How did a Young Judaean develop an environmental powerhouse in the Middle East? The Arava Institute is a unique academic and research center for environmental leadership located in the Young Judaean founded Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Valley region of Israel. Founded by Young Judaea alumnus Professor and former MK Alon Tal, and Miriam Sharton, the Institute brings together up to 60 students each semester from across borders and cultures with the shared goal of becoming leaders in environmental innovation. Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and other internationals collaborate on their environmental research, while also learning how to communicate about the underlying issues of the region.
Alon Tal recalled, “I was running an environmental organization in Tel Aviv and was informed that Kibbutz Ketura needed to diversify its economic base, and I needed to come up with a proposal. I gave them a concept to create a regional environmental educational center. I had just come back from Tunisia just after the peace process started. I headed an Israeli delegation there along with all the environmental NGO’s in the Middle East, and I realized there was nothing like modern environmental studies, and maybe we could do something. Off we went, and against all odds managed to convince some funders to give us scholarship money.”
It is clear when speaking with past and current members of the Institute’s leadership, that many Young Judaean values are infused into the Arava Institute’s DNA. Alon grew up in the movement attending Young Judaea summer camps and Year Course, the Israel gap-year program. He brought along several Young Judaeans to help establish the Institute’s structure including people like David Lehrer, immediate past Executive Director of the Institute and President of the Young Judaea Global Board of Directors. Alon added, “the founding impulse of the institute was informed by the dominant role that YJ played in my growing up. Here’s a little-known fact, when I was 13, I moved to Raleigh and with Young Judaea I raised money for gas masks for the Yom Kippur War. My mentor in Young Judaea at the time was David Lehrer.”
Sharon Benheim, one of the founding members of the Institute and a lifelong Young Judaean, moved to Kibbutz Ketura right before the first students arrived in 1996. She jumped right in to help in any way she could. “Any preparation I had for working at the Institute came out of Young Judaea, understanding that when you bring people to a program you need to take care of the people, in addition to the content of the program that you are developing.”
Although the Institute’s focus is as on its environmental academics, it was also founded shortly after the Oslo agreements with an intentional approach in bringing cultures and religions together to build trust and tolerance. Current Deputy Director and lifelong Young Judaean Eliza Mayo stated, “Ketura culture is inherent in Arava (institute). Ketura was founded on the idea of tolerance (religiously) and making a community together, so it’s not surprising that today it (the Kibbutz) is a diverse community encompassing Ketura, the Arava, and a group of young adults.”
The Arava Institute tries to keep a balance in its student population so that it is comprised of one-third Israeli, one-third Palestinian and Jordanian, and one-third international students. Students can choose to do one or two semesters in environmental studies including courses like renewable energy, environmental economics, and environmental ethics. David Lehrer explained “Early on we created a program in many ways inspired by our days in Young Judaea called the “Peace Building Leadership Seminar” where we would talk about history, politics, religion, war, terrorism, anything that comes up. Sometimes these sessions end with students stomping out the door and yelling, but in the end, everyone goes back to the same campus, to the same rooms sharing tea and coffee. They have no other choice but to go back to campus together and find a way to live together despite their differences.”
Tal was initially not keen on the idea of communal discussion, but decided to let the students take ownership of their program. “The students demanded it, and I grew up in Young Judaea and there was an emphasis placed on peer leadership, and they wanted to take this on. So, in the early years they ran it, and I respected their volition. That’s something we brought (from Young Judaea).”
David felt that these discussions were reminiscent of times growing up in Young Judaea. “Much of what we’ve developed at the Arava institute stems from the kinds of discussions we would have at Camp Tel Yehudah and in YJ clubs, bringing people together, meeting, discussing, facilitating. A lot of that was absorbed into the Arava institute.”
The Arava Institute’s alumni often go on to professional careers equipped with both academic knowledge as well as the ability to work with their neighbors on environmental issues in a constructive way.
Alon stated, “When I was a member of Knesset it was interesting to me, to see how much the Israeli Civil Administration, who were responsible for governing the West Bank, looked to the Arava Institute for leadership. They said that the Institute has always been very constructive in how it works with authorities, a difficult task in the charged atmosphere of the West Bank.”
Having been his madrich (counselor) at Tel Yehudah, Alon knew that David would be the right person to help propel the Institute’s mission forward and is “thrilled and delighted” to see how the institute has grown under both David and new Executive Director Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed’s leadership.
Alon stated, “We were taught by Young Judaea that when you go to Israel you go to make a difference. I always believed that we would succeed.”
And succeed it has. Through environmental education and development, this organization has made a better Israel both for its land and for its people, Jewish, Palestinian, and others.