Saturday, September 26, 2009

Kibbutz Ketura and the Arava Institute

Most of my friends going off to college had a pretty good idea of what they are getting into. Typically, colleges are in constant contact throughout the summer with information regarding classes, roommates, meal plans, etc. The Arava Institute clearly did not feel the same obligation. As a result, I had a pretty vague notion of what it is actually like on Kibbutz Ketura and the Arava Institute. Hell, I had only been to Israel once before now. I guess I was a little worried, and I was jealous of my college friends who were getting pumped for school. Well, I am no longer worried, and I am no longer jealous—I absolutely love it here.

Thursday morning, I said goodbye to Dor and his family who have hosted me very graciously twice now (I also stayed with them earlier this summer.) His parents dropped me off at the Central Train/Bus Station, where I was to meet up with my group to take a bus down to Kibbutz Ketura. The problem was that the station is a fairly large place, and I didn’t know specifically where we were meeting. In addition, I had two enormous suitcases (one of which is so heavy that the wheels are collapsing), a saxophone, a backpack, and no cell phone. I wondered around like an idiot for at least half an hour before I borrowed a stranger’s cell phone and called the Arava Institute. Sweaty, achy, and anxious from pulling my luggage around, I finally found the other students.

We had a solid 4 hours of bonding time driving down to Kibbutz Ketura. I’ve mentioned that prior to the beginning of the semester, there is a Hebrew Ulpan. The ulpan is for Arava students who received a scholarship from Masa, necessarily Jews studying overseas in Israel. There are 11 of us: 9 Americans, 1 Canadian, and 1 Australian. It is a pretty diverse group of people in a variety of ways, but there are some strange quirks i.e. there is only 1 girl out of the 11 and there are 4 Bens. There is a range of interest in environmental science and culture/politics. For example, Ben L. is going to be working in an experimental orchard, specifically with one particular species of tree that can produce a type of oil. In contrast, there is Adi, who has an interest in the environment, but not a background in it. For Adi (and me), the political, social, and cultural meaning of the Arava Institute has more meaning, whereas Ben L. probably looks at it as primarily a research facility. Then there is Benjamin from Oregon, who lost his job as a mechanic during the recession and has decided to take his career in a new direction, while also temporarily escaping financial burdens he faces in the US. Some people have a limited knowledge of Israel, Judaism, Hebrew language, and the Middle East conflict, while others are incredibly well-informed. Everyone here now is Jewish, but Ben Mac is trying to discover a new level of religiosity, while Braeden is not particularly observant, and Adi keeps strictly kosher. Age-wise, Yoni and I are the youngest at 18 and Benjamin is 25. I have had many great conversations and am continually learning more about everyone on the ulpan. It is inspiring to feel diversity within the Jewish-American delegation when there are about 40 more students coming from Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Furthermore, there is the kibbutz community, which includes approximately 170 adult members, their children, visitors, garin (army reserves), and about 30 volunteers from around the world.

Kibbutz Ketura is definitely in the middle of the desert—it is very hot, dry, and sandy. However, the kibbutz itself is quite an oasis. There is a large date palm orchard across the street, many beautiful flowering plants, and even some grass. Since we have arrived, we have mostly been getting acquainted with the kibbutz. There is a delicate distinction between kibbutz members and students/volunteers. Really, it’s all about understanding and being respectful of the way of life on a kibbutz. The principal concept of a kibbutz is community. The community shares resources and property. The community cares for children, sick, and elderly (universal healthcare actually works!) The community eats together. This lifestyle has its perks and its shortcomings. For example, most people hardly ever need to cook meals or do any of their own laundry. Everyone can use the pool, borrow bikes, or ride horses for free. On the other hand, everyone lives more humbly. Personal possessions are pretty minimal. No individual owns a car, and a member has a limited number of credits of car use depending on his or her job and family situation. Similarly, there is a designated amount of money apportioned to members for clothing based on the number and ages of their children. Housing works the same way. To put it simply, everyone gets what they need plus a few luxuries, but nothing excessive.

For the next few weeks, I am living it what we call the caravans. It’s pretty nice. Unfortunately, once the semester actually starts, I will have to move out, but the other dorms are supposedly sweet too. The caravans consist of a few buildings, each with 4 single rooms, 2 bathrooms, and a kitchen. My room has a comfortable bed, a desk, plenty of space, and air conditioning. Ben L., Benjamin, and Adi also live in my caravan.

I’m not going to go through my entire schedule, but I’ll discuss a few of the highlights and the lowlights thus far. I’ll get the bad stuff out of the way first. I don’t like the food. There is not a lot of selection, and the lettuce in the salad bar tastes funky. Disappointing item number two is the Friday night Shabbat service. It was pretty formal for my standards. It was entirely Hebrew, which I don’t mind, but it wasn’t nearly as accessible as the services I am used to. It felt rushed and formal, not as entertaining, spiritual, interpretive, or progressive as my typical service. However, Ketura brags about being very pluralistic and open with respect to Judaism, so I might be able to find a religious niche. Last bad thing: Kibbutz Ketura was founded by Americans in the 1970s, so most people can speak English. This is annoying because it doesn’t force me to practice Hebrew. I asked a woman in Hebrew where to put an empty wine bottle after dinner, and she responded in English.

On to the good stuff. Last night, we all went to the kibbutz pub for pub night. There was music and dancing and drinking and socializing. It’s nice to see that there is a party scene on the kibbutz, even if it mostly consists of the Arava Institute and volunteers. Plus, I like the idea of being able to drink legally, even if I still don’t like the taste of beer. Finally, the best part of my trip so far: an early morning bike ride in the desert. Admittedly, I was not enthusiastic about waking up at 5:30 in the morning (I imagine it was worse for people who took pub night more seriously than me the night before) but once I was outside, I had no regrets. It was before sunrise, and the sky was purple and pink over the Jordanian mountains in the east. The temperature was perfect and the bike ride was relaxing and a good workout—a great way to start the day. About 15 minutes into the ride, I watched the sunrise, which was absolutely astounding. We also stopped on the outskirts of Kibbutz Lotan, where there are bird-watching areas. I learned that the Arava valley is the second largest migratory path for birds in the world. Within a few weeks, thousands and thousands of birds will fly through here. I’m glad I brought binoculars.

I would’ve posted some pictures with this post, but my camera was in my blue backpack, which I recovered from the airport today. I also have a cell phone now, but apparently the US number that I posted is not correct, so don’t call it yet.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

First day

I arrived!!!! My flight actually landed early (Monday at 3:05 pm, Israel time). I got through passport control and customs with ease, but my big blue backpack which I was required to check in Cleveland got lost somewhere along the way. Luckily, I kept the receipt so I filed a lost bag claim. They assured me that it would arrive within the next day or two and that they would deliver it directly to Kibbutz Ketura (that's where I will be studying for the next few months). I don't really need anything in the bag except for maybe sunglasses and my camera, but I'll survive until Thursday when I travel down to the kibbutz.

I took a taxi to my friend Dor's apartment in Tel Aviv. The taxi driver was ridiculous. She kept texting and adjusting the GPS, resulting in drifting and honking. Nevertheless, we had a 20-something minute conversation in Hebrew, so that was good practice.

I'm staying with Dor until Thursday morning, when I will meet up with a small group travelling South to Kibbutz Ketura. I'm going to try to attach a map of Israel to this post for reference.

Today I basically had nothing to do because Dor went to school at 8:30 so I walked along the coast and hung out on some beaches. I met up with Dor after school and we chilled/played basketball. It was a good first day, but I'm really looking forward to Thursday when I go South to Kibbutz Ketura.

By the way, I got my cell phone number. I won't have it until later this week, but here are the numbers (both numbers connect to my phone, so use the 216 number if you are in the US):

050-202-4096, 216-539-4520


September 21: early AM

I’m writing this post from the airplane on my way to Israel. It still hasn’t clicked in my brain that I will not see Shaker Heights or anywhere else in the US for at least 8 months. Besides one visit from my mom and sister and one visit from my dad, I won’t see anyone who I know from back home. Thank God for skype, email, and facebook! I want to hear from everyone—no excuses. For those of you who prefer more traditional communication, I can receive mail at the following address:

Gabe Pincus

Arava Institute for Environmental Studies

Kibbutz Ketura

D.N. Eilot, Israel 88840

And I will also have a cell phone by Thursday probably. The great part about it is that I also have a 216 number that transfers to my Israeli cell phone, so no one has to pay international calling charges. When I get the phone, I’ll post the phone number. As for skype, my username is glpincus. And email: I think I have covered pretty much every method of communication, so as I said, no excuses.

These last few weeks have been hectic idleness. You may say this is an impossibility, but I assure you that despite the contradiction, I have experienced hectic idleness at its maximum. I’ll explain. Practically all of my friends (except for OSU and CWRU people) had left for college by the first few days of September. After a summer of partying and celebration with all of my friends, my nights suddenly became quiet. And after I finished interning at Senator Sherrod Brown’s office, the daytime also became quiet. Every day consisted of at least sleeping in, eating, and pretending to clean my messes throughout the house. So far, this is all the “idle” part of my life. The “hectic” part was that I was constantly dealing with small issues to prepare to leave. Granted, I saved most of the work until the last few days. (I needed to create some excitement/pressure to motivate me. Some people aka my mom call that procrastination.) However, there was the visa application, medical insurance, travel insurance, all types of forms, going to the dentist, blah, blah, blah. Basically I was juggling a bunch of small tasks, and they just added up into frenzy. This past week has been really frantic because I had to fulfill a promise I made to my mom to have all of my stuff cleaned up, and of course there was packing. I want to point out that I did pull through in the end. My rooms and areas of the house are thoroughly clean. My suitcases weigh exactly 50 and 70 lbs, fitting the airline restrictions perfectly. Anyway, reading about cleaning and packing is probably even less amusing than the act itself, so I will move on.

I forgot to mention that I went to visit Duke and New Jersey last weekend to party and see relatives, respectively. (It is important that you don’t confuse the two!) I just wanted to give a shout-out to everyone I visited that weekend because it was great, especially in contrast to the aforementioned chores.

SO, that pretty much covers the past few weeks. Today, I finished packing, played tennis, went in the hot tub, and said my goodbyes. I mentioned earlier that it still hadn’t clicked that I was leaving home for a very long time, but I expected to feel more emotional. I did cry, but I was crying because other people were crying. It’s strange that my departure feels more real to them than it does to me. However, there is one thing that feels very real to me: the actual scenery of Shaker Heights. I have never really appreciated how beautiful Shaker and Cleveland are. We may get some gray weather, but there is so much to value in the nature, architecture, and charm of Shaker. And even the gray weather has its place in my heart—I know that I will look back at it longingly when it’s 110°+ in the desert. Actually, the one poster that I brought with me depicts all four seasons; a spring and summer with green, a fall with orange and red, and a winter with white.

My flight is good so far. My first flight (to Philadelphia) was easy and short, but they made me check (not gate check) my backpack because it was too big. That ends up being pretty convenient because they didn’t charge me for an additional checked bag, and I have a lot less stuff to carry. I already watched a movie and I think I might watch another one now. Next time I write, I will be in Israel!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

19 Days til Departure

Dear family, friends, and anyone else who happens to stumble upon this,

Instead of sending mass emails once in a while, I have decided to keep everyone up-to-date with this handy dandy blog. For those of you who don't know, I graduated from Shaker Heights High School (class of 2009) and have decided to take a "gap year" in Israel before enrolling at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service (class of 2014).

As nontraditional as it is to take a year off before college, my reasons are surprisingly logical and practical. I have always struggled to find a specific subject out of which I can pursue as a major/job/career. In reality, there are too many fields that intrigue me, and I have a hard time choosing which I like best. Throughout high school, I have tried to delve deeper into my interests--to investigate their potentials. For example, my curiosity in math and science led me to a robotics engineering internship at Case Western Reserve University, and my fascination with politics and government led me to an internship at United States Senator Sherrod Brown's office. Despite all of the opportunities for exploration in high school, it is impossible to fully explore one of my remaining passions: the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I have had an intense passion for Arab-Israeli peace for a few years now, specifically since I attended Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine in the summers of 2006 and 2008. Growing up in a Jewish family and attending a Jewish day school through 6th grade has always made me feel a special connection to Israel; however I was largely ignorant of the major issues looming over the Holy Land until recently. When I went to Seeds of Peace, I met people from Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan. Everyone had an opinion and would defend it so vehemently that I realized how pervading this conflict is. To affect so many people and inspire such feelings of hostility and hatred--I simply could not comprehend it all. However, by the end of camp, the hostility and hatred disappeared, and I felt hopeful. It is that hope and desire to better understand everyone's perspective that has compelled me to journey to Israel.

As far as details for my trip, I am attending the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES; for the Fall semester, which begins October 14 and ends February 1. AIES is one of the leading environmental research institutions in the Middle East. The philosophy behind AIES is that the environment knows no borders. While politicians squabble, the Jordan River runs between Jordan and Israel. While extremists on both sides call for bloodshed, air pollution flows between Syria and Lebanon. The environment effects everyone in the Middle East, whether it poses problems, or presents valuable resources. The environment is a point of contention but also an opportunity for regional cooperation. AIES is a bastion for cooperation, bringing Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Americans together to research and learn.

Prior to AIES, I am participating in a three-week Hebrew Ulpan, which begins September 24. An Ulpan basically entails the study of Hebrew language and Israeli culture. I studied Hebrew for a long time, but in the past couple years, I was too busy to continue. When I visited Israel earlier this summer (my first time) I found that I could understand Hebrew well, but speaking was difficult. I'll be able to recover and build on my Hebrew skills during the Ulpan.

After the Fall semester at AIES, I currently have no plan, but I'm sure I'll find something interesting to do for the remaining months! More info and details to come!