|Have you ever had a brush with greatness? I am not talking about a celebrity, or 24-hour media darling, but real, true, game-changing, greatness. I am talking about someone who has lived their ideals, dared to dream, and moved the needle of how we view the world? In my life and my career, I've met a handful whom fit these criteria. Shmuel "Shmulik" Rifkin z"l was one of these game-changing people. Unfortunately, for me, and the world, we sadly said goodbye to Shmulik this past week.
Prior to joining JewishNevada, I had heard about Shmulik on a few of my visits to Israel and certainly any time that I visited the Negev. Last year I had the privilege of meeting the man himself at his office in Ramat HaNegev. We spoke for a bit and then he said that I was “American like Rambo.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but as a big Sylvester Stallone fan, I took it as a compliment. Every time after that meeting I was met with a huge smile followed by laughter and great conversation about the connection between Nevada and Ramat HaNegev.
In my mind, the least significant thing that I can say about Shmulik was that he was the Mayor of the Ramat HaNegev regional council (the largest regional council in Israel) for the past twenty-six years. Shmulik was beyond a Mayor and former Chairman of the Center of Regional Councils in Israel. He was beyond a Captain in the IDF and paratrooper. Shmulik was the living, breathing, embodiment of Ben Gurion's dream of making the desert bloom. If you were to look up Zionist in the dictionary, a picture of Shmulik would be next to the definition.
Shmulik spent all but twelve years of his life living in the Negev where he was a member of Kibbutz Revivim. Under his leadership, Ramat HaNegev blossomed into a vibrant, creative, and attractive region. During his tenure, Shmulik oversaw the establishment of four new villages and the creation of the Spirit of the Desert center for those struggling with addiction. Moreover, Shmulik’s vision brought the Ramat HaNegev region to the forefront of Israel’s agricultural and renewable energy industry. Most recently the Ashalim Thermal Solar Power Plant, the largest solar energy complex in Israel and fifth largest in the world, was brought on line. These achievements are all attributable to Shmulik, and his leadership, but these were not his greatest achievements.
What, in my opinion raised Shmulik to the level of “Greatness” was that he not only dedicated himself to making the desert bloom, he was equally dedicated to making it a place to call home for all Israelis. He worked tirelessly with the Bedouin population to incorporate and integrate them into the fabric of Israeli society. He leveraged his close friendships with Prime Ministers Shimon Peres z"l and Ariel Sharon z"l to bring the people and the potential of the Negev to the fore of Israeli consciousness. It is not an overstatement to say that the flourishing, thriving Negev that we see today, would not be so without Shmulik. For that, we – the global Zionist community – owe him and his family a debt of gratitude. In the end, Shmulik was about people, and the impact that passion, relationships, and commitment to a purpose can have on the Negev, Israeli society, and the Zionist ideal.
With Shmulik’s absence, it is imperative for the future of Israel and the future of Zionism that we carry his vision of the Negev forward. Jewish Nevada will continue to work with the tremendous team in Ramat HaNegev to strengthen our partnership and connections. It is not only our mission, but it is the most effective way for us to honor the life and legacy of this great man.
The entire Jewish Nevada community sends its deepest condolences to Shmulik’s wife, Talia, his three children Aya, On, and Elul, and his six grandchildren. May Shmulik’s memory forever be a blessing and may his family and loved ones be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Todd S. Polikoff I President & CEO