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.


  1. I don't see my name in your list. i have seen 4 posts. did u get a new call # ? What was Yom kippur like?

  2. Great work buddy boy! Now get to work on the post you were meant to have finished before we went and played music. Good to have you on my roll