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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Israel! Ben Gurion University of the Negev & Beersheva!

Israel Railways
Beersheva or bust!
I fell in love with the Negev Desert in Israel Many years ago… I love the climate- especially that of the Dead Sea, as it heals both my psoriasis and the rheumatoid arthritis of friends- and I find the desert extremely beautiful, as the light constantly changes the colors of the earth and the mountains, making it a landscape- painter’s dream. (I painted several landscapes of the Negev incorporating the many-colored desert earths into my paints...) The Negev’s wide-open spaces and pitch-dark night skies peppered with a thousand stars always felt like a place of a million opportunities and romantic adventures to me, and for years I tried to find a job in Beersheva so I could move there. At that time (in the 1980s), as an illustrator, jobs in my field were non-existent, and so I remained in Jerusalem, the city of my heart… But I spent as much time as I could in the Negev, and during my IDF service I spent one glorious moth there which I remember to this day...  Because of my love for, and interest in, the Negev, Dan’s winning us tickets to Israel from the American Association of Ben Gurion University of the Negev was especially wonderful, as BGU set up a fascinating day for us at two of their campuses, and we got to meet with both professors and students, and learn about this amazing institution. It also gave us the opportunity to spend a week exploring more of the Negev than I ever had before (deets in my next post!), and for me to share with Dan some of the magic of this amazing desert that houses world-class wineries, gourmet farms, ancient sites, unique geological wonders, healing spas, and state-of-the-art scientific research!

Ben Gurion University of the Negev recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and the changes to both the University and Beersheva in this short space of time have been profound. Much as I love the Negev, Beersheva was still a “poky” little desert town when I lived in Jerusalem and was in the Israeli Army in the 1980s, but it’s now Truly a boomtown, thanks, in large measure, to BGU, with its 5 faculties and a student body of 20,000 deeply involved with the communities in which they live- quite a bit different from the first graduating class of 23!
Elisse, on the Israel Railways train to Beersheva

The Negev in all its glory...
Dan & I took the super-modern Israel Railways train from Tel Aviv to Beersheva (SUCH a difference from the trains I knew "back in the day" ca. 1985, when the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem-Haifa-only train was famous solely for being so slow you could get out and pick flowers and jump back on!), and were in the “The Big B” in 90 minutes flat! We took a cab to get our rental car, which was a Totally hilarious experience, with the cab driver yelling at his wife on his cell phone headset ("You didn't believe me when I told you that repair guy was a crook!") & gesturing to her with both hands while driving hell-bent-for-leather through Beersheva, as if she were in the car with us!!! It was So hard not to laugh or say something sarcastic, but neither Dan nor I wanted to interfere with his Amazing multitasking ability, & I was having WAY too much fun eavesdropping on his conversation! We picked up our rental car (and the less said about that the better, except do NOT, under ANY circumstances, EVER use Shlomo/Sixt/Auto Europe!), and drove to Ben Gurion University’s Marcus Family Campus near Sde Boker. Kibbutz Sde Boker was the home, and is the final resting place, of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, BGU’s namesake and inspiration, who firmly believed that Israel’s future success lay largely in the Negev; Sde Boker itself is truly a garden and oasis in the desert. We had the honor of meeting Professor Pedro Berliner, PhD, Director of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research (BIDR), and, guided by Cochy Abuharon, to see some of the amazing research and developments that Ben Gurion University continues to do to make the world’s desert bloom- not just Israel’s. For over 30 years the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research have been at the forefront of cutting-edge research and development helping to solve the critical food production, water purification & desalination, brackish water, desertification, and sustainable living issues of people living in the drylands- which make up 40% of the world’s landmass! We were able to see one of BGU’s solar projects, a working solution to reuse “grey water” (which I wish we had here in West Virginia, hint, hint...), their totally "green" buildings, and the fabulous “$40,000 algae” that is taking the pharmaceutical industry by storm! BGU and a Thailand company have signed a research and development agreement to commercially develop BGU’s proprietary green algae strain, harvesting valuable bio-chemicals from this microalgae and utilizing it for biofuels, and possible cosmetic and pharmaceutical uses (as it’s powerful antioxidant), for such illnesses as eczema, psoriasis, asthma, arthritis, blood pressure, cholesterol, chronic inflammation, Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, and heart attacks. Amazing stuff! Being 52 (and thus being Seriously into anti-aging products! LOL), as well as suffering from Psoriasis, the potential of this algae fascinates the dickens out of me & I’m determined to learn more! If you’re as interested as I, check out:
We were able to visit projcets of BIDR’s three Institutes in the Negev (the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research, French Associates Institute for Agricultural and Biotechnology of Drylands, and the Institute for Dryland Environmental Research), which comprise a true international “think tank” of professors and students from around the world, living proof that in the "perfect world" of academia, at least, science and creativity have no borders or “agendas” beyond the altruistic. I believe that the finest thing about BGU’s R&D is that it isn’t academic research for research’s sake: BGU creates and implements real-world solutions. BGU truly binds academia with industry, as well as Israel with the developing world- which is its aim. Some of the many countries involved with and benefiting from Ben Gurion University’s research programs include Turkmenistan, India, Ghana, and Jordan.

Prof. Pedro Berliner, PhD & Elisse

Dan & BGU's Cochy Abuharon, at the BGU Solar Energy Center

Cochy Abuharon w/ BGU's "grey water" recycling model

To give one splendid example of “real world” usage of BGU’s research: Prof. David Faiman, one of the world's leading authorities on solar energy (and chair of BGU's Department of Solar Energy and Environmental Physics), is leading a team to make solar energy efficient & affordable to collect and store; his team produced photovoltaic cells that can concentrate and magnify the sun's energy up to 500 times over- and an Israeli kibbutz has been fueling its power needs with this amazing technology for over a year! The Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies at BIDR has both Masters and PhD programs in English, and is attended by students from more than 30 countries! For more information email:  
Community outreach and true integration with the people of the Negev is a cornerstone of BGU’s raison d’etre, and through dozens of different programs, such as the Perach ”big brother/big sister” mentoring program, and the Community Action Unit, BGU’s students and faculty give back to the communities around them, serving a variety of peoples including immigrants from Ethiopia, Negev Bedouin, and the elderly. Dan and I had lunch in the university’s Beersheva Campus Cafeteria with Dana Malka and several BGU students, all of whom were working with residents of disadvantaged communities, and they truly impressed us with their intelligence, idealism, and passion.
Our last meeting was with Professor Steve Rosen, of the Dept. of Bible, Archaeology and Ancient Near East Studies, and he graciously took the time to “schmooz” with us about his involvement in many of the remarkable archaeological digs throughout Israel. It was a true treat to sit and chat with someone who has excavated some of the most historic archaeoligical sites in the world! At the end of our meeting I had to ask him which site he’d recommend to “tourists” like us who had limited time with which to explore the Negev. (In Israel you are “spoiled for choice” as far as archaeology goes- there are literally 100s of amazing sites that go back thousands of years nearly everywhere you turn. The Real problem is picking which sites to visit & explore in depth!) His answer was immediate: Avdat! Avdat is a Nabatean city in the Negev highlands founded in the 1st Century BCE as a road station for their caravans; there are Roman and Byzantine ruins there, as well. Since I had never had the chance to go there and we’d already heard wonderful things about it from several friends, including Ben Brewer of the wonderful Israel Food Tours, we decided then and there that we’d definitely go and explore it! Avdat is one of many Israeli UNESCO World Heritage Sites; one of the Desert Cities of the Negev on the 1500 mile-long frankincense Incense Route from Arabia to the Mediterranean.

Dan & Cochy Abuharon with the Fabulous Algae!

My only regrets at the end of this fabulous day were:
1. That we didn’t have longer to explore all that the University has to offer and meet more of her professors and students; and
2: That I wasn’t still in academia! Our day at BGU made me want to live in the Negev more than ever, and to be a part of the amazing things that are being created in this glorious place... Must. Win. Lotto…

Elisse & the Fabulous Algae!

BGU Sustainable Eco-System Project

The Negev...

An "old soldier" with the the gorgeous new guys of the IDF
at Ben Gurion University of the Negev

The Negev, in all its spendor...

Dan & Elisse with BGU students

After our day at Ben Gurion University, the university graciously put us up at Leonardo Hotel Negev in Beersheva, a world-class hotel in the center of town, where we had a wonderful view of “Boomtown Beersheva” from our window!

Beersheva view from our Leonardo Hotel room...

At the Smilansky Tapas Wine Bar, Beersheva...

Dinner at Yakota, with our Tagine...

Chef Dan & the Chef-Owner of Yakota!

Beersheva at night- from our hotel room window...

I had a(nother) glass of great Israeli wine and Dan his Gin and Tonic at the lovely Smilanski Tapas Wine Bar  (You can "like" them on Facebook:!/smilanski?sk=wall) in Beersheva’s pink-stone “old town” (where we Must return to have a tapas dinner!), and then a truly gourmet French-Moroccan dinner at Yakota. Chef Dan got to “schmooze” the delightful chef-owner after our glorious dinner of Moroccan pastels and “cigarim” appetizers, deliciously seasoned lamb chops on a potato puree and a spicy, fruity lamb tagine served in the beautiful traditional conical-lidded pot, with cous-cous, paired with a great Israeli wine, and ending with a selection of delectable Moroccan sweets & French petit fours, all served in an elegant, sexy setting! This fabulous little restaurant has been thriving for 40 years, but we only discovered it thanks to BGU! We came back to the Leonardo Hotel to learn that a Sheikh had attended a meeting at our hotel that evening (!), and Dan got to chat with a student of BGU’s Hospitality Dept. working at the hotel. In the morning, after a great Israeli breakfast of Cafe Hafouch ("upside down coffee", a.k.a. cappuchino!), salads, fruit, my fave cracked Sura olives, and other yummy things from the breakfast buffet, we drove to see Abraham's Well. This is the traditional site of the well (Be'er - hence Beersheva) that Abraham bought from Avimelech as cited in Genesis: "That it may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well. Wherefore that place was called Beersheva ". Its entrance is via the gas station next door(!), & it was closed when we got there, but having actually & finally found it, we climbed up and peered in over the wall!

Israel-Turkish Memorial,. Beersheva

Israel-Turkish Memorial, Beersheva

1915 Turkish Train Station & Manager's House, Beersheva

Abraham's Well, Beersheva


Then we drove 'round & around and finally found the historic WWI Turkish-Israel Monument and  (die-hard railfans that we are) the 1915 Turkish Train Station and Manager's House, which is in the midst of a new high-rise housing development in the center of Beersheva and (happily) seems to be in the process of restoration. And then we hit the road for the Dead Sea!
Dan, Tel Aviv Israel Railways Station

Next: More Negev explorations! The Dead Sea & mud, Massada, wineries and gourmet farms, crocodiles, drinking Negev wine in a 2000 year old wine cellar in Avdat, & driving across the Ramon Crater, Israel’s answer to the Grand Canyon! 

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