Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bicycling from Jerusalem to Eilat, Part 3

I made it! I sit this Monday evening on the veranda of a coffee house in Eilat, enjoying the evening breeze and looking across the Red Sea at the lights of Aqaba, Jordan. I surprised myself and bicycled 330 miles to get here, and though I’m tired I actually have worked myself into better condition over the course of the week. Here is a final installment on my journey.

I love soaring downhill on my bike. I have loved it as long as I can remember. I’m willing to bike uphill just to get to the downhill. And there were some really big, long hills to climb up and coast down in the Negev, along with good air and wide-open desert scenery. Flocking along with the group, I pushed myself to speeds I didn’t think I could sustain, drafting behind other riders and taking their encouragement. During the first four days I chose to ride with the fastest group, and just kept pedaling. Today I cut myself a little slack and joined the middling riders, opting out of a brutal climb that was part of the fast group’s itinerary.

During one seven-mile downhill stretch (!), the wind in our face was so stiff that we had to pedal downhill. That trip was a planned detour to a kitschy desert rest stop, so we returned the same way as we came, only this time with the wind at our backs. And now we sped uphill, with minimal effort! When a truck would pass us from behind, the wake of air currents that were stirred up behind sucked us along momentarily on our bicycles, while a truck coming from the opposite direction pushed through the air and the air pushed us backward. I learned how to ride in a line with other cyclists, and their bodies and momentum created a windscreen for me and I cut through the air while the lead rider took the brunt of the wind.

I “saw” that we live in a sea of air. The air, though unseen and not nearly as substantial as water, has real substance. Powering my bike with only my own muscles, so exposed and at the mercy of the currents and the swirls of wind, I could see in my mind’s eye this ocean of air that we inhabit.

Late on Monday afternoon we descended an enormous hill from the Negev highlands into the Arava valley, and we rolled into Kibbutz Ketura for the night. Ketura is one of a consortium of 10 kibbutzim that occupy the Southern Arava valley, on the way to Eilat. The Arava is extremely arid and hot, and it has taken a lot of persistence and ingenuity to make these kibbutzim flourish. Kibbutz Ketura is worth describing. Ketura was founded in the 1970’s by a group of young, idealistic American Zionists who had grown up in the Young Judaea youth movement. They were joined by a similar group of young Israelis seeking to make the desert bloom and to live communally.

As it happens, one of those early members, Richie Goldstein, is a dear cousin of WJC member Beth Abrams. Beth gave him a heads-up that I would be rolling into the kibbutz. Richie sought me out and invited me over to his veranda, where I spoke with him and his wife Ofra. Richie and Ofra have been members of the kibbutz for over 30 years – they met each other as young kibbutzniks - and have participated in every aspect of its development from a bare former army encampment into the green and flowering oasis that it has become today. Richie is now the comptroller of the date-packing plant that is run collectively by the area kibbutzim. Dates are the biggest cash crop of the area. Ofra is the gardener and arborist of the kibbutz, and the trees surrounding us were the products of her planting and tending.

You may be aware that in recent decades most of the approximately 160 kibbutzim in Israel have given up their collective lifestyle and ideology and have privatized. These kibbutzim still have members, but the members now earn their own salaries and determine how to spend their own resources. Kibbutz Ketura is one of about 20 holdouts that remain committed to communal living. Everything is collectively owned and all salaries and income generated by the members go into a common pool. All decisions about the future of the kibbutz are made collectively. Richie and Ofra explained that the remaining communal kibbutzim were forming a federation within the larger kibbutz movement: the Federation of Communal Kibbutzim. Since “kibbutz” means “commune” or “collective”, it is an ironic redundancy that these remaining communal kibbutzim need to identify themselves as such.

Listening to Richie and Ofra, it appears to me that Ketura faces two main challenges: how to remain a collective while responding to members’ desires for increased autonomy, and how to make a living. The first issue is a perennial and difficult debate. The members of Ketura have given up personal property and the pursuit of individual wealth in favor of their dream of a different way to live and to share with people. They make this choice in a world in which socialism has been long discredited and in which individual mobility and choice is championed. For the members of Ketura, any decision to alter their communal agreement becomes an assault on their very identity, and discussions are heated. For example, would it be a slippery slope if members were each given a monetary stipend, and were permitted to spend it as they see fit?

Which brings me to the second main issue: how does the kibbutz make a collective living? If the kibbutz were more prosperous, the ideological issues might relax somewhat – I don’t know. Since it’s founding, Ketura’s main sources of income have been agricultural: dates, vegetables and dairy products. The kibbutz members have assessed their skills and resources and have worked hard to diversify. Noting the number of educators on the kibbutz, the kibbutz has put much effort into the building of The Arava Institute and other educational endeavors. As we biked into the kibbutz we saw a huge array of pipes and grids; this, it turns out, is a method for producing and harvesting algae, which has a rapidly growing market as a nutritional supplement around the world. Could this be Ketura’s big break?

In fact, Ketura’s greatest resource may be sunlight. The intense desert sun shines almost every day of the year. Richie explained that thanks to a fortunate confluence of political timing and international climate treaties, Israel’s government had given the green light to the Arava Power Company, and Ketura’s first 20-acre field of photovoltaic solar panels was nearing construction. This field would eventually be dwarfed by future arrays, and the Arava Power Company could become a major source of electricity for the south of Israel and for neighboring Jordan.

I bid Richie and Ofra good evening and as I strolled back to my guest room I passed the dorms of the Arava Institute. The Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli and American students sat in the grassy courtyard laughing and talking, a temporary idyll in a painful and dangerous world.

Monday morning we biked the final leg to Eilat. Lunch was served at the overlook on Mount Hizkiyahu. From this vantage point we could see the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba (also know as the Red Sea), and we could see the territory of four countries: Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In Biblical geography, across the sea we were looking at the bare and jagged mountains of Edom and Midian. We then careened down, down, down to sea level in Eilat, and we waded into the Red Sea, our journey completed.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bicycling from Jerusalem to Eilat, Part 2

Unidentified Africans seeking refuge in Israel

I am pleased to report that my body is giving me the power I need to meet all of my cycling goals thus far. I rode 94 miles on Thursday, by far the longest I have ridden since an ill-considered 100-mile ride from Providence, Rhode Island to Martha’s Vineyard when I was 19 – on a 3-speed bicycle! I have an interesting suntan with various stripes and triangles where my skin is exposed during the day. We have spent this Shabbat resting in the desert town of Mitzpeh Ramon, and we will bicycle away tomorrow morning for the far south of Israel.

On Friday as we departed Ashkelon we rode past an enormous coal-fired power plant, one of the major sources of electricity in Israel. Israeli companies have recently discovered enormous reserves of natural gas in Israeli waters in the Mediterranean, so it is possible that within a few years Israel’s reliance on foreign coal will diminish, replaced by its own sources of cleaner-burning natural gas. Israel also has an ideal climate for harnessing solar power; we will be touring a solar installation later tomorrow.

A bit south of the power plant we paused at a holding reservoir for a kibbutz. We had by now entered the arid northern Negev, and the JNF (Jewish National Fund) has made a huge investment in hundreds of reservoirs for these southern communities. The very clean and potable water we were looking at is treated wastewater. Alon Tal explained to us that fully 50% of Israel’s agricultural water use is treated wastewater, and the goal is to continue to increase that ratio. As I bike through the desert and consume quarts of water a day, my appreciation for carefully managing water resources becomes especially acute.

Spread out beyond the reservoir, stretching north and south, was the entire Gaza Strip. There are approximately 1.8 million people essentially trapped in an area about twice the size of Washington, D.C., people lacking citizenship, people that no one in the Arab world, let alone Israel, has ever wanted to claim as their own. Only the tiniest percentage of Gazans can currently with much diplomatic effort even get out of Gaza, whether to Israel or to Egypt. Ashkelon, where we had just spent the night, was a frequent target of Hamas missile attacks from Gaza. In 2009, Israel launched a massive military campaign against Gaza, and since then the missile attacks have almost entirely ceased. Now Gaza languishes in political stalemate and semi-ruins, under an Israeli blockade and under its own repressive and corrupt Hamas leadership. It is a historically complex and humanly tragic situation that I will not attempt to analyze in this posting. As we bicycled southward parallel to the Gaza border, it was eerie and troubling to stare across the quiet open fields toward the urban clusters beyond.

The remainder of the day my attention was mainly focused on pacing myself and making sure my pedals were moving. As we headed south the landscape became more and more barren. In the late afternoon we arrived at Nitzana, on the Egyptian border. Nitzana is a fairly new community, founded 24 years ago by Lova Eliav, one of the unsung heroes and visionaries of Zionism. Eliav just passed away this May. Among many accomplishments in his long career, he championed human rights and immigrants’ rights. I became familiar with Lova Eliav through his book “New Heart, New Spirit: Biblical Humanism for Modern Israel”. He envisioned Nitzana as a new oasis, an educational community in the desert on the border with Egypt. Today there are groves of trees, reservoir ponds, an educational center, and greenhouses producing sweet fruits and vegetables. It turns out that there is a huge aquifer of brackish water under that part of the Negev that has never been tapped, and is suitable for agriculture. And there is a gorgeous swimming pool, in which I rested my weary muscles.

Nitzana sits on a rise a short distance from the Nitzana Crossing. This is the main commercial border crossing between Egypt and Israel. When Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for a peace agreement at the Camp David Accords, the Nitzana border crossing was created. The crossing is well used; an average of 200 trucks pass through a day, I was told.

Early Friday morning we headed out on our ride. We were permitted to ride on a road the military uses to patrol the border. This was a particular treat for a biker, as we encountered no cars for better than 30 miles, and cruised through wide-open desert landscapes. The border patrol is mostly occupied these days interdicting drug smugglers. Across the barbed wire fence bored Egyptian sentries perked up at our convoy, sometimes waving. We then climbed into the more mountainous southern region of the Negev. After a particularly brutal hill (I walked much of it!) we reached an overlook of the wilderness of Kadesh Barnea. The Torah states that this is where the Children of Israel camped for many years, where Miriam passed away, and where Moses struck the rock and water streamed forth.

Around the next bend my attention was jolted from the mythic past to the exigencies of the present. Six African men sat on the ground in front of a small military station. Our guide was David Palmach, the head of Nitzana and an avid biker. He explained that the Africans had walked across the border from Egypt during the night, and were looking for refuge. I had just been looking at the place where the Children of Israel, a band of escaping refugees from Pharaoh’s Egypt, had camped, and here I was looking at new refugees probably from the Darfur region in southern Sudan. You are likely to be familiar with the chaotic and shockingly brutal degradation and slow genocide that is being perpetrated against the Darfurians by Moslem militias from northern Sudan. I learned that an average of 30 Africans a day make their way across the border into Israel every night. Ironically, the word is out in East Africa that Israel is the safest place to go. According to David Palmach, the refugees make their way across Egypt at great risk – the Egyptians deport them or kill them. The refugees pay Sinai Bedouin to guide them to the border. Once here, if the individuals are from Kenya or other East African countries from which asylum is not considered a life-or-death matter, they are sent back to their home countries. But if they are from Darfur or Eritrea, the Israelis give them asylum. They are taken to a nearby camp where they receive free food, shelter and medical and dental care. If I understood correctly, there are several thousand Darfurians currently being given safe asylum by Israel.

We biked on through the day and rolled into Mitzpeh Ramon in plenty of time for Shabbat. Mitzpeh Ramon is a town created in the 1950’s as part of David Ben Gurion’s plan to settle the Negev. The town is perched on the edge of a stunning view of the Ramon Crater, a huge, deep gash into the Negev highlands. The first residents were new immigrants from North Africa, basically dumped in the middle of nowhere. When I first started visiting Mitzpeh Ramon 15 years ago with groups from our synagogue, the town was a depressed backwater. Today Mitzpeh Ramon has been discovered. As the center of Israel has become more congested, more affluent Israelis have spread out to the periphery, and Mitzpeh Ramon has grown into a very pleasant town.

I was tired, and thank God for Shabbat! Having worked my body so hard this week, I had a renewed insight into the meaning of Shabbat. When Shabbat was created in ancient Israel, nearly everyone lived by the sweat of their brow. Life was short and physically exhausting. What a revolutionary edict, therefore, to declare a day of rest for all. The 4th Commandment states, “You shall remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. You shall do no labor: you, your children, your servants, your slaves, even your pack animals…” Every person, even those at the very bottom of the pile, merits a day of rest and recuperation, and no human can deny them that right. Even beasts of burden are set free one day a week. My work life is not physically exhausting, and the concept of “Shabbat rest” has become less clear to me. Today, Shabbat made perfect and blessed sense, and I gave thanks

One more experience before I close for today: this afternoon we listened to a panel of graduates from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. They were a beautiful group of young adults primarily from Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories. It was simply inspiring to listen to them. Barak, a mechanical engineer from Jordan with a charming sense of humor, spoke about spotting an advertisement in the Amman newspaper for an environmental scholarship. The ad didn’t say where the scholarship would take you, and that was intentional. Even though there is a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, for Jordanians Israelis are simply “the enemy”. Fraternizing with them is simply not done. When Barak learned he was going to Israel, he almost bagged the entire idea. But he had relatives in Jerusalem whom he had never met, and he decided to come for a week, stay long enough to meet his relatives, and then leave. After the first weekend at the Arava Institute, Barak decided to stay. He is now working on his Masters degree in environmental engineering at Ben Gurion University, working on creating viable hydrogen fueled engines. Each story was equally moving, as idealistic young people have found a place where they can pursue both repairing the world and repairing, or should I say, creating relationships with “the other side”.

One reason for the Arava Institute’s documented success in creating relationships among its students that continue as personal friendships and professional colleagues is the required PELS seminar that is part of the curriculum: the Peace-building and Environmental Leadership Seminar. This is the “encounter group” of the program, and the participants are encouraged to express themselves freely. Obviously discussions become very heated at times. But these students are together for a minimum of 4 months, rooming and eating together on a kibbutz in the middle of nowhere, and so they must continue to deal with one another. The result is many lasting friendships, based on hard-won honest encounters. These friendships then extend into family visits, which are almost unheard of between Israeli Jews and Palestinians or Jordanians, and shared environmental projects, all supported in thoughtful ways by the Arava Institute. Wow. You can learn more about the Arava Institute at

Sunday morning we bicycle down the switchbacks into the crater! I will write again soon.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bicycling from Jerusalem to Eilat, Part 1

With Rabbi Michael Cohen, Director of Development for Friends of the Arava Institute

Greetings to all from Israel!

Well, my trip got off to an unexpected and fascinating start. As I emerged on Monday afternoon into the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion airport, I powered up my cell phone and called my friend Melila, with whom I would be staying in Jerusalem. She told me that she was on her way to the monthly Sulha gathering hosted this month by Neve Shalom. Sulha is the Arabic term for a ceremony of forgiveness and reconciliation (like “selicha” in Hebrew), and Melila is a key organizer of this organization. Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam is a unique Jewish/Moslem/Christian cooperative village, and it happened to be an easy taxi ride from the airport. I told her I would meet her there. I made my way to the Center for Pluralistic Spirituality, a modest building that is a project of the village. The village occupies a peaceful perch on the foothills of the Judean Hills, and despite my jet lag I enjoyed the sweeping view of the coastal plain and the setting sun.

For Israel, the most unlikely collection of people began arriving in a steady stream: Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs from around the country, and Palestinians from the occupied territories. To help the Palestinians get into Israel, the Sulha organizers had rented vans that waited for the Palestinians to get through the checkpoints, and then drove them to Neve Shalom. To accommodate the travel restrictions that the Palestinians face, the event ended at 10 pm to assure that they could get back across the border before the 11 pm deadline. The Palestinians came from Ramallah and Bethlehem, Nablus and Hebron – all over the West Bank.

Over 100 of us gathered in the sanctuary, squeezed together on the floor. We began with music, as a collection of Arab and Jewish musicians played and we all sang enthusiastically in Hebrew and Arabic simple songs of peace and of the oneness of God. Then a couple of people shared why they felt moved to be there. Boaz, the Israeli Jew speaking, spoke about his son’s death in combat during the Lebanon War, and his decision to create an organization of bereaved families, Israeli and Palestinian, who work together to transform their grief into constructive work for peace. The Palestinian man, whose name I do not recall, spoke of how his relationships with his Israeli friends at these gatherings reminds him that there are good people on both sides, in spite of the intense repression he experiences under Israel military rule.

I should never be surprised about who I run into in Israel, but the next activity surprised me nonetheless. We joined hands and snaked out into a big circle around the campfire. There, Anna Halperin led us in beautiful, simple group movements. Anna Halperin, a vibrant 90, is a pioneer of modern dance whose work I have followed since I was in college. She is in Israel for a screening in Jerusalem of a new documentary about her life. After the dance, enormous pots of food were served and everyone sat cheerfully eating and chatting together. For the final activity of the evening, we broke into groups and answered the question “What events or aspect of your life led you to choose to be here this evening?” Each person’s response was of course unique, but it is fair to say that all of us feel compelled to reach past our fear and anger, and were moved to have the opportunity to be heard by “the other side”.

It is difficult for Americans to grasp how rare an experience this kind of gathering is for Israelis and Palestinians. Everything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict mitigates against friendly, relaxed contact between Arabs and Jews. At the Sulha gathering I sat next to a sweet young Arab man named Ahmed who works room service at a hotel in Tel Aviv. A toddler came over to us and we each took one of his hands and danced together to the music. Thank God for children! The evening felt strange and wonderful. This event is happening under the radar, by email and phone and Facebook, with literally no funding. There were many young people there, eager and hopeful, ready to speak from their hearts. The Sulha won’t bring peace, but isn’t it good to know that there is a place where these young people can meet, eat, sing and dance together? If you want to support the Sulha you can contribute via this address: The Earthville Network

Tuesday was spent preparing for the bike ride, and at 6 am Wednesday morning 120 of us climbed on our bicycles and followed our police escort through the streets on our way out of Jerusalem. The riding was hard today: Israel is in the midst of an intense heat wave, and if that was not difficult enough, for a significant portion of the ride we were pushing into a ferocious headwind. It was grueling, but I was rewarded at the end of the day by an ocean breeze and a swim in the Mediterranean here in the city of Ashkelon.

But this tour is offering much more than bicycling. Alon Tal, the founder of the Arava Institute, offered us teachings and briefings throughout the day. Alon Tal is also the founder of Adam Teva v’Din (humans, nature, and justice), the premier legal advocacy organization for environmental issues in Israel, he is a Professor of Desert Studies at Ben Gurion University, and he is on the Board of Directors of Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, the Jewish National Fund. In that capacity he chairs the committee in charge of afforestation, the ongoing planting of forests in Israel. He is clearly a powerhouse, perhaps the most important environmental advocate in Israel. I really want to share with you some of what I learned from him; despite the rancorous and largely dysfunctional Israeli governance structure, Israel is making real advances in addressing environmental challenges:

-All the beautiful forests and lush groves that we biked through on our way from Jerusalem down to the coastal plain were planted by hand since 1948: 2.6 million trees. Eyewitness accounts along with aerial photographs of the region taken in the 1930’s show clearly that the hills were completely bare. Israel has learned from its early mistakes of planting monoculture forests of pine trees – the pine trees invited pests that could destroy entire forests. Now varieties of native species are being planted that can better withstand parasites and insects. The JNF has begun a project in Rwanda to share their wisdom and experience, as Rwanda has been almost completely deforested in recent decades. As chair of the committee in charge of planting trees, Alon (whose name means “oak tree”!) has picked up the pace to complete the master plan for afforestation that the Israeli government set in motion in 1995. 75,000 acres of JNF plan are slated for planting over the next 20 years, and when the planting is complete, forests that did not exist in 1948 will now cover a full 10% of Israel. What an amazing accomplishment.

-Israel is addressing the rapid depletion of its aquifers by building massive desalinization plants. These plants take seawater and by osmosis remove the salts and minerals, making the water potable. The plants already on line have added about 10% to Israel’s fresh water supply, and more plants are under construction. Alon pointed out that this alternative fresh water supply will be critical to any possible peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, as groundwater supplies are simply insufficient to serve the entire Israeli and Palestinian populations, and the Palestinians’ water needs are at present unmet.

Bill Slott, a marvelous Israeli tour guide, also offered some meaningful teachings:

-As we bicycled past vineyards, wheat fields, and olive groves. Bill pointed out that these crops were for ancient Israel the “big three” of sustenance. They were celebrated in the ancient Temple: the lamp was lit with olive oil, the showbread was displayed on a table, and wine was blessed. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., these rituals were then transferred to the Sabbath table, and to this day we light the candles (which used to be lamps filled with olive oil), we bless the wine, and we bless the challah. In Israel, our rituals attain a whole new depth of meaning as we sanctify the indigenous crops of the land.

-As we neared the end of our ride, we paused at Kibbutz Negba, and Bill brought us into a cemetery with a very large sculpture of a farmer, a laborer, and a soldier depicted in the Socialist Realist style. Founded in 1937 as a hastily constructed wooden stockade, Kibbutz Negba was the frontier of Israel, when the Egyptian army invaded in 1948 following Israel’s declaration of independence. The Israeli forces there had almost no weaponry, as the Egyptian army advanced with tanks and artillery. Negba was battled over repeatedly, and razed to the ground by the Egyptians. 180 Jewish soldiers died in the battles over Negba, but the new nation ultimately held the site. As Bill pointed out, this was but one example of many on which the War of Independence hinged, and if any of those desperate efforts had failed, the new nation might have been overrun, and there would likely be no State of Israel today. Israel was not the military power it has since become; the War of Independence was won with an incredible rate of casualties, lack of armaments, and a will to survive born of one part desperation, one part idealism, and incredible sacrifice and courage.

I would not be able to close this travelogue without explaining that today (on the Jewish calendar) was the 15th anniversary of Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination. It is a sad day in most of Israel. Yitzchak Rabin was a symbol of the generation that founded Israel: a gruff, plain-spoken man, an officer in the War of Independence, the IDF chief of staff during the 6-Day War of 1967, and the old soldier who as Prime Minister determined that he must attempt to make peace and signed the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. The fact that the Prime Minister of Israel was gunned down by a fellow Jew is still almost too painful for most Israelis to contemplate. Last night and today the airwaves were filled with call-in radio shows, live musical tributes and much discussion about the murder and its commemoration. Should this become a day for remembering the man Yitzchak Rabin, or should it become a day for teaching about tolerance and democracy? This is clearly an ongoing discussion in Israel. I too remember that day with immense sorrow. Great leaders, men and women of the moment who transcend their past when new situations demand change, are sometimes impossible to replace, and their societies are the worse off for their loss. Such it is for Israel in the wake of that tragedy 15 years ago.

Tomorrow I see if I am capable of riding more than 90 miles to an isolated retreat center on the Egyptian border. It’s a no-lose situation (except for my ego) because the van picks you up and drives you the rest of the way if you lag too far behind. I’ll write again before the end of the ride.

If you made it this far thanks for reading, and all my best,

Rabbi Jonathan