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What can kids learn about community by designing a Shabbat kit for an astronaut? In Netivot and Sdot Negev — the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Partnership 2Gether region in Israel — it became a prime example of “placemaking,” and was presented last month in Philadelphia at the 3rd International Negev Summit. For over 20 years we have partnered with these Israeli communities, supporting such programs that increase local vitality, entrepreneurship and public health in an area that historically has been sparsely populated and economically depressed.

Therefore, when in the early 2000s the Israeli military announced it would begin construction on a training base — their largest ever — in the Negev, a move sure to bring with it a swell of much-needed new residents and resources, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia volunteered to play a major part in supporting that surge. We set to work forming the Negev Funding Coalition, a partnership now composed of seven Jewish Federations of North America who work closely with the Southern Relocation Administration of Israel’s Ministry of Defense and the Negev Development Authority. The Negev Funding Coalition acts as an innovation hub and advances Creative and Healthy Placemaking programs in Israel’s southern region.

But what is placemaking? Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces in order to foster social and community change, increasing residents’ quality of life. Placemaking initiatives are always unique to each community because they utilize local assets and potential. In our partnership region, for example, the influence of North Africa has played an important role.

Eran Yuval, Creative Director of Studio Lab — the Negev Funding Coalition’s partner program integrating placemaking into schools — explains how those local traditions came to the fore when students at an Orthodox girls’ school, many of them descendants from North African immigrants, decided they would construct a Shabbat kit that could be rocketed to outer space. Presenting at the Negev Summit in Philadelphia, Yuval pointed out that Netivot Shabbat dinners “smell a little different, sound a little different than yours.” The girls began their project by thinking deeply about their own traditions, then figuring out how to capture the essence of their Shabbat and transform it into an interstellar experience.

For many, placemaking and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) education are intertwined. To succeed in their Shabbat kit, the girls drew from disciplines ranging from Jewish studies to physics to food science to design to microgravity. Through such creative placemaking projects, students develop 21st century skills which prepare them for careers that otherwise may be inaccessible. All the while, they use arts and culture to strategically shape their community’s physical and social character, as well as to form an emotional bond with their hometown, a concept called “place attachment” — the feeling which makes us care for our communities and stay in them, using our skills and education to better our surroundings.

By integrating local culture, using technology and encouraging students to think about the future while staying grounded in the present, the Shabbat kit was the perfect placemaking project. “To shoot up into space, to go as far as you can, you need strong roots,” Yuval said, holding up a proof-of-concept box filled with a pouch of wine, a packet of mix-your-own hamin — a Sephardic version of cholent — candles that burn in space, crumb-less challah and a booklet of the blessings. Yuval smiles. “We’re literally going as far as we can to build place attachment.”

Click here to learn more about our work in Netivot and Sdot Negev.