Thursday, February 20, 2020

Past the Gaza Strip, toward the rocket-battered city of Sderot, a new train now connects isolated Negev communities to the larger Israeli population centers. Not surprisingly, the Sderot line also opens the gates to increased tourism in that region.

For many people in Sderot, the rocket-proof train station, which opened in December 2013, was a landmark event.  This is an exciting process of infrastructure development, expansion, and national renewal. The train ride through the desert territory to the south offers travelers a unique glimpse into the social-economic and national security realities faced by the modern state of Israel. It is also a starkly beautiful, scenic, and rugged trail of adventure.

The view from a southbound train is a spectacular realization that Israel is a vital and growing country. Tall cranes dot the horizon of Israel’s rising cities south of Tel Aviv. Among the white sands, shrub studded hills, and sprouting wheat fields, high-rise apartments are under construction everywhere. New developments gradually are easing Israel’s shortage of affordable housing, and cities like Ashkelon and Sderot are booming despite the ever-present threat of terror.

According to Yankele Grosfeld, who manages the small guesthouse at Kibbutz Dorot, Israel’s south is a practical destination for tourists seeking to make the “star trip of Israel.”

“We are only one hour from every major site—Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and Tel Aviv—and it is much cheaper to stay here,” Grosfeld explains. Couples can enjoy a cozy room at Kibbutz Dorot for as little as 400 shekels (about $115) per night. Their accommodation includes an Israeli breakfast, and on Friday evenings they can join kibbutz members at the communal dining hall for a traditional Shabbat dinner experience.

The kibbutz itself is a beautifully landscaped oasis, including a lap pool, and there are scenic trails to be taken through the surrounding garlic and carrot fields, citrus orchards, and olive groves.

“Tourists love the cows,” says the secretary of Kibbutz Dorot’s guesthouse, Orian Orbach. “Foreigners come to enjoy the quiet country, biking and hiking trails, commute to the other major sites, and then return for a pleasant weekend.”

Nearby, at Kibbutz Ruhama, early risers can catch a brilliant sunrise over the badlands. The rolling grassy landscape marked with scattered Roman ruins offers the ideal picnic spot. For 1,000 shekels (about $29), tourists can also experience the best view of the Negev and Gaza by chartering a hot air balloon tour of the countryside.

Further south, the hot springs and Turkish baths at Kibbutz Zeelim are also a popular destination. Be sure to arrange your visit in advance, as space is limited.

Negev kibbutzim are popular destinations in the summer for Israeli tourists. Many families travel together and rent out guesthouses to host parties. “There is a lot of meat,” Orbach jokes, regarding the summer barbeques. The best time to visit the Negev, however, is fast approaching. Every year, beginning in late January and continuing throughout February, Sderot is host to the Anemone Festival, a four-week event celebrating the rare red wildflowers that blossom in patches throughout the countryside. The festival is punctuated with music venues, culinary attractions, and celebrity appearances. Fun for the whole family, events are kid-oriented. There is “a whole week of activities related to fairytales and lots of sweets,” says Orbach. “We anticipate over 60,000 visitors to the festival this winter,” Grosfeld adds. “The city has organized a shuttle service from the train station to all the sites.”

Israel is fulfilling its founder’s ambitions in the Negev at a remarkable pace. Perhaps nowhere else in the country is the true Israeli experience and character more accessible to tourists. Sderot may not offer the same intensity of culture and history as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but it certainly has many charms of its own and should be a choice destination on tourists’ itinerary. This is kibbutz country, a pioneering experiment—and now an easy train ride from the rest of Israel’s treasures.

By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org