When Dr. Viola Török arrived in the Negev, she understood what it meant to find hope where others saw none. David Ben-Gurion’s challenge to make the desert bloom might have been spoken directly to her.
Viola and her husband, a physician, were deported to Auschwitz in 1944. She had been expelled from her own medical studies because she was Jewish. Viola was transferred to another camp, where she survived by working in the infirmary. But her husband and almost all of her family were murdered.
Viola’s subsequent actions say a lot about the pioneer spirit within her: She completed her medical studies so she could care for other survivors. She met her new husband, Dr. Gabriel Török, in Prague, and in 1949 they immigrated to Israel.
They moved to Beer-Sheva 10 years later, where they helped found what is today the Joyce and Irving Goldman Medical School at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). Today, their daughter is a professor of Jewish history at BGU, where she is a world renowned scholar of the Holocaust.
That is two generations who have made the desert bloom with innovation through this institution.
In comes third generation Or Ben-Waiss, a psychology student at BGU and recent graduate. Every week, he visited Viola, now 102 years-old. It’s hard to tell which of them benefited more.
“It has been such a privilege to get to know Viola,” Or explains. “Every week as I visited her in her home, we grew closer and learned to trust each other. This is an ongoing conversation.”
BGU scholarships play a role in this conversation. As a condition of financial aid, every student who receives a scholarship must contribute to community service, like Or did when he visited Viola.
It’s an unusual requirement. But Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is not a usual institution. Its purpose goes beyond granting degrees or publishing papers.
It is to make the desert bloom—with water and flowers, with peppers and tomatoes, aquaculture, biotechnology, and cyber technology, but also with that one most basic human need that is Israel’s most plentiful and powerful export: hope.
BGU is achieving that vision in so many tangible and extraordinary ways.
Beer-Sheva is not the same place Drs. Viola and Gabriel Török encountered in 1959. It is not even the same place it was in 2009. It is alive with industry and possibility and discovery. It teems with energy and a sense of what lies ahead.
Some 6,000 other students like Or are currently helping children with homework and leading dozens of recreational clubs for young and old alike. They are nurturing community gardens, teaching adults how to manage their finances and creating holiday celebrations. They are running summer camps for children, holding street makeovers and painting apartments.
BGU scholarships not only give smart, compassionate young people access to higher education, they support the students who serve as a source of inspiration to thousands of people in the neighborhoods of Beer-Sheva.