Special to the JTA a Mirage Becomes a Reality

“Making the desert bloom” has apparently become too jaded a challenge for the Jewish National Fund. Now the JNF has made a reality of an even more far-fetched mirage: a swimming and boating lake in the torrid and once-desolate Arava desert.

To the visitor coming upon the lake in the Timna Valley park after driving for sweltering miles on the ruler-straight Arava road, a sense of the ultimate fata morgana is almost inescapable.

The 17-dunam kidney-shaped lake blends into the surrounding rocky landscape dotted with acacia trees, all in the middle of literally nowhere.

The lake was formally pronounced open last Tuesday, in a waterside ceremony attended by JNF officials, parents and children from the settlements of the local Eilat region, and Avram Chudnow of Milwaukee, who has pledged $1 million dollars, the largest contribution made by an individual in the history of the JNF, to make the lake a reality. Chudnow summed up his commitment to developing the lake and the Timna park with the words: “I am a man of the Arava.”

A GARDEN OF EDEN IN THE NEGEV

World JNF chairman Moshe Rivlin, speaking at the ceremony, told Chudnow, who has already paid $350,000 and plans to complete the rest of his pledge within two years, that the JNF would do all it can to turn the Negev into a Garden of Eden.

Rivlin recalled David Ben Gurion’s vision of a blooming desert, which Israel’s first Prime Minister considered essential to the survival of the State. “We can do the unbelievable,” he said.

The JNF excavated the land, lined the bottom of the hollow with polyurethane to prevent the water from seeping into the soil, and piped in brackish water that is plentifully present under the ground.

Estimates put the total amount of brackish water under the arid ground of the Negev as high as some 70 billion cubic meters, says Menahem Perlmutter, director of the Jewish Agency’s Negev engineering department, the man who first fired Chudnow’s love for the Arava in 1983.

Perlmutter, who works in close cooperation with the JNF, told the JTA that as a result of research by Israel Prize winner Yoel de Malach of kibbutz Reviv, local settlements use the high salinity brackish water to irrigate such crops as grapes, peanuts and cotton.

‘THE FUTURE … IS IN THE NEGEV’

One of the local settlements, Kibbutz Eliphaz, also operates the Timna park in addition to its grueling agricultural work under the fierce Arava sun. Chudnow was visibly moved during a tour of the three-and-a-half-year-old kibbutz, which only moved into its permanent quarters three weeks ago on land prepared by the JNF — one of the many extensive land development projects of the JNF in the Negev. “The future of Israel is in the Negev,” Chudnow said, commenting to the JTA. As though the reason for his commitment should be obvious, he said: “Well, the Negev is the biggest part of the country.”

Chudnow, in addition to donating money himself, also travels all over the United States, attracting other donors “like a missionary,” in the words of JNF U.S. executive vice president Rabbi Samuel Cohen, to raise the $3.5 million needed to complete the park’s development.

A land developer and president of a construction company back in Milwaukee, Chudnow said: “I have a developer’s eye and can see the potential of raw land.” He believes that the park will help strengthen the local economy, providing jobs, attracting more settlement and tourism, and “making it possible for people in the area to live happily.”

THE SITE OF ANCIENT HISTORY

The JNF created the park in the Timna Valley some 30 kilometers north of Eilat to encompass the majestic King Solomon Pillars — towering natural columns formed by wind erosion over the millenia — and the ancient Timna copper mines which date back to prehistoric times.

The area also boasts serious archaeological sites–an intact copper smelting furnace, the oldest one ever found, and ancient Egyptian wall drawings depicting the goddess Hathor, chariots and men hunting the local wildlife. All the evidence points to the fact that Timna was a busy industrial area 4,000 years ago.

So far, II kilometers of road have been built by the JNF throughout the park since 1977 to enable the 130,000 annual visitors to Timna to reach all the interesting sites. The JNF hopes to build a further four kilometers as well as a visitors center and camping site at the lakeside when the funds can be found.

The lake is divided into two sections, with two dunams set aside for swimming, and a larger section, with its own wooden jetty, offering boating and fishing facilities.

The Timna lake, which had only been a dusty plan till Chudnow pressed for its construction in 1983, was full of young, splashing children when the guests arrived for the opening ceremony last week. After the local Kibbutz Yotvata children’s choir had performed an elegant undulating dance entitled “Water,” they too plunged in to cool off.

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