Meet Long-Time Supporter Annette Oelbaum

As BGU celebrates its 50th Anniversary, it’s important to look back to the University’s humble beginnings and marvel at its extraordinary growth. We asked Annette Oelbaum to share with us her memories of the early days.


The Oelbaum Family in Toronto have been generous supporters of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev almost since its beginning. Annette Oelbaum, a Director of the CABGU National Board and a member of the World Board of Governors, is the gracious matriarch of that family. She and her late husband, Ron z”l, were very active in helping to establish BGU. Her husband’s parents were actually among the founders of CABGU in the early 1970s, and her son Mitchell currently serves as President of the Canadian National Board of Directors.

The University of the Negev was established by government mandate in 1969. When David Ben-Gurion passed away in 1974, the institution was renamed in his honour. At first it was a tiny school housed in borrowed space, practically engulfed by desert. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the University, now a world-class centre for research and teaching, has risen out of the desert and grown exponentially to tens of buildings, over a thousand academic faculty and almost 20,000 students enrolled in academic programs at BGU’s campuses in Beer-Sheva, Sede Boqer and Eilat.

It all started with David Ben-Gurion’s dream of a great university in the Negev and that vision was carried forward by the determination, donations and driving force of people, from Israel and all over the world, to make that dream a reality. One of those people is Annette Oelbaum. We asked Annette to share with us her memories of those early days.

The Oelbaums were initially approached by a “shaliach,” an emissary whose job it was to win over the hearts and minds of donors to solicit their help in building and nurturing the fledgling university that was largely unknown and located in the middle of “nowhere”.


“Our lives changed the day the shaliach from BGU came calling,” recalls Annette. “His name was Paul Beer, a charming gentleman who captured Ronnie’s imagination as he talked about David Ben-Gurion’s vision and the university’s mission to develop in the desert. This was probably around 1975. We visited the university that year and we were hooked.


“It certainly wasn’t the city of Beer-Sheva that attracted us. A sandy little town with lots of camels. The most interesting event of the week was the Bedouin market, where you could spend hours bargaining with the sellers.


“The University had one building in the city across the road from the hotel. That was the campus. The thing that attracted both of us was the quality of the professors, all of whom had been educated in the finest universities in the world, and who could have taught anywhere. They were young, brilliant and passionate; they represented the best of Israel. We made lifelong friends of two of those professors: Avi Noam Livne and his wife Nina (Avi Noam had the biology lab and he taught the medical students) and Eliezer Oren, head of archeology, and his wife Shulamit. All of the entertainment for guests of the university were in backyards. The food had been prepared by the wives. It was always interesting and great fun.


“We stayed at the only hotel in Beer-Sheva. It was called the Desert Inn, a great joke of a hotel. Sometimes it had hot water, but mostly not! The students had already finished their army service and many were married with children. We established a nursery for their children that was greatly appreciated. When my son Mitchell had his Bar Mitzvah, the money went to the nursery.


“We became founders and we were always proud to see our names as well as Ron’s parents’ names on the founders wall. Of course the most wonderful time at the university was when Ron, surrounded by family and friends, had an Honorary Doctorate conferred on him by the then-President of Ben Gurion University. That exciting event took place on April 27th, 1988.


“The last visit Ron and I took together to Israel was at the Board of Governors in 1997. Ron was not well, but wanted very much to go one more time. He became very ill on that trip and ended up in the Soroka hospital in Beer-Sheva for three to four weeks. With sand blowing in cracked windows, sheets that never fit a bed and many, many people everywhere, never once did I feel that we should have been home. We had superb care from everyone there, and professors and staff came to see him every day.


“As I write this, so many memories come back to me. I will tell you one of them. In the very early ‘80s a Professor Ackerman, an American professor in the humanities, had graduated the first Bedouin man in social work. They were so very proud of him and he was coming to a university in Ontario for a year with his family. They asked me if I would help him when we could. He came to dinner with his beautiful wife and two children. It was fun to watch the kids learn about Canadian culture.


“It has been an honour to have been associated with this wonderful university. It added to our lives in so many ways. The thrill for me now is to watch my son Mitch as the National President of BGU.”


Likewise it has been an honour for CABGU to be associated with Annette Oelbaum and her family. We thank them heartily for their dedication to the realization of David Ben-Gurion’s vision, their commitment and, of course, their generosity!

BGU researchers are making an impact on people’s lives in the Negev, throughout Israel and around the world. With the outbreak of COVID-19, the best minds of the university were almost overnight deployed in BGU’s Coronavirus Task Force. Most recently, the new rapid COVID-19 breath test developed by BGU Prof. Gabby Sarusi identifies asymptomatic and affected carriers of the virus in under one minute with greater than 90% accuracy. In a few months, it could be a game changer in the global fight against the pandemic.

Together, people can make a difference!