Kibbutz, in Hebrew, refers to a “gathering, clustering,” and from the top of the mountain that overlooks the Arava Rift Valley, a “gathering” seems an appropriate definition for these island-like patches of green that float in a sea of gold-brown rock. Around each of the islands is a fence, and around Kibbutz Ketura two or three loops of barbed wire. From the distance of the top of the mountain, referred to by many as Electrical Mountain for the large metal towers and buzzing wires, I could see Ketura rolled out in front of me. On the other side of Ketura is the road, then the orchard of date trees, then the border with Jordan and the mountains that form the other side of this rift valley. To my left, in the distance, I see Lotan, and to my right, on a rise in the ground, is Grofit, two other of several Kibbutzim that reside in the valley with Ketura. Up at the top of the mountain I felt on the top of the world, as if at a moment’s notice, I could sail among the strong winds and fly the length and width of the Arava Valley, amongst the kibbutzim in the Arava Valley.
The Trip South
One day in early February, I found myself at a Tel Aviv train station wearing short sleeves. Had it been just a few days before I was slogging my way through snow to the airport in Boston? I was looking for the rest of the group I was to travel south with to Kibbutz Ketura; it was not hard to find the gathering of folks introducing themselves to each other and trying not trip over the multitude of large suitcases. The bus arrived and we all hauled ourselves aboard. While many of us were eager to meet at the station, a few minutes into the bus ride about half were napping, catching up on jetlag. I stayed awake and tried to talk to everyone but talking on a bus is hard, and in the end we all sat in semi-companionable silence, surrounded by strangers.
I had not heard of a kibbutz until a few months before I took this trip, and I had not stayed in any intentional communities for more than a day. When I thought of intentional communities, I imagined several buildings, nestled into a forested landscape, with gardens and orchards in sunny south-facing clearings like I found at the Sirius community in MA. As the bus took us south, the city turned into rolling landscape covered in uniform scrub. As the sun disappeared to our right, the brush disappeared and the hills and mountains were only rock(s) with the occasional Acacia tree silhouetted against the harsh landscape. When the sun was completely gone, the cloudless sky was filled with more stars than I had ever seen, even as a kid growing up in rural NH. When we reached Kibbutz Ketura I could tell, even in the pitch black, the low lying buildings circled by a large fence was nothing like any image I ever had of intentional communities.
The first few days
An incurable early riser, I was one of the first students to wake up. In the early morning light, the mountains shimmered in a multitude of colors and the air was cool and still. I still couldn’t quite understand that I was going to school in this green oasis, amidst the rock of the hyper-arid desert. Yet, this is where the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES) is located, nestled within the community of Kibbutz Ketura.
The buildings of the machon where I stayed are the only two-story structures on the entire kibbutz. My class was the one of the biggest, if not the biggest, that had come to study the environment and politics of the land we were surrounded by. Many of the older students lived in the smaller, shipping container-like houses we called the caravans. That first morning, I sat on the second floor balcony machon, looking over the adjacent western perimeter fence. The mountains, without any trees, looked like pile of rocks. To the east the Kibbutz spread out, an amorphous blob. The closest buildings are two long lines of pebbly low-lying houses.
It took me weeks to figure out the kibbutz and how it was set up. Despite being enclosed by a twelve-foot fence and surrounded by rocky desert, this green oasis was easy to get lost in. I distinctly remember one early morning, a week or so after I arrived, when I decided to go to chadar ochel by myself. No one on the machon was awake, and I really wanted a cup of coffee.
I crossed one of the roads that circled the kibbutz and started down one of the paths towards what I thought was the chadar ochel. The early mornings were a bit chill even with the cloudless blue sky and the bright sun. I could feel a breeze, not weighted down by humidity, brushing against my skin. With few trees to give voice to the wind, the movement of air was only felt and not heard. Despite the lack of trees, though, there were plenty of birds and their morning songs.
I thought about how website for Ketura said that there were around 450 people living on this kibbutz, but on that particular morning walk, I did not see another human being. That isn’t to say there wasn’t plenty of activity; there always is on the kibbutz. This morning I spent my time greeting the many stray cats who lived there; I would only pet those cats who had part of their ears clipped off because they were the ones who had had all their shots from the vet on the kibbutz. There were also a few dogs to be seen, including my favorite, a tiny dog named Llama, meandering at will around Ketura. In the many date palm trees, pomegranate shrubs, and the abundance of plants I did not recognize, birds sang brightly.
After walking for five minutes I realized that I must have taken the wrong path. Instead of seeing the pebbly houses of the workers and the field in front of the merkaz, I found myself passing a small playground that was next to the kibbutz nursery and the smoother walled houses with manicured garden areas and grass! Grass of all things! There was some in front of the merkaz but it was strange to see so many grassy lawns while I lived in the desert. At the machon we didn’t have grass, just a small square of plastic grass that burned if you laid on it during the heat of the day.
I eventually meandered back to the chadar ochel. The nice thing about the area being so small is that, even if you get lost, you only wander for a short time before you find your way to the other side of the enclosure, then it is just a matter of following the road that circles the kibbutz until you get back to the entrance (located very near to the chadar ochel).
The first few nights mirrored those of the first few nights of college. All of the students at the Arava Institute, would sit around in the little courtyard in the center of the machon, smoking and playing sheshbesh.
I was still a little loopy the second or third night when two men approached a group of fifteen or so of us relaxing at the table. One had a blue hat, the other a red hat. They had come to say hi and to invite us to something called a “trance” party later that night. Red hat introduced himself as Tomer. He was a worker in the date orchards; blue hat was his friend, Amitai, a dj, who had come to visit from the center. All I could think was how could there be something later? I guess it was only 9pm or so, but most of the students at the machon were pretty tired; many of us had been traveling for a few days.
Despite exhaustion, a couple of students and I headed out behind the kibbutz around 10:30pm, looking for this trance party, it was easy to find. They had a camp fire and large speakers hooked up to a generator that someone had hauled to the desert. Amitai stood by the speakers to dj the music, and Tomer stood apart from those sitting around the fire while he spun fire poi.
It wasn’t much of a trance party I later learned, trance music but no dancing, but it was still a fun time and the first of many similar nights. There were probably four or five machon students. The rest of the folk relaxing around the fire were workers from the kibbutz, kids of kibbutz members, and foreign volunteers, as far as I could tell. Though we mostly sat in separate groups the feeling of the group was open and welcoming to all who came to join. A few, such as Tomer and Amitai wandered around and introduced themselves to the new machon students.
I learned, from those around me, that the first buildings on the kibbutz were the shipping containers that are now offices and part of the kibbutz-wide laundry system. Other early structures were a couple of old bomb shelters. Other than the obvious communal dining room, another element that defines this place as a communal living area is the centralized laundry system. This system incorporated not only the kibbutzniks, but also those who worked on the kibbutz and the students of the Arava Institute (I would later learn that workers and members also had access to personal washer/dryers and were therefore able to do their wash much quicker). To use this communal laundry system I had to write, in permanent marker, my number on every piece of laundry and put in in the proper shoot of the laundry shed; even after marking everything up there was no guarantee that I would get the clothes back. It was common for clothes to get lost, and often they would reappear in the second hand store on the kibbutz, where used clothing, books, shoes and kitchen wares were sold for two shekel. Some of my friends on the machon lost a shirt or two, and sometimes even found them again in the second hand store. By the end of the semester at the institute, I think only a few clothing items of my friends were permanently lost. Using the laundry system was an exercise in timing; if you didn’t put your laundry in before you ran out of clothes, you could wait almost a week to get your clothing back. Since it is a public service, everything there was treated the same: hot wash and hot dryer for a designated time to meet health standards. I don’t usually put most of my clothes in the dryer so to avoid shrinking clothes, I started to hand wash my clothes and hang them on the balcony outside of my dorm as a Shabbat morning ritual since there were no buses, and the store and the café on the kibbutz were not open on this day. Since there is no humidity and lots of sun in the desert, even the heaviest of my jeans were dry in three hours.
The days of the week took on another meaning while living at Kibbutz Ketura. For those who worked there, the only day they got off was Shabbat. Students at the Arava Institute had Fridays off as well, unless we chose to do some workshops that were hosted on that day. For everyone, Sunday was the first day of the week.
I still remember the first day of classes. It was a Sunday. The class was called Ecology of the Arava. We all sat in merkaz classroom, watching slide after slide, familiarizing ourselves with the terminology used for discussing ecology; not much was new to me since I had studied some ecology before. Sitting in class watching slides, I was reminded of how different this was from going to school at Hampshire; almost no one there uses slide shows.
We learned that the Arava Valley is a rift valley formed by two plates moving in opposite directions while simultaneously moving apart. We also learned that this area is a hyper-arid desert. What this means is this area sees less than 25mm of rain a year! Despite the low rainfall and the hard to find life in this desert, there is still a high diversity of different types of insects and plants, all adapted to live in high heat and little rain. In a landscape that looks like piles of rocks as far as the eye can see they are sometimes just a bit harder to find.
That first Sunday of classes we had our first five minute break. As I wandered out of the building with the smokers, I felt something wet smack my cheek. I swiped it with my fingers and realized that it was water. When I looked around I saw some of my classmates drinking out of water bottles; had they splashed me? It happened again. And then some of my classmates started commenting about being dripped on. A few moments later the gentlest rain storm came down, pinging off the plastic overhang in the front of the merkaz. A moment later our teacher, Elli, came out. I do not remember his words exactly but they were along the lines of, “I just finished telling you that we are living in a hyper-arid desert, we don’t really get water here.” The rain stopped a few moments later, leaving small puddles on the rock patio of the merkaz.
As if the sky was trying to prove Elli wrong, it rained every Sunday for the first month of classes.
Entering into a new place is always hard for me. The stress of getting to know so many new people and sitting in long lecture classes tired me to the point of tears. In my exhaustion, I found myself meandering the streets and walkways of Kibbutz Ketura only to find, time after time, that I could not avoid the people who seemed to be everywhere. They weren’t doing anything to me but in my state of sheer exhaustion, I could not bear to be around them because I felt that I must interact with the people if they were there.
I left the kibbutz then. Fighting back tears of loneliness and exhaustion, I found myself running to a large rock and fire pit about 500 meters outside the back gate of the kibbutz. For a while I sat there, using charcoal from the fire and drawing pictures on the rocks around me.
When I calmed down, I returned to the kibbutz. Still not ready to talk with people, I wandered the circle road that ran around the outer edges of the kibbutz. I took the long way around, the part I had not seen before, going north on the circle road. I found nothing on the north side of the kibbutz. When I got to the east side, I reached the front gate. Across the street from the gate, the long lines of the date orchard stretched north to south. To the south of the front gate, I came across the algae growing factory. This was a strange set up, long rows of stands that held ten glass tubes in which the algae grew. Past the algae farm, the long rows of the solar field faced the southern sky. I had hoped to walk among the solar panels, see how these were set up, but a large fence blocked my wishful wanderings.
I was still wishing for some time alone when I found the cows. I had heard that there were cows, but I had had a hard time believing it. There are no grass meadows in the desert. All the adults were huddled under a large wall-less shed even though their paddock was larger. In the rafters of the building I saw spigots. I later learned that the cows got a shower three times a day in the summer to keep cool. Unlike the adults, the calves were much more adventurous. As I neared their fence they all came running, frolicking in the most endearing manner. When I reached to pet the nearest calf he licked my hand, and then the one next to him licked my elbow. Before I knew it I had five calves trying to lick my arms and chest, and plenty more jostling to be near me. I finally felt like I was home. Something about the kindness and exuberance of the calves made me feel less like an outsider.
In the following months the cows played an interesting, but indirect, role for some of my mornings. I have always been an early riser, but starting in the middle of March I stayed with my partner, Tomer, who worked in the date farm. Six days a week we would both be woken by his alarm at 5:30am so he could get to work. Those days were the first days I thought that I could be a late sleeper since I would go back to sleep until 6:30am or 7am. The hardest days, though, were when he had to do his toranut. His extra work was to milk the cows. The cows were milked 3 times a day and he often got the 3am shift. When his alarm went off for this milking shift, I kicked him out of bed. There was no way I would get up then!
One evening I remember vividly. I had just finished my school work and had gone out for a short walk when Tomer, who worked in the date orchards, invited me to hang out with some of Thais with whom he worked. When I arrived where the Thais lived, in the row of pebbly-walled houses behind Tomer’s quarters, I realized I didn’t really know any of them. I wondered why this was until I realized that the reason I knew, at least by sight, many of the kibbutzniks, workers, volunteers and machon students, was because I saw them every day at the chadar ochel. I am embarrassed to say that until I was invited to hang out with them, I hadn’t realized that I rarely saw or talked with any of the Thai workers. Later I would often observe them to cook together outside of their rooms and say hi whenever I passed them.
When I arrived to the Thai worker’s houses, there were a few minutes of that semi-awkward-smiles, handshake or hug, when you meet someone who doesn’t really speak the same language as you. Tomer gave me a few of their names but I am afraid I was unable to remember any for very long; I must have names written out for me before I really am able to commit them to memory. After the introductions I took a look at the Thai workers set up. In front of many of the apartments were awnings that were deeply shaded that night; the smell of cooked food came from these. In the patchy grass and sand in front of their houses was a platform with a canopy of palm leaves. On the stage were various pieces of music and video equipment, though it was rather unclear which ones worked. Perched precariously on top of a pile of stereos was a laptop plugged into speakers that were set up all around this stage.
After the introductions, I settled myself with my back to one of the posts of platform. From this vantage I could check out the many decorations made of odds and ends, like old metal signs, and pieces of pottery. After the introductions, the Thais continued what they had been doing before, mainly watching YouTube videos and listening to music. There is nothing like five Thai men singing along to what sounded like pop songs while watching videos of half-dressed women dancing.
This particular night was different from any other on the community of the kibbutz, as well as the community of the Arava Institute that I was studying at. That night, I felt as if I had traveled to a different community, possibly a different country all together. This feeling was only increased by the fact that, on the Kibbutz, these workers are often referred to collectively as “the Thais”. Their nationality wasn’t, of course, a derogatory term but even so, everyone referenced to them as a singular entity. Unconsciously, though, I think the reference to the Thai workers as such further separated them in the context of the greater community.
 In Hebrew this means “institute” but for the purpose here is referring to the dorms that I stayed in while I attended the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies
 Dining hall
 Merkaz means “center” in Hebrew, at Kibbutz Ketura this was the central meeting place for the kibbutz, where lessons were held for The Arava Institute, and also served as the synagogue for the kibbutz.
 “center” refers to the center of Israel, usually referring to the Tel Aviv area
 Poi – refers to both the performing art and the equipment used for this art form. Poi are formed of a string attached to a weight and swung about in patterns.
 Members of the kibbutz
 1 shekel $0.25
 This refers to Saturday. The names of the days in Hebrew are numbered starting with Sunday as the first day. Shabbat is the seventh day and is the day of rest. For observant Jews this is a day that is traditionally used to for religious enrichment (http://www.jewfaq.org/shabbat.htm)
 This is the extra work that everyone, even the students at the Arava Institute, had to participate in. There were several different types, the two I knew of were working in the chadar ochel, the other was milking the cows