Keeping the collective kibbutz life relevant and topical is the everyday mission of the very southern Kibbutz Lotan. Located in Israel’s arid Arava region, this young and relatively small community was formed in 1983 by a garin, or core group of pioneers, all children of the Reform movement. “We’re a babybutz,” says Mike Nitzan, former California boy and one of the original group of Lotan founders.
Lotan’s founding marked the final wave of new kibbutzim to be established in Israel, and remains one of a small group of still operating, collective agricultural communities. Lotan and its neighbors, Kibbutz Yahel (1976) and Kibbutz Ketura (1973), were all founded by young American Jews — Yahel and Lotan by members of the Reform movement and Ketura by the Conservative and Young Judea youth movements.
In recent years, Lotan has become an important place to visit for the eco-tourist and student of sustainable living. The kibbutz drafted a new mission statement in 1997 that brought together their desire to marry progressive Judaism with ecology, rethinking David Ben-Gurion’s historical mission to see the desert settled and blooming. Lotan’s Nitzan comments that the kibbutz softened Ben Gurion’s dream of “conquering the desert into a more sustainable approach” including basic precepts of ecologically minded Jewish living.
At Lotan, every communal decision reflects the value, nature and structure of the entire kibbutz community and their stated intention to live their lives according to certain environmental precepts.
Their Living Roots, Green Apprentice and volunteer ecological programs all offer great opportunities for the student of sustainable living to study at the kibbutz. Approximately 30% of all participants come through the Reform movement, while the rest find Lotan’s programs online, by recommendation or through Masa, a project of the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency and Jewish Federations that helps bring students from all over the world to enjoy a long-term Israel experience. “We get the entire Jewish people,” jokes Nitzan, adding that the diversity and transient nature of the volunteer and student population “keeps us fresh.”
Interestingly enough, the kibbutz’s main living still comes from agriculture — its date trees and milk production — presenting a bit of an environmental conundrum given that both of these industries are heavy on water use. Lotan has found unusual ways to “soften its footprint” with their reconstructed wetlands, allowing for the development of a migratory bird reserve in a restored quarry. These wetlands allow for the replenishment of Lotan’s oasis or aquifer, an important way of recycling water used at the kibbutz.
“We’re providing solutions for existing industries that are not necessarily eco-friendly,” says Nitzan, explaining that deserts are meant to be passed through and not settled in. Once you cross certain ecological ‘red lines’, adds Nitzan, you need to learn how to come up with workable answers that will still allow the kibbutz community to thrive and grow while reducing their dependence on non-sustainable economic solutions.
Both Lotan and the neighboring Ketura have taken a strong stand on environmental issues, with Ketura’s Arava Institute serving as a place of research and study and Lotan, with its smaller community of families and students, as a place of applied and hands-on experience, or as Nitzan puts it, “taking the theoretical and applying it to the everyday.”
“The Arava is a land of extremes,” remarks Nitzan, adding that you have to be a lobster and, “learn to live with it or you get cooked.”
He worries about global warming, remarking that last few summers have been hard, with more prolonged periods of intense heat that have been hard on locals. He also has concerns about current government plans to triple the population of the area, the “tension between development and conservation” foremost in his mind. He looks to the second generation of the kibbutz, his own kids, to slowly take over from their parents and “continue to do what we’ve done,” stewarding Israel and young Jews from all over the world to the dream of a more sustainable future.
Go here for more information about Kibbutz Lotan.