At just 19 years old, Tirael Cohen, the daughter of French olim (immigrants), walked through the Knesset in Jerusalem in a T-shirt and jeans—the typical dress code of young Israelis—on a mission to establish the first of what would become 18 planned student villages in Israel’s periphery cities, as part of her young Zionist initiative “Kedma Hityashvut.”

She convinced the government to support her new project, which has seen a growth rate that beats that of the startup nation.

Her vision began as she witnessed rockets from above and tunnels from below threatening Israel’s southern and northern communities in 2014. But where most Israelis just saw threats, Cohen saw a need, and so she took action to jump-start the creation of communities of young people around Israel’s borders.

Using the budget from Israel’s Ministry of Housing, she started by founding a student village in Ma’ale Efraim in the Jordan Valley, a community that was built after the 1967 Six-Day War, but was abandoned after experiencing intense terrorist attacks during the First Intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “It was abandoned because nobody wanted to be here,” she says, “so we came in to re-establish the community and to renew the spirit of the frontiers of Israel.”

Cohen explains that while there is great strategic need for these border communities, many struggle to keep their young people, and therefore, their culture, growth and welfare. Because of that challenge, together with the fundamental Zionist concept of hityashvut (“settling the land”), Cohen created the initiative that would benefit the strategic needs of her country, as well as the economic, social and ideological needs of her peers.

Kedma students work together in Gush Etzion during “Kedma Week,” a five-day long excursion for all the student villages. Photo by Funia Digital.

“The young generation in Israel is searching for meaning, belonging and a way to fulfill themselves by connecting to values bigger than themselves,” she told JNS. The time when young Israelis begin their studies is a pivotal point not only to “start their direction of learning and work, but to truly become a part of Israeli society and the Zionist project, and to write their own story in correlation with the Zionist story.”

“In our post-modern age, there is a need to renew the values of Zionism that deal with the new challenges,” she continued. For students living in the villages, “everything becomes meaningful. Your whole life is volunteer work, which is an idea that young Israelis are attracted to.”

‘The real security of Israel’

Growing up next to the Israeli city of Modi’in, Cohen poses that her parents’ “heroic step” of seeing Israel’s potential and emigrating from Paris the 1980s inspired her to similarly leave a culture she knew, setting out towards the Jordan Valley, a place where she saw “great potential.”

She notes that “my parents feel that my choice to live in the Jordan valley is a continuation of their aliyah.” Although Cohen is eligible for a French passport, she says she doesn’t want one. “I am tying my fate with the State of Israel,” she affirms.

As a doctorate student of Zionism and community-building at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she continues to learn about and draws inspiration from Israel’s early pioneers, both in philosophy and action. According to Cohen, this decision has proven beneficial for her and the country.

“In the Zionist story, the decision was made to protect borders not through tanks or checkpoints only, but through activist communities living on the border. They are the real security of Israel,” she says.

Additionally, “borders define who we are spiritually,” informing Jewish identity as a nation that has returned to the land, she adds. “We are still fighting for our physical and spiritual existence, and now we have the opportunity to create the identity of the state for the future.”

Pre-army Kedma volunteers working in an olive grove in Shilo. Photo by Funia Digital.

Last January, when the electricity was cut off in one of the student villages on the northern border, the Israel Defense Forces investigated and found a Hezbollah tunnel dug from Lebanon into Israel.

In that regard—to increase its national security—the government has a special interest in supporting these villages, providing 50 percent of Kedma’s 10 million shekel budget.

With just 30 to 50 students living at each student village, the close-knit vibe is important to Cohen’s vision of creating communities reminiscent of Israel’s early pioneering communities. Its members reflect the “new Israeli Jew” archetype of agricultural types—powerful men and women who play an active part in industry while excelling academically as well.

In exchange for the students’ highly subsidized housing (just a fifth of the price for housing in the city) and a yearly stipend of 10,000 shekels ($2,900), the students are required to volunteer 300 hours per year: 120 hours of mapping the community’s needs and building answers to those needs; 120 hours of social entrepreneurship; and 60 hours of building an internal community on the student village through cultural events and group learning.

The five student villages established on Israel’s eastern border have been shown success so far—so much so that in 2017, Kedma worked with Israel’s Ministry of Education to use Kedma as the model for future student villages around the country. And after settling as students on Israel’s frontiers, Cohen reports that an estimated 70 percent of them choose to stay on Israel’s frontiers after leaving the student villages.

A view of the Jordan Valley from Kedma’s Ma’ale Efraim student village. Photo by Eliana Rudee.

“Twenty percent of students marry within the student villages,” she adds. “They will build their home where they fell in love and made their dreams happen. The area becomes their home; they find their identity here.”

There are now another two Kedma student villages on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, including one in Misgav Am, where the average age of the community is 73 years old, as well as a student village in Niroz, just 3 kilometers (about 2 miles) from the Gaza Strip.

According to Cohen, Kedma has nurtured 300 young Israelis into potential leaders who “understand that their nation’s interests and their interests are aligned, therefore devoting themselves to the mission, not only in words but in actions.”

“The fact that change comes from young people devoted to their mission is something special in Israeli society and DNA,” she says. “That’s how Israel was built.”

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