has switched to the less expensive sub-brand, Shufersal Deal. They have significantly lowered many of their prices. Amazingly, they decided to switch Shufersal Sheli to Shufersal Deal in several other communities in order to discourage them from opening a cooperative similar to Mitzpe’s.

During the start of the COVID pandemic, the work of the Agalah became particularly crucial for the Mitzpe community. Shufersal had suspended deliveries and, in response, the Agalah worked overtime to organize and deliver groceries to individuals and families all over Mitzpe who could not afford to take the risks that came with in-person grocery shopping at that time, or who were in mandatory isolation.

Agala co-op members organizing deliveries during the COVID lockdown.

Towards the end of my day in Mitzpe, I joined my host Roni for a meeting she had with other Dror movement members about the installation of solar panels in buildings to help relieve the burden of electricity costs for families in Mitzpe.

What continues to make a powerful impression on me during my time with the Dror movement is the focus people have on creating practical solutions to real problems. What I find to be particularly inspiring about the Gan and the Agalah, as well as the solar energy projects, is not only the work they are doing day-to-day but how the solutions they find follow naturally from the problems. Dror is not a movement that observes issues in Israeli society from a distance and tries to impose solutions from the outside. Instead, the people who are a part of the Dror movement and live in Mitzpe are themselves facing the same problems as the rest of their community. They also struggle to find affordable and good-quality childcare. They also feel the impact that rising food prices have on their wallets. What is so impressive about this part of Dror’s work is that a national movement, one that covers a wide range of social issues in Israel and is located all over the country, is able to create particular solutions for problems facing particular communities. They are able to do this because they have structured their movement in such a way that their members are intimately tied into the communities they serve. I continue to be grateful to have this opportunity to witness first-hand the change that can come from a small number of dedicated and determined community members.

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