Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The wheels on a bus go round round round

Genesis 21:23
Genesis 26:23
Genesis 28:10
(all our forefathers lived in Beer Sheva, and they got places even without buses)

Art has to move you and design does not, unless it’s a good design for a bus.
David Hockney

It is not often that I ride the buses of Beer Sheva. Though service is relatively good, and prices are relatively cheap, a car is far more convenient. I take my daughter and her friend to school every morning, pick them up three times a week, do countless errands, and even find time to go to work; all with a car. Last week, however, the husband needed the car to ferry around family members who were in town to celebrate our daughter’s Bat Mitzva. So early in the morning, I walked the 15 minutes to the bus stop, where a computerized clock told me exactly how much time I had to wait for the bus (8 minutes). Once on the bus, each stop was announced – in a deep and rather newscastery voice – twice. “Next stop, the hospital”. Upon arrival at the stop, the disembodied yet distinguished voice would announce “The hospital; Next stop, the emergency ward”. Etc. etc. I waited patiently for the announcement “next stop, the University”.

Beer Sheva’s public transport system has come a long way (no pun intended) since the British army won the battle for the city on horseback in 1917.

Turkish army circa 1917
More modern transport - camels on the road to Beer Sheva

Today, buses are available to both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem every half hour. Trains run 24 hours a day to Tel Aviv, leaving every half hour at peak times. Within the city itself, there are approximately 90 separate bus lines intersecting the city and joining the various neighborhoods.  

Beer Sheva's first bus, 1950ish

In addition, about three years ago, a decision was made by the mayor to build a new bus station.
Beer Sheva’s mayor, Ruvik Danilovich, is a young, energetic, forward-thinking, ambitious man. His many plans for the city include building a skate park, a beach front (no actual sea, just the front), the largest amphitheater in the country, a boating lake (not adjacent to the beach front), and restoring the old, dilapidated, neglected Turkish areas of the city into tourist sites. To greet the hordes expected to descend on the city when all these projects are completed, (and some are already finished, while others are nearing completion) Danilovitch understood that first, the city needed a new central bus station. In truth, a new one was needed, even without all the grandiose plans, as the old bus station, which sees tens of thousands of people a day, was built in the 1950s when Beer Sheva was a small immigrant town. Today, the Beer Sheva bus station acts as a hub for all points north, south, east, and west in the country, in addition to serving the nearly 200,000 residents of the growing city.

Old bus station

Old bus station
So money was collected, architects hired, and plans were drawn up. This being Israel, an added challenge was thrown in, just to make it interesting. It was decided to build the new bus station in the exact spot of the old bus station, without interfering with or rerouting the daily bus service. No problem; the powers that be agreed to build the new station one bit at a time and rope off small bits of the old bus station. The plan was approved, and construction began. There was, however, one small hitch. Archeologists knew that an old Byzantium town lay underneath the station. So, under the direction of the Israel Antiquities Authority, careful digging commenced. What was unearthed was truly amazing. The remains of two churches and a Roman army camp were discovered, along with dozens of underground rooms where hundreds of jars and coins were found. It is speculated that the 1500-year-old town that was revealed may be among the largest Byzantine towns found to date in the Holyland.
some of the finds

On display

an air view of the excavations

The excavations took a little longer than expected, but with the help of archaeology students from Ben-Gurion University, all that could be removed was removed, and all that could be preserved was preserved, and work on the new bus station proceeded.
For two years, incoming buses and passengers had to detour somewhat around construction works. Dust filled the air so that travelers had a hard time breathing. Road renovations brought traffic to daily gridlocks. Undeterred, the project advanced.
The other day, when I had to take the bus to work so the husband could have the car, I deliberately took a different bus home so that I could visit the almost finished, newly renovated, Beer Sheva Central Bus Station.
From the outside, it’s still a mess. Dust and rubble are everywhere. Urban buses still stop in temporary stations, so chaos abounded, as travelers searched for the correct station. The biggest complaint, however, was not having to search for the right stop, or running through mud and dirt, or almost getting hit by a bus as they make U-turns in the middle of the road. The only complaint I heard was that there were no benches available to sit while waiting for your bus to arrive. Really, that was the problem??

Inside the bus station, however, was a different world. First, there were benches to sit on while you wait for your inter-city bus. Second, there was a floor. A nice tiled, almost clean, floor. Third, there was a roof over your head to protect you from rain the winter (even in Beer Sheva it’s been known to rain) and the sun in the summer. A glass wall (probably reinforced glass due to security considerations) has been installed between the benches and the incoming buses to stop exhaust fumes from bothering patrons. 
Inside the bus station

The doors to the buses do not open from the outside, so you can’t enter the station that way. And, Israelis being Israelis, they have trouble waiting patiently on the new benches for their buses to come, so dozens were outside waiting on the platforms, unable to get back in.
New shops, fast food places, lovely bakeries and coffee shops have opened inside the station, but most of the old places have also been kept. These have all received a substantial facelift, with new floors, ceilings, and lighting. It was a rather surreal experience to see that Shmulik, the ancient tattoo artist, has had his decrepit, filthy ‘parlor’ outfitted with modern wooden floors, floor to ceiling glass walls, and white lights (better to see his artwork).
As it was a Sunday afternoon, the station was full of soldiers returning to their base. I love watching the soldiers, and trying to discern to which unit they belong. Most keep strictly with their ‘own kind’; the air force with the air force, paratroopers with paratroopers, etc. etc. But not always, and at one stop I was lucky enough to catch a hug between a paratrooper (scarlet beret0 and a soldier from Givati (purple beret) while a Golanchik (brown beret) and a NaChal soldier (bright green) looked on. Further on, there were several army engineers (silver) drinking cokes and smiling at the hugging group.
This is the original picture - just coincidence that my son has a purple Givati beret
Soldiers, tattoo artists, and impatient, locked-out travelers are found in all Israeli, and maybe the world, bus stations. What makes the new Beer Sheva Central Bus Station unique is that it is the only bus station in the world — here, I’m presuming – that comprises a 1500-year-old Byzantium bus station in the middle of it. The artifacts discovered in the dig will eventually be on display, but in the meantime, beneath see-through floors, glimpses of the Byzantine buildings can be seen.
Beer Sheva was first settled, according to the Bible, about 4000 years ago by Avraham Avinu. Indeed, archaeological finds outside the city testify to this. After the wars of King David, Beer Sheva was the southernmost city in Land of Israel, and was an administrative, commercial, and military center. The prophet Eliyahu HaNavi, fleeing from the Queen Jezebel, took refuge here. King Saul built a fort against the Amaleks here. After the Babylonian conquest, the area was deserted, only to be rebuilt with the return of the Jews in the time of Ezra. After the Roman conquest the area became a military defense post against the Nabateans (who traded in precious metals and spices – probably drugs, too).
The Byzantines were the last to live here, abandoning the town in the face of the Arab conquest during the 7th century. The area was deserted until the late 19th century, when the Turkish Ottomans, with German help, built another administrative center complete with a train station, but no roads. Under the British mandate, the town had approximately 5000 residents, and no bus station.
It was only with the return of Jewish sovereignty that Beer Sheva flourished, and built a bus station. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

It was destiny

To be a Jew is a destiny.

About 5 years ago, my daughter began studying in Sapir Academic College, in the small town of Sderot, in Southern Israel.
Sderot had long been the target of Hamas Kassam missiles, with thousands having been shot into the town since the 2005 Israeli ‘withdrawal’ from the Jewish towns of Gush Katif.

We are a Zionist family, and it would never occur to any of us not to do something, or not to go somewhere, or not to travel anywhere in our wonderful Land because of the fear of terrorist attacks. Sapir College offered a course that my daughter wanted to study, and no Kassam missiles  were going to stop her. (Kassamim Shamamim our illustrious President once said.)
However, I, being a good Jewish mother, couldn't help but worry. Many people had been hurt in Sderot over the years, and a few killed. Only by the grace of G-d and His miracles had more damage not occurred. But, I realized, since the kid had cost me two good years of sleep as a baby, I couldn't afford to lose another three. So, early on, I determinedly decided that I wouldn't worry. I wasn't going to ask her not to go to college, the situation was not in my hands, I put my trust in G-d and went about my daily business.

And I didn't worry. Really.

Until one day, shortly after she began her studies, I received an SMS from her. “I’m fine, don’t worry”.
And that was the end of my not worrying.
So much for determination.
(A Kassam had landed in the parking lot of the college – no injuries, but a car had been hit)

The remains of a Kassam rocket at Sapir
Over the last five years, we have gone through hundreds of sirens, thousands of rockets, and two wars. Through it all, I did my absolute best not to worry about the daily reality of the danger she (and the other thousands of students, and indeed all 30,000 residents of Sderot - imagine it!) faced, not only at the college, but on her half-hour journey there and back from Beer Sheva in an unprotected car or bus – really a travelling coffin if hit.

Sapir was originally established in 1963 as a night-school for the local residents of the new development town of Sderot. Classes took place in an old army base left over from the 1956 Sinai campaign. Eventually, the school was relocated to a high school, established links with the Open University and the newly-established Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, and expanded to having classes during the day.
Despite the need for certified colleges in the periphery areas, the Council of Higher Education in Israel did not look kindly on establishing new institutes. Throughout the 70s, the Jewish Agency worked hard to establish new schools, and in 1975 the School of Practical Engineering and Technology and the School of Communications were established.

Today, 50 years after it was initially established to help new immigrants retrain, Sapir is the largest college in the country with more than 8000 students in 15 departments, awarding technical diplomas and both first and second degrees. A Law School has recently opened, and Sapir has spearheaded studies in Water Technology. Their Department of Art is one of the highest in demand throughout the country.
Sapir today

Sapir College has been in the news for other reasons also. In 2007, a lecturer refused to teach a student who arrived to the college in army uniform after returning directly to class after an extensive period in reserve duty. 'I do not teach soldiers, policemen and officers in uniform,' the lecturer reportedly asserted. The lecturer, Nizar Hassan, was eventually ordered to apologize and make clear that he respected the IDF uniform or be terminated. Despite the almost 40 Jewish and Arab lecturers who signed a letter supporting him, claiming that Hassan "is a talented and courageous artist whose only sin was his attempt to maintain universal civic values, and whose action pointed to the serious phenomenon of the great involvement of the army in campus life," the college indeed fired him after he refused to apologize.

Despite all that, and what the Sapir website doesn’t mention – and I don’t know why – there is a strong family atmosphere that pervades the college. Classes are relatively small and the students seem to have a close relationship with their teachers and each other. Perhaps, living with the daily tension of missiles facilitates the feeling of unity.

Like all of Sderot, the college – which is actually situated on the outskirts of the city – is dotted with shelters so that one is never more than 15 seconds from safety (the time it takes for a Kassam to arrive from Gaza). Most of them are cheerfully decorated in bright colors with pictures of flowers, balloons, cartoon characters, and the occasional Charlie Chaplin (a cooperative effort, I suppose, of the Department of Art and the Department of Cinema and Television – both widely popular). Some of the buildings – certainly the newer ones such as the library – are simply very large shelters. When the ‘color red’[1] warning is heard, students simply stay where they are.

A concrete bullet-scarred shelter decorated with a rose 
Charlie Chaplin

Last night, my daughter officially received her diploma (with honors) in Architecture and Design in a modest graduation ceremony at the college. A few hundred people – mostly students but a few parents and children sprinkled here and there – gathered in a hall where signs explaining that students were required to stay where they were in the event of a ‘color red’ warning were prominently posted.

There’s an old Hebrew children’s song that goes:

My Land of Israel is beautiful and blooming!
Who has built and who has planted?
All of us together!
I planted a tree
In Israel
So we have a Land
And we have a tree
In Israel.

My Land of Israel is beautiful and blooming!
Who has built and who has planted?
All of us together!
I built a house
In Israel
So we have a country,
And we have a home
And we have a tree
In Israel.

Etc. etc. (it’s a lot cuter in Hebrew – believe me. For the words in Hebrew see here)

When I was 18, I was a volunteer on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa. There, I helped plant 100s of trees and flowers. It was a lot of fun. I thought then how Zionist I was being; planting trees in Eretz Yisrael!

And now my daughter is building houses in Eretz Yisrael.

Miracles occurring before our eyes! For this is our miraculous destiny. 

In the words of the Prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel):
Thus says the Lord G-d, When I shall have gathered the house of Yisrael from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and shall be sanctified in them in the sight of the nations, then shall they dwell in their land that I have given to my servant Yaakov. And they shall dwell safely there, and shall build houses, and plant vineyards, and they shall dwell in security, when I have executed judgments upon all those that disdain them round about them; and they shall know that I am the Lord their G-d.  (Yechezkel 28:25-28)

[1] In the town of Sderot (unlike other places in Israel), the words ‘color red’ are heard rather than a siren when a kassam is incoming. Originally, the warning ‘red dawn’ were used, but the parents of a little girl named Dawn complained that their daughter was being teased. According to psychologists, hearing words rather than a jarring siren is less traumatic. My daughter verifies this.