Israel, Part One

The tearful goodbye at the Manchester airport on the morning I left was in sharp contrast to the joyful celebration of my oldest granddaughter, Brooke’s, college graduation two days before on May 7. Leaving Louis for two and half months was really hard, but what keeps me going is that I’ll see him after five weeks when he joins me for two weeks while I’m on this journey. That’s a long time to be away from one’s life partner! It was great though that I could organize my departure to include being there for Brooke. It was a wonderful day full of love and laughter. Lucky me!

I wouldn’t be sitting here at the Detroit airport, writing this beginning of my entry if I didn’t think this search for a global vision was important for the future of our planet Earth. Now I face forward to adventures, new friends, and, hopefully, new insights.

It was a long 10 1/2 hours from Chicago to Istanbul, but great to meet interesting folks from Kenya, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. I write this while I’m waiting for the flight to Tel Aviv. It was also a relief to find free internet at the Istanbul airport and let Louis and my children know that I was still alive and kicking. I’m not much of a world traveler and really don’t like air travel because of how uptight the travelers are and because of the harmful environmental impacts. When traveling by train people are generally relaxed and eager to engage in conversations. Oh well, once I’m in Europe I’ll be on trains, buses, and ferries, so that should be lots of fun.

Now in Tel Aviv, with yet another wait. This time I’m waiting for the right time to take a train into the center of the city to catch a bus south. I’m reflecting on the issues of work and jobs again since I noticed at the Istanbul and Tel Aviv airports that there was no self-bussing of the tables in the food courts. There were hired people to do that work. And all over the place there were people with brooms and dust pans, keeping things spiffy. Have we become too efficient in the United States? Might it be better if we have lots of jobs available for people to be able to earn their way through life rather than ending up asking for assistance? What do you think?

Now on to Kibbutz Lotan in the lower Avava Desert near the borders of Jordan and Egypt.

The bus trip south was very dramatic. I’ve never seen desert like this that is the Negev region. David Ben-Gurion, the early, visionary zionist said that “we must turn the desert into green” since there was a need for food production and he wanted all of Israel populated. That was the inspiration for all the Kibbutzim in this area to be founded, one even where he lived for a time. Although the Negev constitutes 62% of the land area, only 10% of the people live there. It’s harsh, hot, and dry. The wells that provide water are highly saline and the kibbutzim have desalinization plants on their premises for the water they drink, using reverse osmosis. The vastness of the place and the sands of the deserts are incredibly beautiful. I’m amazed someone looked at this wilderness and thought they could live here. Road signs warn, “Beware of Camels Near the Road,” and there they were! I had a glimpse of the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan were also visible. And, what would a roadside food stop be without a chance to buy Ben and Jerry’s ice cream?

And then I’m dropped off at a small bus stop in this vastness and look ahead at a sign directing me to a short walk into Lotan.

From the Lonely Planet guide:

Synonymous with an ecological vision known in Hebrew as tikkun olam (repairing the world), Kibbutz Lotan has operated as a collective for over 25 years. The kibbutz has three core centers: Bird Reserve, Creative Ecology, and Holistic Desert Health….Lotan is know for its funky geodesic dome houses…. and permaculture design courses.

I have to admit that it’s hard to stay focused on my mission when the birds are calling me to look at and identify them. Just in the first hours at Lotan (after a nap from travel sleep deprivation) I’ve seen several new-to-me birds and there are soooo many more to see. I’ll cram in as much birdwatching that my short time here allows in between interviews. Prior to dinner time, as I patrolled for birds and photographed interesting structures, I saw goats being herded to their milking stands. Curious, I approached the two young people and learned that both milkers were volunteers. Ian is from Ireland and has been here since November and Moria is spending a year at Lotan before her two-year, mandatory service in the army. (A number of high school graduates do some sort of volunteer work for a year before their two-year for women and three-year for men army stints.) Lotan has about 300 goats, not all being milked since some are mothers, some rams, and some are young ones. Their feed can’t be grown on the kibbutz, so has to be purchased from a northern region of Israel.

The milk is pasteurized and processed into cheese and yogurt which is mostly sold as one of the income-producing projects at the kibbutz. Ian said that none of the milk is used raw. In Vermont there’s a raw-milk movement which claims that it is better for you since pasteurization kills lots of amino acids and enzymes which are beneficial to humans. Cow’s milk and date production are two other money makers on Lotan. It’s so startling to see the date palms growing in a straight grid in the middle of the desert.

Most of the electricity in Israel comes from imported coal and with new discoveries of natural gas reserves off-shore, there’s a move to replace much of the coal with the gas. Daphna Berger, who manages the guest houses at Lotan, said the push for more solar from some organizations hits snags because the electric utility obstructs it’s progress. Though there is a new electric company, Arava Electric which is has a number of stakeholders, that has installed a model 4.7 megawatt solar array at Kibbutz Ketura, just down the road from here. So, maybe things are beginning to change. There are bigger arrays planned for around the Arava Valley including at Lotan. There’s so much sun here, it makes sense. One new thing I learned from Yonatan Chesler, from the Arava Institute is that if the panels get too hot they lose efficiency. So, although in New England we don’t get lots of sun, our coolness increases our efficiency somewhat, but our panels are still not as efficient as the panels in Israel.

At Kibbutz Lotan, like much of the rest of Israel, each living unit has solar hot water. Though I did learn that because of the highly saline water here, the systems break down quickly and need regular repair. There are several areas with photovoltaic panels and plans for more. The small “eco-village” area with small, one-room cob geodesic dome houses for interns and green ecology students, has solar ovens, composting toilets (with separators where urine is mixed with other grey water for irrigating some trees and the solids composted for use on trees), and a couple of solar panels for all the electricity needs. There’s also a washing machine run by stationary bike power. It’s really incredible.

I interviewed several people at Lotan and one at Ketura. They are: Yuval Herman, 15 years old, born and raised at Lotan; Daniel Burstyn, a Rabbi at Lotan; Mark Naveh, General Secretary of Lotan (an elected position) and works with the Center for Creative Ecology; Meirav Efroni, who works in the Tourist Office; Daphna Berger, who manages the guest houses at Lotan; and Yonatan Chesler, who is the IT person for the Arava Institute at Ketura.

Not surprisingly, those who chose to live here came for the community. The kibbutzim I visited are collectives. People share their resources, work on the kibbutz, or if they work outside what they earn is figured into the distribution of the money back to the members. They eat together, worship together, and decide the future of the collective together. Kibbutz Lotan did not begin with an environmental ethic. That came later when they went through an extensive visioning process. It was a time when some families were leaving and it was necessary to make changes for the health of the kibbutz.

Meirav, her husband, and their two children, aged 6 and 10, moved here last August. They wanted something different from their more conventional lives elsewhere in Israel. They are now beginning the several year process of becoming members and had their first session while I was there. Meirav said it went very well and that community members were pleased with the skills she and her husband brought to the collective. Though, she honestly said that it has not been an easy transition. Community presents many challenges. When asked about her vision for the area, she focused on the fact that, even though the environmental goals of the kibbutz are strongly voiced, each person is allowed their own journey and not pressured into adopting all aspects of environmental living. (Yonatan was frustrated at Ketura that many people didn’t seem to care enough to conserve electricity or reduce the amount of lawns at the collective.)

It’s obvious that children feel safe and secure here. They are visible everywhere, happy and running free. It’s not unlike the co-housing model where cars are only parked at the perimeters and most of the area is for pedestrians or bicyclists. (For approximately 100 adults there are only 10 cars which are shared.) So, it’s not surprising that many of the people I talked with were there because of the family support and for the safe and healthy environment for their children.

Yuval was a very well spoken and thoughtful young man. When asked whether he would like to continue to live in a kibbutz, he said he would come back to “grow kids there” because of the nurturing environment he’s experienced. Interestingly he said that if he decided to live on a kibbutz he might not go to college because he would just work where he was needed in the community. The environmental ethic of Lotan and some of the other kibbutzim is very important to him. His vision of the lower Arava desert is that it stays low in population, continues the kibbutz system because he believes the kibbutzim save resources and are more efficient. He also would like to see electric trains powered by renewable energy. He believes the kibbutz model is one that could become a global movement. (In fact, the ecovillage movement ( which promotes a similar life style is working to make that happen.)

Mark is very interested in the Ecovillage Movement and in Transition Towns. He “made aliyah” (moved to Israel– to some aliyah means climbing up, or climbing to a higher spiritual place) in 1989 from Australia. Mark thinks that one day the sale of solar electricity may replace other income-producing projects since some of them are not so sustainable, like the milk production. All feed for the cows must be brought in from other parts of Israel which adds to their ecological footprint. Mark views the Green Apprenticeship Program as part of his vision since the young people who participate go out and bring their new knowledge into the world. Mark was interviewed for an article in in the winter 2009 issue of Reform Judaism. There he said, “ Ecovillages–human-scale communities that integrate a supportive social environment with low-impact living and a strong spiritual dimension–attempt to rectify [alienation and violence toward other human beings and toward the earth]….All it takes is goodwill and a little creativity.” He shared that once his term as General Secretary is over, he wants to devote more time to promoting Transition Initiatives in the region.

Although Daniel is a rabbi, he’s not “the” rabbi of Lotan. This kibbutz does not believe in having a rabbi for the community. Instead they share the spiritual work collectively. Daniel grew up in Woods Hole, Massachusetts (home of the Woods Hole Institute, an environmental organization) where he was inspired to care for the environment. He was looking for a community where people lived in a right relationship with the earth. He was influenced by Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Arthur Waskow and a time at Findhorn, Scotland and came to Lotan 17 years ago. He’s proud of the work of Lotan, but recognizes the limitations of living in the desert. When talking about his vision for Lotan he talked about money being the big restraint. For example, he’d like all their agriculture to be organic, but it takes a five-year, expensive cycle for the transition. Kibbutz Lotan is the first kibbutz to join the ecovillage movement and Daniel sees that the transition movement will broaden the vision even more, since it reaches out to those not living in an intentional community.

Daphna has been at Lotan for 17 years, moving here from another part of Israel. She was drawn to the kibbutz because it was a place that didn’t judge you by your economic or society status, and not drawn to the ecological ethic–that came later. She was part of the visioning process that brought forward the ecology as a keepsake for the next generation. So, although living in the desert wasn’t an environmental choice, they were already here, so they asked how could they live more ecologically. She shared that originally the lack of a lot of cars was because of economic constraints and now they see that they are being ecological! Her vision includes improving the efficiency of the guest houses and when doing renovations, she’d like to use local materials such as cob and make the little guest village an outstanding ecovillage.

I spoke informally with others and did hear of some concerns. The major criticism was that the kibbutz was not really walking its talk. That the ecological housing was for interns and students and that they were the ones with the small footprint. That there wasn’t wide-spread organic farming. That sometimes the insular environment with all working inside led some to laziness. And that many didn’t appear to be so healthy at a community that had a program for “holistic desert health.” We all know it’s not untypical for communities to have differences of opinions and It so it is in this Eden.

Yonatan was concerned that at Kibbutz Ketura the shared electricity, without individual meters, led to laziness about conservation. He was also concerned about the number of lawns throughout the community. He’s frustrated and wants to find ways to sway public opinion on the kibbutz away from waste to conservation. Interestingly, the kibbutz owns Algatech, a company which produces algae and passes it through a filtration system to extract natural astaxanthin. The extract is then sold around the world as a natural high-quality ingredient for fish food; as a natural pigment for use in cosmetics, and as a nutraceutical.

Yonatan’s work at the Arava Institute ( excites him. According to their website:

The Arava Institute is the premier environmental studies program in the Middle East, preparing future Arab and Jewish leaders to cooperatively solve the region’s environmental challenges. Together, faculty and students are advancing a critical common cause — a sustainable future for the region’s human and natural resources.

He talked about the excitement of seeing newly arrived Arabs and Jews struggling through the first days of sharing political ideologies, hurts, and despair, to then emerge strong in their respect of one another, and ready to work together for a common cause. He came to the Institute in 2006 to stay for studying and found a home at Ketura. He found a “full-on cooperative kibbutz.” He appreciates the ethic of “each according to his ability and to each according to his need.” His vision for the area includes strong regional oversight including neighboring countries which would reduce some of the redundancies such as an airport in Eilat and in Jordan, not too far away. The borders would be secure for ease of travel and sharing of goods. He’d like to see more public transportation and make what’s currently functioning (a local bus serving all the kibbutzim in the area to Eilat) more efficient. He suggested that maybe changing to a pre-order situation for bus service would be a solution. His vision also includes more regional cooperation of things like major composting facilities and renewable resources.

Yonatan’s vision also includes reducing the amount of beef that’s eaten on the kibbutz since most of it comes from Argentina. He’d like to see more efforts towards local foods and healthier foods. He is involved with other people from the region to explore environmental initiatives for the area. He did have a concern about visitors or interns who come and initiate small projects that then are left to whither from neglect when they leave. He see’s there’s a need for oversight and continuity for success. Traveling to Richon Lezion to receive the an ecological community award for Kibbutz Ketura was very affirming because he met so many others who share similar concerns. He was elated to participate at a young people’s conference held in Copenhagen as part of the UN COP 16. It’s this idea of many people working together that is a major piece of Yonatan’s global vision. And it’s the people working together that will bring food security, clean drinking water, and resilience in community.

I wish I could have given much more time to describe each of these wonderful people I met, but I hope I’ve captured their visions and ideals adequately. You might notice that I haven’t described the difficult political landscape here. I don’t feel adequate to do that. I’m listening, asking questions, and maybe before I leave Israel I’ll have some things to say about it. In my next post I’ll describe a Palestinian permaculture project in the West Bank that I’ll be visiting.

I now am in the north of Israel at Tiberias, which is at the Sea of Galilee. I’m here with my cousin, Harvey and his wife, Sima, and arrived on Friday. We enjoyed our fist evening together with a shabbat dinner with their son Nick and grandchildren, Dylan and Skye. Dylan, who is ten years old, was asked to bless the wine and bread and did it beautifully. I feel full of love and gratitude for new friends and re-discovered family.

About ruahswennerfelt

I am searching for a global vision for a sustainable, resilient world in the face of peak oil, climate change, and economic instability.
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1 Response to Israel, Part One

  1. Part wisse says:

    Thanks so much for sharing. I really learned so much about Israel and the kibbutz care of the environment


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