Dear Friends,

While the snow continues to fall in the Hudson Valley, we have arrived in the very south of Israel, a desert landscape of beige and brown. The climate is cool at night and pleasantly mild during the day, a contrast to the surprisingly biting chill that met us in Jerusalem.

View of Mountains from Kibbutz Ketura

We are staying at Kibbutz Ketura, a kibbutz that was founded in 1973 by a group of idealistic young adults from Young Judaea, an American youth movement sponsored by Hadassah. (I’m sure there are some Young Judaeans out there reading this!) They claimed a completely barren site in the Arava valley - a great example of “the middle of nowhere” – and over the decades built a thriving, progressive community. Ketura is an old-style kibbutz, still maintaining itself as a complete cooperative. Across the road is Kibbutz Lotan, another successful kibbutz founded by American youth from the Reform movement. Immediately beyond Lotan is the border with Jordan – one can walk through the groves of date palms and reach the fence. Fortunately, the peace treaty with Jordan is stable, and the border here for decades has been completely calm. The view is stunning and restorative.

Ketura’s success was by no means guaranteed. The Arava receives almost no rainfall, has no obvious natural resources, and the summer heat is brutal. Through trial and error some of the kibbutzniks created a successful algae factory that is quite profitable. And, of course, they noticed that the area’s greatest resource is continuous and intense sunshine – solar power. Led by Yossi Abramowitz, and battling Bezek, the Israeli electric company that holds a monopoly in Israel, Ketura has created a burgeoning solar energy company, with plans to build enormous fields of photovoltaic panels that will be able harvest enough sunlight to power the entire southern region – including parts of Jordan. They certainly hope to extend their reach to the rest of Israel, planning for a sustainable energy future.

In my eyes, Ketura’s crowning achievement is the Arava Institute (

In keeping with the kibbutz’s vision to promote pluralism and peaceful cooperation in the region, the Arava Institute trains environmental activists and academics from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, and around the world. Their website states, “The Arava Institute is a leading environmental and academic institution in the Middle East, working to advance cross-border environmental cooperation in the face of political conflict. Students live, learn and work together at the Institute, study conflict resolution, and celebrate each other’s holidays, in all ways encountering one another intimately. The Institute’s motto is “Nature knows no borders”. I encourage you to peruse their website, and if you are inspired, consider offering your support.

Last night we had the pleasure of participating in a kibbutz-wide Tu B’Shvat Seder in the communal dining room. (Tu B’Shvat actually falls on Shabbat, but the kibbutz was celebrating a day early so as not to conflict with their Shabbat observance. At the WJC, our student rabbi Kami Knapp will be leading our Tu B’Shvat Seder following our Shabbat morning services and lunch!)

Tu B'Shevat at Kibbutz Ketura

Tu B’Shvat falls on the full moon of the month of Shvat, and marks the “New Year for Trees” in Israel. We taste the fruits of Israel, sing songs, and give thanks for the bounty and goodness that the trees provide us. The kibbutz dining hall was packed. We sat near the Kenyan volunteers who are here for a year working on the kibbutz. Children dressed as flowers and butterflies and bees performed a dance, teens taught us rounds and chants, adults spoke meaningful words, we ate delicious fruits and nuts, and our group was blessed with a privileged glimpse into the life of this community.

The most moving moment for me was the prayer for peace. The organizers invited up a representative of every different language spoken on the kibbutz. Each one then recited the prayer in his or her own language: French, Spanish, English, Dutch, Afrikaans, three Kenyan languages whose names I do not know, Swahili, Arabic, and Hebrew: “Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel” – “May the One who makes peace above, make peace among us, all Israel, and all who dwell on earth.” After each recital we all declared “Amen”.

The members of Kibbutz Ketura are certainly doing all that is within their power to contribute to that vision of a peaceful and sustainable world. May they be blessed in all of their efforts.

Over the past week we met with so many remarkable and inspiring people, and I promise to write more about those meetings in weeks to come. This has been an extraordinary trip. But now as Shabbat approaches I will pause, and send you all my warmest wishes for your wellbeing. I will write again soon.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan