by Lauren Pincus
When we stopped for gas halfway through the drive, I got out of the car without my coat to stand in the sun. It was the first time I felt really warm in about two months. Jerusalem has a way of chilling your bones. As we drove towards Eilat for the weekend, I felt ready to be warm again. Of course, as it turned out, we visited Kibbutz Lotan and Kibbutz Ketura on one of the few weekends of the year that the Arava desert experienced rain.
Achvat Amim (Solidarity of Nations), my Masa program group, was taking a weekend trip to visit other Masa participants and discuss the environment. The Sustainable Israel Program at Kibbutz Lotan offers a fellowship program with a recognized Permaculture Design certificate after learning theory and applying skills in the kibbutz environment. The semester or year program at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies is an accredited university program through Ben Gurion University.
Borders and Other Complications
Our first stop was at Kibbutz Ketura to meet with the director of student life for the Arava Institute. It is an academic Masa program dedicated to peace building and environmental leadership located inside of Kibbutz Ketura where young Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians as well as other internationals come together to learn about the environmental issues of the region from different narratives and perspectives. We came to understand some of the challenges of bringing such a diverse group together. Trips and tours taken by the group are limited due to the fact that Palestinian participants are not allowed to enter the city of Eilat or pass through certain checkpoints. Program directors work diligently to establish a group of 1/3 Israelis, 1/3 Palestinians, and 1/3 Jordanian or other nationalities. Complications such as the war last summer and advertising the program to Arab nations make it difficult to maintain those numbers. But coexistence is one of the major initiatives of the program and it has been around since its founding in 1996.
A view of the Jordanian mountains from Kibbutz Ketura
Our group took a walk through some of the kibbutz grounds and visited the Institute’s buildings to see the communal space and living arrangements of the participants. We then viewed three forms of sustainable living arrangements created by program volunteers. One of them is hooked up to a generator that produces energy via food refuse. It has been successfully introduced to Bedouin communities in different parts of the region. We had a view of both Israeli and Jordanian mountains and better understood the need for people to work together on environmental issues, as they are faced by all, regardless of any borders we draw on maps to help us make sense of the world.
After our tour of the grounds, we drove down the street to Kibbutz Lotan. This is when the storm clouds quickly began to roll in. We could see them in the distance, steadily drifting towards us.
Back to Basics with Modern Marvels
Kibbutz Lotan is home to a diverse community of worshippers and ecology buffs. We were staying on the campus of the Center for Creative Ecology, which is the Masa program that is based in the kibbutz and teaches young Jews about organic gardening, sustainability, renewable energy and Permaculture. We walked through the campus and were introduced to the mud domes where we would be sleeping.
The huts were built using straw bales covered in mud surrounding a metal frame. In summer, the huts are cooler than traditional homes on the kibbutz by about five degrees. In winter, the huts are about five degrees warmer. I had reservations about this, but soon came to believe it was true, as we were insulated from the coming storm.
The storm heading our way as we entered the campus on Kibbutz Lotan
After a quick tour of the grounds, including an outdoor dining room with wood burning ovens, a sun oven which uses a mirror to cook food when it is hot enough, an indoor kitchen with a refrigerator and stove top, a garden, and bathing area with compostable toilets and solar heated showers, we brought our bags to our assigned huts. The rain began to fall as I connected to the Wi-Fi in our hut. We sat down on the cots which were set on cinderblocks and considered that we were much warmer inside than we were outside. Looking around, it looked as though we were inside a cardboard box with a domed roof. Somehow, it felt cozy.
We joined the kibbutniks for a Kabbalat Shabbat and sang in the community area in the hour before the community sat down for dinner together in the dining room. Long tables were arranged one after the other and we joined the eco volunteers and Masa participants to break bread. After dinner, we had dessert and tea again in the community area and then parted ways, before people headed to the kibbutz pub.
We walked through the campus in the dark, marveling at the stars. The campus has posts of LED lights which are molded into mud towers shaped and painted to resemble large colorful mushrooms. These are arranged along paths that light the way without creating light pollution that obscures the stars. We counted shooting stars and searched for recognizable star patterns.
A view of the campus on Kibbutz Lotan - pictured is the outdoor kitchen and the LED mushroom lights
The next day, we took a tour of Kibbutz Lotan, despite the rain. Did you know that certain crops respond well to urine as fertilizer? The date trees have a direct line to the compostable toilets and produce the best fruit on the kibbutz according to our guide. The compostable toilets and nearly all refuse around the kibbutz are considered for the value they can be used and reused for. The kibbutz playground is made out of tires filled with products that would otherwise end up in a landfill, but have been covered over with mud, dried and painted. Waste from the compost toilets is collected and responsibly treated to be used a year later as soil. Nature doesn’t waste, we are taught, so why should we? Instead of using harmful chemicals to get rid of pests in the garden, certain plants are grown to entice the pests away from the desired crop.
It was an interesting visit, to say the least. In fifty years, our guide predicted, flushing toilets will begin to be obsolete. They just are not a responsible use of water, when wars may be waged for potable water in the future.
As we said goodbye to our hosts, the sun took the opportunity to shine. It was going to be a beautiful rest of the day. One of the members of Achvat Amim stated in the car on the way back to Jerusalem that someone he works with from Rabbis for Human Rights has said that if peace can be waged here, it will be out of shared environmental need.