Kaptain Sunshine, Builder of Almost Impossible Bridges
Israel, my home — is falling apart. In America, Ukraine/Russia, China/Taiwan…the world is falling apart. In total conflict. And the natural world: giant storms and floods that kill thousands (recently in Pakistan), Colorado River (drinking water for many millions) drying up before our eyes. Climate change is screaming at us. How can we possibly nurture hope these days? Positive action?
My neighbor here in Jerusalem — Yossi Abramowitz (AKA “Kaptain Sunshine) — is a model, an inspiration to such positive action for many of us. How does he do it? Since 2018, I’ve been working with him, on “Green Rebel – the Adventures of Kaptain Sunshine” — a feature documentary project about his pioneering solar energy work.
Abramowitz fought the infamous Israeli bureaucracy for six years, attempting to get the okay to build Israel’s first commercial solar field connected to the national grid. He tells me, “the Israelis thought I was crazy, a naive American – we had to do battle with no fewer than 24 government agencies.” And finally it was completed, in 2011, at Kibbutz Ketura, in the Negev.
Then, fed up with those bureaucratic wars, his Israeli company looked to Africa, where after four years, they succeeded in building the first commercial scale solar field in sub-Saharan Africa, in Rwanda, launched in 2014.
And after eight more struggling years, he recently finished his second African solar field, in Burundi. (By the way, 600 million Africans have no electricity in their homes – upwards of 50% of all Africans. And – to take Burundi for a second – if their forests continue to be cut down – mainly for wood and charcoal for open cooking fires inside homes – by 2040, there will be no forests left in Burundi).
How does Abramowitz persist on these narrow paths of possibility? That is one question “Green Rebel” tries to answer. One answer is his deep connection with Jewish tradition – and his vision to make it relevant to the now time – he challenges us, expanding the prophet Isaiah’s words, asking can Israel be a “sustainable Light unto the Nations”?
Abramowitz builds bridges with all kinds of partners (from Patrick Nzitunga, his Burundian staff member, to locals in every African country his company is working in, to investors and international NGO’s, to fans).
He and I went to Rwanda, in 2020, to visit the Agahozo-Shalom Orphan Youth Village, on whose land Abramowitz built his first African solar field (and which benefits financially from the sale of electricity from the field). The founder of Agahozo was a Jewish friend of Yossi’s, Anne Heyman, who also built bridges – between Rwandan and Jewish history and suffering.
I will never forget the young Rwandan IT staff member/ex-student (and an orphan, like all the students there), who told my camera, “I want to go out and help others, and that’s the time that I feel I’ll be doing tikkun olam”. And then he smiled big, and added (remember, his parents were killed in Rwanda’s own genocide, in 1994), “And I also want to have a family – yeah”.
I interviewed the Science Center director at Agahozo Shalom – she told me that a group of students were inspired by the large solar field on their land: they decided their own science project would be to design and make a few solar lamps, using large plastic cups.
And then they would deliver these solar lamps to poor neighborhood families without electricity in their homes. Abramowitz’s work naturally leads to these expanding ripples of inspiration, in so many of us.
Because of COVID and various other factors, I didn’t go south to direct video shoots in Burundi. Instead, I hired a local Burundian video producer Patrick knew, Kid Fleury Ineza. Fleury wears a necklace with a large silver Star of David. He believes he is descended from Ethiopian Jews migrating south to Burundi hundreds of years ago.
A few months ago, he and his team shot amazing footage in a Burundian village (above) where almost no one has electricity. Then last month, he made his first ever trip to Israel. We met, and outside a cafe on Bethlehem Street, he and I worked on the clips his team had shot.
And Israel? What a complex headache this nation often creates in so many of us – in increasing waves of loud polarization, pro vs. anti-Israel. So this story of Abramowitz becomes a tonic for those of us who DO want to build bridges between confused or disillusioned young American Jews and many others – and Israel.
Young people who are turned off by the eternally unresolved relations with our Palestinian cousins. Turned off by the obsessive staying power of Netanyahu, and now the newly showcased faces of freshman members of Knesset, Itamar Ben Gvir (who recently stated unequivably, in relation to the non-Jews who share this land, “We are the bosses here”); and Bezalel Smotrich (who was arrested in Gaza during the 2005 operation to remove Israelis from the 21 settlements there – after Smotrich and four other activists were detained and found to be in possession of 700 liters of gasoline and oil. They were held by the Shin Bet for three weeks, but never charged.)
Positivity: whatever side you’re on, you really can’t touch this Israeli company bringing solar energy to underdeveloped African nations – unless of course you’re Chevron, or a multinational coal company.
As a moviemaker/storyteller, I’ve always been drawn to building bridges, and telling stories about how these bridges are built. In the U.S., before I immigrated to Israel, I created a theater piece that brought together African-American and Jewish teens. And my last feature documentary, “A Third Way”, focused on another unique bridge builder of this torn land, another artist of finding possibility, the infamous “settler rabbi for peace”, Rabbi Menachem Froman. Rav Froman also had the skill of building especially challenging bridges – meeting many times with Yasser Arafat and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (the spiritual founder of Hamas), among others.
With “Green Rebel”, along with distributing it to theaters and streaming services, we will present hopefully a hundred or more impact screening events – in synagogues and other houses of worship, NGOs, green conferences, businesses, universities, and elsewhere. At these events, after the screening, there will be an energetic discussion about all the issues in our story. Your organization can host such an impact event.
If all goes well, including raising the rest of our finishing funds, “Green Rebel” will premiere (after more than five years of work) in May – June, 2023. You can see our trailer here (and contribute a bit to us finishing), or also become an investor in our project.
Abramowitz often closes a meeting with a big smile, and an inspiring, “Shine on!” Can each of us be as primal a force as the sun? The sun lights and warms our world no matter what. The most powerful natural force in our immediate universe, the immaterial food that nourishes every green plant that grows, everywhere on the globe. May we shine on, filling the world with the hopeful light of our words and actions that contribute to building healing bridges across the problems and conflicts that besiege us these days.