Lotan and Yahel, Pioneers in the Desert
Of all things I love about Israel, I think there is one umbrella that captures most of them: The opportunity to live out, on a daily basis, a life of idealism. I know that’s possible anywhere – but it doesn’t happen everywhere.
A journey south into the desert puts this most obviously on display. The desert was where David Ben Gurion envisioned Israel’s future would lie: ideals lived out pioneering the arid, craggy desert and making it flourish. That never happened, not in significant numbers, anyway; the overwhelming majority of Israel’s population lives in the central swath of the country.
In the 1970s, deep in the Arava desert – in the southern zone of the country – two Reform movement kibbutzim were established a few miles from each other: Kibbutz Lotan and Kibbutz Yahel. They are idealism regained, and the people who live there are 21st-century pioneers in every classic sense of the word. I love it here.
The biggest tragedy is that they are Reform Judaism’s “best-kept secrets.” Let’s make it not so – these two places embody every proud value of liberal Judaism. And they are so different from one another.
First, it is great to be back at Kibbutz Lotan, one of my favorite places in all of Israel. Lotan has established a name for itself as the environmental education center of Israel. Spending a few hours with Alex Cicelsky, a founding member of the kibbutz, is a whirlwind of knowledge, inspiration, the spirituality of the Earth, deep Torah wisdom, and more. He shows us a life of permaculture: creating a sustainable life on the earth that is creative and meaningful, that can be exported to the rest of the world, and that is infused with holiness. We walk in silence as the sun rises over the hills of Jordan (biblical Edom), meditating on the timelessness of this soil. He shows us the mini-village were students from around the world have come to learn the unique lessons of sustainability here in the desert. He shows us toilets of the place, which use every organic and natural process to reduce waste to nothing!
Lotan is a must-visit for groups that come to Israel – and I hope that I can bring Alex to my synagogue in the year ahead to teach his special, holy brand of Torah.
Just up the road is Kibbutz Yahel. I haven’t been here in years, and this too is an inspiring place. Funny, two Reform kibbutzim in the heart of the desert, approximately the same age, just a few miles from each other, yet they couldn’t be more different.
Yahel’s new initiative is a large consumer complex with stores and restaurants, a shopping rest stop on the road down to Eilat. This has sprouted up alongside all the classic tropes of the kibbutz: a large dairy farm with hundreds of cows, and sophisticated techniques for milking them and all that. But that’s not what’s special to me about Yahel.
We go into their Beit Midrash , place of worship, and find a place that will feel much more familiar to American Jews: a library with the Talmud and other classic Jewish texts. Liberal Jews who come together to study ancient words form an open and inclusive perspective. Here in the heart of the desert is a liberal yeshiva (school) in a community based on equality and interrelationships.
Hillel Tobias, a founder of Yahel, speaks to our leadership group, a delegation from ARZA. He is a gentle man who speaks with love about the goals of this place, but it’s hard for him to get the words out; he gets choked up and almost begins to cry. Why? It’s clear. He simply loves what they have created here, his life’s work of building a community based on noble Jewish and liberal values.
The older I get, the more idyllic the kibbutz lifestyle seems to me. Reform Judaism is supposed to be based on noble and idealistic principles: living out lives of justice, peace, and tikkun olam (social justice) in ways that are infused by Jewish tradition, often re-cast with new interpretations and perspectives. That is often hard to do, try as we might, in the buzz of suburbia, in the rhythms of the Diaspora.
But these pioneers in the desert are really making a go of it. Come and see for yourself.