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An Oasis of Theatrical Expression in the Desert

An all-encompassing festival of the arts in remote desert Israeli communities, unencumbered by conventional ‘big city’ thinking, attracts hundreds of families to explore a new life on the country’s frontier.

"Members of Elad Theater bring world class theatrical productions to Israel's Negev."
"Members of Elad Theater bring world class theatrical productions to Israel's Negev."

Entering deep into the Arava desert of southern Israel, you find an unexpected oasis amid the seemingly barren desert landscape. As you get closer and closer to the tree line, the sounds of drums fill the air. Closer still – between a couple of charming buildings – the sun begins to set, and the drums and music get louder. Then, in a small staging area surrounded by an intimate group of onlookers, a colorful folk-like dance. Inspired performers in full costumes create a beautiful and mesmerizing display on beat with the music.

Yet, far from any performance you’ve ever seen or heard of, this one is brand new. It was choreographed and rehearsed, from scratch, just a few weeks before this night. And as soon as the performance ends (of course) with raucous applause, the next group arises from the crowd to begin their show – equally as unique as the one before it.

This is the Residesert Festival – A Jewish National Fund-USA-supported thirty-day residency held across eight locations in Israel’s Eilot Regional council; and presented by the Elad Theater company. Each program is hosted by a different kibbutz, inviting some thirty artists, actors, directors, musicians, and more – to rekindle and foster creativity that can’t be taught in this way, anywhere else.

“Members of Elad Theater bring world class theatrical productions to Israel’s Negev.”

“I think that the Residesert Festival is the epitome of the reason for the establishment of the Elad Theater,” explained Elad Artistic Committee member Dvir Benedek. “To say, ‘hey, let’s make theater here,’ not like we see in the center, up north, or to try to be like them, or try to get there. Instead, we’re making theater better here. The theater is born within communities of people and must continue to do that. It must return to its roots, return to the communities, and grow from within them. And not have communities buy performances that someone else created for them.”

Likewise, Elad Theater Artistic Director Shay Pitowsky describes the Residesert project as a dream come true. “To invite artists – Israel’s leading actors – to come and create here in the Arava, and they’ve given all the space and freedom needed to create; as well as quality time with themselves, and time for searching,” Pitowsky continues “It’s a magical month where the artists meet and mix with one another and the community.”

Initiated in 2020 in partnership with Jewish National Fund-USA, the Residesert Festival was born to provide a creative escape outside the country’s busy central cities and create a new hub for creative expression and learning in the southern desert regions. Arts & Entertainment Task Force member and Tony award-winning Broadway producer Heni Koenigsberg knows the power of theater first-hand. “JNF-USA’s partnership with the Elad Theater to bring culture to 12 frontier communities in the Eilot Region is a win for everyone,” proclaimed Koenigsberg. “Life in these remote areas can be harsh and to have the transformative power of theater infuse vitality into these communities is truly inspiring. We helped fund the Elad Theater at the beginning of the global pandemic when there was no work for theaters in Israel. We are proud to have provided much-needed financial support to struggling artists. We are also proud to partner with a theater group that serves as peacebuilders by embracing the mosaic of Israeli identity, including Jewish Israelis, Israeli Arabs, LGBTQ, and multi-ethnic backgrounds. The Arts & Entertainment Task Force’s support is part of a larger strategy of working with the Elad Theater to increase population growth with 200 new families, generate thousands of jobs, stimulate local economic growth and tourism, and provide world-class cultural content to residents and visitors alike. It’s an honor and privilege to be at the forefront of initiatives like this that are shaping the future of Israel.”

“Members of Elad Theater bring world class theatrical productions to Israel’s Negev.”

The head of the Eilot Regional Council, Dr. Hanan Ginat, called it “a project that connects art, a pioneering spirit, and settling together ‘art in its highest form’.” This as the program fosters community living among the many participating kibbutzim and offers workshops and masterclasses across varying fields, including writing, production, acting, directing, music, composition, dance choreography, and more.

Participating actor Ala Dakka described his experience as very serious and focused during the day and then ‘so much fun and freeing at night.’ “We’re far from home; we go to the desert to live in a bubble. We’re not in the Tel-Avivian ‘swamp,’ so there’s a freedom to challenge oneself and try out new things.”

Additionally, the program hosts a youth theater workshop, where children and teens can hone their skills or even get a beginner’s taste of what it means to be involved in theater.

Actor Avi Sarussi – another previous participant in the program – said it was an incredible month, coming an entire year after being unable to work because of the virus lockdowns and restrictions. “Honestly, I don’t even want to go back home. You have no idea how much I’m enjoying this,” said Sarussi.

Above all, the Residesert program reintroduces performing artists to the roots of performance itself. Actor Amir Khoury said it reminded him of how theater and storytelling were conceived. And Saar Harari, artistic director for the Gaga Dance and Movement Company, argues that it’s unlikely that there are ‘many things in the Israeli art world that can touch and kindle the pioneering spirit emanating from the people in the Elad Theater.’

Pitowsky adds that the goal is to turn Eilot and Eilat into a center for creativity and to “get artists to move here, from the fields of theater, dance, and music, and allow them to create a place that might just be the most beautiful one in Israel.”


For more information about Jewish National Fund-USA’s Arts & Entertainment Task Force, contact National Campaign Director Sharon Joy at or call 323-964-1400 x810. 

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