This is the first of a two-part series on the Go Beyond program, made possible thanks to a partnership between Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund and Nefesh B’Nefesh. The Go Beyond program helps new immigrants fulfill their goal of making a new home in Israel’s beautiful periphery — towns and cities located in the north and south of the country.
In Yeruham, a town of 10,000 about 35 kilometers (22 miles) south of Beersheba, small business owner Ariel Pollock Star is putting the finishing touches on Lehem Zeh (Hebrew for “this bread”), a commercial baking collaborative that’s one of a kind in Israel.
The model is inspired by kibbutzim and moshavim — collective living farms and communities created according to the early Zionist vision of building a country from the ground up. By splitting costs and sharing a workspace, Pollock Star has made it possible for would-be entrepreneurs — many of them women — to sell their breads commercially without having to shoulder the overhead of an entire business all alone.
But sales are not the collective’s only purpose. Pollock Star says that it was equally important to her that Lehem Zeh have a social element, as well.
Speaking to The Times of Israel from her home office, the 33-year-old Pittsburgh native talks about how the idea for Lehem Zeh started to grow when Israel’s strict coronavirus lockdown measures got her hankering for a taste of her childhood.
After she started selling bagels from home and saw how quickly they caught on — even among locals without Anglo roots — she realized how many other residents in her diverse town felt the same nostalgia for their own comfort foods.
“I started to realize that Yeruham is a very small place, but it’s sort of a microcosm of ethnic and cultural subgroups, and each one has their own food traditions and within that they also have their own bread and baking traditions. There’s a large Indian community here, a Russian community, a Ukrainian community, there’s a smattering of Ethiopian immigrants. And for each one, bread holds this central role in the community,” Pollock Star says.
Pollock Star says that while many local bakers had top-notch products to sell, the smaller community size made it difficult to offset all the costs of opening a business. Before moving to Israel, the Lehem Zeh founder worked in sustainability and social business strategy, and worked as a coordinator at socially driven restaurants in Chicago. She put this background to good use in her new home organizing the collective, which splits costs while emphasizing community and cultural sharing through programming and workshops.
Pollock Star moved to Israel in 2016 with her family via the Go Beyond program, an initiative by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL) in partnership with Nefesh B’Nefesh that helps new immigrants wishing to move to less densely populated parts of the country, often in the north or south, as well as Jerusalem. It wasn’t her first foray into the Jewish homeland — she stayed in Israel while preparing for a trip to South Africa to research the Jewish community there, and met her future husband in Haifa during that time.
Now, from her home in the stunning Negev Desert, she is providing nutritional and emotional sustenance to nearby bakers and consumers alike.
“Through its Go Beyond initiative, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and Nefesh B’Nefesh have been partnering for over a decade to assist new immigrants to move to northern and southern Israel as well as Jerusalem,” says Ronnie Vinnikov, the chief development officer of KKL. “Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael is celebrating its 120th anniversary and has been working since its inception to assist the residents of the periphery in all areas of life: agriculture, education and more. We salute all the new immigrants like Ariel who are all helping to strengthen and develop the State of Israel by contributing greatly to our national resilience.”
The Times of Israel spoke by phone to Pollock Star about her experiences making the move to Israel, what life is like now, and how she conceived of Lehem Zeh. The following interview has been edited for length.
Can you talk about how the idea for Lehem Zeh got its start?
When COVID hit I was working in a business strategy position in Yeruham and I took leave to be with my kids, and I found myself in the same position that a lot of new immigrants found themselves in. We didn’t have family in Israel, which is something we’d felt here and there, but all of a sudden when the airports closed and the option to go visit family essentially disappeared, we felt it a lot more strongly and started to feel this certain longing.
We’ve always felt that Israel is our home, but suddenly we also started to feel nostalgia for things that were American. And for me, because I have this longstanding love and interest in food, it started to sort of exhibit itself through food, and one of the things I started to do was make bagels, which I hadn’t done in a long time. Bagels are something that to us are so quintessentially American, and such a part of our childhood and this really opened this kind of emotional channel for us in a way that only cultural foods can do. It’s much more than just the taste of it – this food connects you to your memories. At some point I started telling people about them, and it slowly turned into a side business as I realized that there were a lot of people with a similar nostalgia in the area and they were very happy to have bagels again.
This is an American crowd you’re talking about, right?
That’s what was interesting about it – 80 percent of the customers were Anglo or with some sort of connection to the US, but around 20 percent were just really curious because they literally had never had a bagel before in their lives. These people were coming to me over and over again, and I realized that just because bagels were so obviously a fundamental Jewish food to me, did not mean that they were a fundamental Jewish food to Moroccan Jews, or Tunisian Jews, or Indian Jews or Bukharian Jews.
And so I started to realize that even though Yeruham is a very small place, it’s sort of a microcosm of ethnic and cultural subgroups, and each one has their own food traditions, and within that they also have their own bread and baking traditions. There’s a large Indian community here, a Russian community, a Ukrainian community, there’s a smattering of Ethiopian immigrants, and for each one, bread holds this central role in the community.
I started to look around and saw that there were all these people from these many communities who were also running little baking side businesses. I also saw that everyone was working from their houses. As I looked into that more, I understood that on a broader scale it’s very hard to sustain this kind of business, because the population is too small to support all the costs – the rent and all the expenses. There are 10,000 people in Yeruham, compared to 350,000 people in Beersheba, which is considered to be a smaller-sized Israeli city. So I realized that what was needed was a collaborative kitchen space, which is something that I heard was just starting to take off in Israel. But it was really important to me that it also maintained a social business element and also that it be centered around bread. And so I started talking to people and got a lot of support from both the small businesses as well as the regional council, which saw how much it could help these entrepreneurs.
And there has been enthusiasm from bakers? Or, how do you refer to them?
I call them partners. It’s like a kibbutz model or a moshav model, in that everybody participates in the decision-making and everybody participates in certain types of shared costs, but without the burdensome startup costs.
Thanks. So how many partners do you have now?
So there are several partners that are in the process of closing so I can’t give you an exact number, but there are about 10 bakers who are in the various stages of interest in joining us.
Right now it’s a small commercial kitchen space that’s set up for a number of small businesses to participate in, where each business can operate independently during set hours every week and also have a platform to be able to do workshops, which is also much harder to do with a home business, as well as collaborative cultural interaction workshops. So one baker might show how to make injera, which is an Ethiopian bread, and I’ll go through the process of making bagels, and we’ll each simultaneously share our stories of moving to Israel and what it means to live in this cultural microcosm and how food plays into that.
Can you tell us a bit about the different breads and cultures represented?
There are Ethiopian breads, there’s obviously the bagels coming from me, there’s Ukrainian rye sourdough that a couple from Ukraine makes together, there’s Moroccan frena, there are Yemenite breads, there are different types of Tunisian breads. And people participate in different ways. Some offer workshops, others focus on sales, but that’s basically the gist of it. Oh, and it’s not limited to cultures, there are also focus areas, so there are also one or two women who are focused on sourdoughs.
It sounds like Yeruham is working out really well for you. How did you get involved with the Go Beyond program, and what sort of role did that play in your decision to move there?
We were familiar with Israel, since I had spent time living in Jerusalem and my husband had spent time living in Haifa, so we knew we wanted to try living in either the north or the south, and that the center of the country was less the place where we wanted to settle down and raise our kids. So we started looking into different options in the north and south both in terms of work and in terms of communities, and Nefesh B’Nefesh was extremely helpful with thinking through and finding contacts in different communities, and also in terms of more practical support. They gave us some financial support, and they helped my husband integrate into his new job, which was really helpful, and when it came to finding a house and all kinds of practical details there was always a person we could contact and advice we could get.
How was the aliyah process itself?
Like I said, when it came to providing practical support like my husband’s Hebrew-language course, that was all arranged, and there was also more personalized kinds of support for us. I think when you move to the periphery the interactions are even more personal because there are less people moving there, and that staff is focused on those areas and also lives there, and have their own personal connections there.
For example, the director of the Go South program at Nefesh B’Nefesh at that time ended up being our neighbor for a year – and the reason she became our neighbor was because she found our house for us. She saw a “for rent” sign in her neighborhood and went and asked about it and helped us get connected to them. Once you’re here, it’s relatively straightforward to do a lot of these things, but when you’re trying to rent a house from the States, there are practical hurdles like not having an Israeli bank account yet, and how do you put down a rental deposit and pay the first month, and all these basic things. And especially if you’re making the move with little kids and you want to have a certain sense of stability when you land, it was just extremely helpful to have that type of personal support.
This article was sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh and its partners, Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel and JNF-USA.
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