Letter from Ketura: Where the Local is Global
A family came to Kibbutz Ketura to reconnect and focus on personal goals. Their time there, however, was spent working on world-changing projects.
After our three-year sojourn as a family in the Arava Desert, I am hoping that at least one of my children will end up joining Kibbutz Ketura so that I can have burial rights there alongside my heroes, friends and fellow Young Judaeans. a My connection to Ketura began in 1982, when I was in Israel on a Hadassah scholarship to participate in Young Judaea’s Year Course program. I was lucky enough to spend six months of my time in the country, having fun in the sun in a great community, cooking for its members and driving around in a forklift. I have romanticized my time at Ketura, recalling my younger self as a long-haired, softball-playing, ideology-filled troublemaker who loved the kibbutz’s vast swimming pool as much as the canopy of stars that illuminated the Arava sky each night.
So, naturally, when my wife, Susan, and I recently decided to spend time in Israel, I wrote an e-mail to the kibbutz asking if we could hang out for several years. Luckily, Sharon Benheim, who participated in Year Course a year before me, was on the other end of the computer. She answered that she was head of klita, outreach for new members, and could we commit to the process? Yes, was my answer; no, was my wife’s. Still, they welcomed us and our five children, Aliza, 16; Hallel, 14; Adar, 11; Zamir, 8; and Ashira, 6, for a two-year stint.
Our goal was to live simply, calmly and with increased family time, in a Jewish community, restoring a better balance to our hectic lives. Susan and I were to each write books; hers about theology and adoption and mine about the future of the Jewish people.
We had no idea how radical the move to Ketura would be. We traded in our 3,000-square-foot Newton, Massachusetts, suburban home for tight volunteer quarters; our three cars for the municipal bus system; the Jewish Community Day School of Greater Boston for the very secular Maale Shaharut atop Kibbutz Yotvata; daily shopping, cooking and laundry for the kibbutz dining room and laundry service; and commuting to minyan on Shabbat mornings to strolling—sometimes with barefoot kids—to both Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning services in Ketura’s Faye Shenck Synagogue.
After we landed on August 24, 2006, we took the van first to Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv to visit the grave of Ahad Ha’am, my Zionist hero. Then south for three hours on Route 40, to Sde Boker to pay our respects at David and Paula Ben-Gurion’s graves overlooking Nahal Zin. And then, over an hour later, to Ketura, as the sun started to slip behind the sandy mountains to the west.
When a group of Young Judaeans first thought about creating a kibbutz in Israel to build a community of values, they were offered two locations: one, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and the other, in the middle of no-where, 31 miles north of the southern port city of Eilat. They rejected the central location because they thought the proximity to the big cities would undermine their vision of the community they wanted to build.
So during the Yom Kippur War, 20 Young Judaeans were handed a small, stark Army outpost. Thirty-six years later, Ketura is blossoming. With over 150 adult members, more than 200 children, 300 dairy cows, 3,000 date palms, countless flowers and birds and infinite beauty, this oasis in the desert has attracted visitors like William Shatner, Carole King, Shimon Peres and a steady stream of ambassadors, ministers and Members of Knesset.
“The fact that Ketura is the ‘Young Judaea’ kibbutz cannot be underestimated,” says Sara Cohen, the elected mazkira, general secretary, of Ketura, with whom I served on staff at Young Judaea’s Camp Sprout Lake in New York from 1982 to 1984. “So many of our basic values are a direct result of the education so many of Ketura’s members received in the movement: Our attitude to religious expression, our commitment to gender equality and our commitment to social justice are all directly related to Young Judaea’s values.… Because of the 100th anniversary celebrations of Young Judaea during the year, I thought a lot about the influences of the youth movements on Ketura. Most Ketura members were members of a youth movement—if not Young Judaea or the Israeli Scouts, then other Zionist movements with similar goals.
“I think the most profound effect that the youth movement education had on us is that we really believed that we—not each of us individually, but we as a group—could change the world.”
I had thought that these years would be quiet, passive ones. Yet Ketura is an enchanted incubator of world-changing enterprises. We had the privilege not only to witness a caring community but to also participate in its actions on three of the burning issues of our day.
Take the genocide in Darfur, for example. The April before we boarded the El Al plane for our Zionist journey, Susan and I took our kids to the Washington, D.C., rally for Darfur, where they saw many friends from Sprout Lake. A year later, Ketura gave sanctuary to two Darfurian families, who became our neighbors. That Passover, we celebrated a liberation Seder with our Ketura Sudanese friends, both recounting how we escaped genocide, endured a treacherous journey through Sinai and finally arrived in Israel.
Living in Israel, it is sometimes difficult to find sources of hope when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet, one such place is in Ketura’s dining room, which is named for Charlotte Jacobson, Hadassah national president from 1964 to 1968. Jacobson served as a political patron in Ketura’s early days. It is quite typical to see hijab-wearing, young Muslim women from Jordan or the Palestinian Authority eating there with Israeli classmates from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.
The institute, based on the kibbutz and accredited by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has 500 alumni throughout the Middle East, Europe and North America; its students live in the Hadassah-sponsored dorms.
“Nature knows no borders,” says David Lehrer, the institute’s director, with whom I served on staff at Young Judaea’s national leadership camp, Tel Yehudah, in 1985 and 1986.
One year, our family was assigned to host a Jordanian student. Suleiman, although he has since graduated, remains an active part of our lives, and we have crossed the border twice to visit his family and his parents have come to our home in Jerusalem.
Perhaps the most urgent international issue in the world is climate change. I never did get to sit and write my book about the future of the Jewish people because Ed Hofland, a Ketura member for 30 years, asked me to start the Arava Power Company, Israel’s first commercial solar energy company. It is quite extraordinary that despite advances in solar technology and the fact that 60 percent of the country is desert, Israel has no commercial solar fields. That is about to change, as Ketura is set to build Israel’s first solar field, producing 4.9 megawatts, and pave the way for other kibbutzim to do the same. In August, Siemens signed a $15-million investment deal with APC, which was inked at the Rose Halprin Community Center on the kibbutz.
It is not only entrepreneurship with idealism that thrives at Ketura, but also Judaism. On Hanukka, the community’s bar and bat mitzva class climbs up the mountain behind the kibbutz to light the communal menora—nine huge barrels filled with diesel-laced rags, whose light can be seen for miles. During Sukkot, the hadar okhel, dining room, is emptied of chairs and tables, which are assembled outside in a large sukka. Shavuot celebrations begin in the date orchard with horseback riding, singing and dancing. And on Shabbat, everyone comes together for a Friday night meal, with blessings. Just like at Young Judaea camps.
I think one reason our five kids love Ketura so much is that it combines the best elements of Young Judaea camps with everyday life. They have made friends for life, lived as part of a values-based pluralistic community, learned to appreciate nature and grew in wonderful ways. I consider it one of the great privileges of my life to be part of the Ketura story and community, a community supported by Hadassah. H