Bay Area embraces medical center project in Israeli desert

Visiting Israel’s Central Arava region in early 2010, Barbara Sommer noticed that the remote desert community lacked proper medical facilities. Sommer asked her guide, “What if a farmer chops off his thumb?” The guide’s response: “We’ll just stay healthy.”

That answer wasn’t good enough, and led to a eureka moment for Sommer and her husband, Alan Fisher. The Atherton couple decided the area needed help, and thus the Central Arava Medical Center was conceived.

A partnership of the Israeli government, local Arava councils and the Jewish National Fund, the CAMC will cost $5 million, with $1 million coming from the government and the rest from the JNF. In November, construction began with the laying of the cornerstone at the facility, located in the town of Sapir roughly halfway between Beersheva and Eilat. The project should take two years to complete.

Laying dirt during the cornerstone ceremony for the Central Arava Medical Center is former regional Mayor Ezra Ravins.

Two Bay Area synagogues, Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth and Redwood City’s Congregation Beth Jacob, have adopted the CAMC as a cause, each committing to raise $50,000 toward construction.

“If you want to build up a community, you need medical care as part of it,” said Fisher, who along with his wife belongs to Beth Jacob. “What JNF does is partner with local people. They had never done a medical center before.”

The JNF usually is associated with planting trees in Israel. But trees are in short supply in this part of the eastern Negev hugging the Jordanian border. It boasts a population of more than 3,000, including farmers, Bedouins and students.

Yet the area, which is home to a sophisticated agricultural institute, accounts for 60 percent of Israel’s vegetable harvest. The people of the Arava are hardy stock, the sort who answered the call of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, to develop the Negev.

Just don’t get sick. The nearest hospitals are two hours away in Beersheva or Eilat. All Central Arava has is a run-down storefront clinic staffed by a nurse and a part-time doctor. No X-ray machines, urgent care, fetal monitors, dental services or defibrillators.

The CAMC will have all that and more.

“It took a foreigner to say, essentially, look what you’re working with here,” Sommer says. “And their eyes were opened to it.”

Marlene Maier serves as president of the JNF’s Northern California region. She has long supported the organization because, she says,  it “represents everything that is good about Israel, the connection to the land and wanting to make it a better place.”

She is a member of Kol Emeth and its Israel Action Committee, which fully embraced the CAMC project.

“Rabbi David Booth gave us an assignment to find a project that would rally people around Israel and transcend politics,” she recalls. “Like so many in the Bay Area, we’re concerned about the level of divisiveness and antagonism. We wanted a project that would connect people again with Israel.”

She says congregational fundraising has gone well so far, already reaching 75 percent of the $50,000 target. Maier has visited the region before, calling it “the jewel of Israel.” She found the people cultured, educated and eager to build their community.

Maier also encountered bad roads and an aging population in increasing need of medical services. “We discovered the need is great because the people that originally settled there are no longer young and require more chronic care,” she says.

Booth spent time touring JNF projects in Israel while he was on sabbatical two years ago. The rabbi says he returned home eager to find an Israel project his congregation could rally around, one absent of political overtones.

“We get so focused on the issues of occupation,” he says. “It’s not unimportant, but we forget the basic building of the state. We all agreed this [project] would have the biggest impact.”

At Beth Jacob, Rabbi Nat Ezray spoke of the project during his Rosh Hashanah sermon: “A beautiful part of our congregation is the partnerships that so many of you have in helping Israel realize its hopes and dreams. Nurturing and realizing hope requires commitment.”

His congregants, Fisher and Sommer, intend to do just that, as do the many other CAMC donors and volunteers across the Bay Area.

“This is something that crosses borders and religions and inspires technology,” says Sommer, who also chairs Beth Jacob’s Israel Action Committee. “From the ground up, we’re gaining more interest.”

Added Fisher, “To me these are the people that built the country. They came in late 1950s, started these towns in the middle of nowhere, knowing if you didn’t settle the border you will lose the border. We’re just happy to help it along.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at