Monday, March 11, 2013

The Negev and the Kibbutzim of the Arava


I have always loved the desert. I love the landscape, the terrain, the mountains, the shapes and colors of the rocks; I even like the weather. So, of course, time in the desert was guaranteed to be a part of our Israel adventure.

We began our trip to the Negev on a Friday afternoon, right after we had participated in the 4.2 km public race of the Jerusalem Marathon. We spent time in/at Machtesh Ramon, or the Ramon crater, the biggest crater in the world (formed through natural geological processes rather than through an impact).
 Overlooking the Ramon Crater

We visited Avdat, a Nabatean city along the ancient spice route.
 Standing at the ancient wine press in Avdat

We went to Timna National Park which, along with being a beautiful part of the desert, is the site of of the oldest mine in the world. 6,000 years ago, Egyptians mined copper there and, today, you can crawl in and out of those ancient shafts and tunnels.

   One of he 6000 year old copper mine shafts

In front of Soloman's Pillars in Timna National Park

We experienced the natural wildlife in the coral of the Red Sea at the Underwater Observatory in Eilat and we dipped our feet into the Red Sea (still too chilly to swim).

In Eilat with the Red Sea and the Jordanian city of Aqaba in the background

We drove along the Dead Sea, reaching the lowest point on earth. Naturally, we floated in the Sea as well. It was the first time that the kids had been to the Dead Sea. We have two who love it, one who is a little lukewarm and one who may never go into any body of water that contains salt ever again.

Worth special mention are the kibbutzim we visited in the Arava Valley, Kibbutz Ketura, in whose guest house we stayed, and Kibbutz Yotvata. Today's kibbutzim are different from the equalized cooperatives of the past. Most of them are privatized, which means their members receive a salary for their work and they are paid according to their position rather than according to their need. Then, there are the kibbutzim that are called "integrated" wherein people are given the usual stipend and then some percentage of their salary depending on their position. Only around a quarter of the kibbutzim work on the hundred year old model of the Israeli commune. Ketura and Yotvata are two of the few that are essentially traditional kibbutzim.

I say essentially because there still are changes from the original ways kibbutzim did things. For instance, the original model had children in children's houses, whereas the general practice today is for children to reside with their parents. It used to be that you didn't own anything individually. Now, if you own real estate when you join, you would be allowed to keep it. If you are left an inheritance, it is yours, not the property of the kibbutz. It is still the case that anything you make while you are a member belongs to the whole community. The differences in the stipends is entirely based on the number of children you have in your household and not at all on the work you do in the community. If you want to work outside the kibbutz, you would be allowed to do so only if you received a certain salary and then, of course, it would go to the collective rather than to you as an individual.

Ketura's businesses include a dairy, date groves, a solar field, an industrial plant for producing a red algae called astaxanthin, an early childhood education program, and is the location for the the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. They don't independently own all of the operations functioning on their property, but some of the members of the kibbutz work in the various programs. Interestingly, when it comes to the businesses that are entirely theirs, like the date groves, they hire outside employees to do the some of the work (like tree climbing) freeing members who can then choose to work as professionals or on non-Kibbutz businesses instead.

At Ketura, you can also visit a date tree name Methusela. It was sprouted from a nineteen hundred year old seed that was found during excavations at Masada. The botanist (Dr. Elaine Solowey) who sprouted and nurtured it is a member of Kibbutz Ketura.


Yotvata's businesses include a highly successful dairy, date groves, onions, and they house the elementary, middle and high schools for the entire region. Their most successful operation is their dairy which brings in about seventy percent of their annual income. If you have visited Israel in the last few decades, you may know the name Yotvata for its many delicious dairy products. They actually don't produce enough milk to meet their needs and therefore buy the milk from the surrounding kibbutzim. In general, the kibbutzim in the area seem to put a lot of effort into collaboration and working together for the benefit of them all. Unlike Ketura, we got the feeling that most of the members were still encouraged to work for the kibbutz's businesses rather than in outside positions.

What was particularly impressive about these institutions was their innovation, both in the realm of environmental stewardship and in building relationships with people and communities from other countries in the region.

The solar fields at Ketura are becoming the standard that others are looking toward, kibbutzim as well as other cities and institutions in Israel and throughout the world. The Arava Institute is the premier environmental education and research program in the Middle East, bringing Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis together to work cooperatively in addressing the environmental challenges in the region.

Yotvata collects all of the water and waste from the dairy and turns it into methane gas that then powers the operation. Forty percent of the power used by Yotvata's dairy comes from this recycling method. They, too, have been involved in cooperative relationships with other countries.
A few years ago, Yotvata was approached by members of a Jordanian village just across the border who were interested in learning about agriculture, specifically growing dates and onions. A few Jordanians joined the kibbutz for a time, learning what they could from Yotvata's knowledge and experience. That village has now become quite successful in their own agricultural pursuits and that success has given its people many new opportunities.

In many ways, the kibbutzim of today are not the same institutions that they were, yet they are still challenging the rest of the world to take a good look at the way we do things and question whether or not there might be something better. Whether that is pushing ourselves to be more community rather than individually oriented, or to be more mindful about our environment, or to find ways to build partnerships with people who might otherwise be our enemies, the kibbutzim continue to put forth ideals to inspire us all.

All in all, a great desert trip.


  1. Such a great travelogue--it sounds like an amazing adventure. Thanks for keeping us up to date on the family's escapades!

    Jill Tregor

  2. Love your specific details about the economics and socio-political relationships that have evolved with the kibbutzim. Thank you so much.

    Barbara Kluger

  3. This is awesome! I lived in Ketura for 5 months in 1999 - working daily in the refet (dairy cows) - with one week in the dates when everyone was needed to pitch in. Fond memories of a gorgeous place!