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Kibbutz Ketura- an Oasis of Community and Contrast

Friend and I at the Kibbutz (Photo Courtesy Abigail Leibowitz)

Inhaling the pristine Arava air, strolling the quaint, winding paths of Kibbutz Ketura, and howling “ahlan!” [the colloquial Israeli “hi”] at residents on their porches, I felt I was a genuine Kibbutznik. During Nativ’s 4-night stay in Kibbutz Ketura, I experienced the socialist ideology but also felt the dilemmas of Israel’s pioneers and chalutzim. 

Imagine you’re presented with the following dilemma: You’re living in a pluralistic kibbutz where halakha is observed in the public spaces but members are free to observe (or not) as they wish. Decisions are made collectively. The son of Russian refuseniks, who is only patrilineal Jewish, wants to read the Torah and participate in the service for his Bar Mitzvah. Many members of the Kibbutz are adamantly opposed, claiming he is not halachically Jewish and they would stop coming to services if he were given an aliyah. What solution would you come up with?

This is not a gedanken experiment but an actual scenario that happened in Kibbutz Ketura, and our group had to simulate solving this dilemma. Before I tell you about our solution, a short primer about the Kibbutz.

Established in 1973 in the Arava Valley by American Olim and sustained largely by absorption of new olim from various countries, the Kibbutz prides itself on its pluralistic approach to Judaism and maintaining the economic collective structure (which has survived in only 20 percent of Israel’s Kibbutzim). So while members are free to observe as they wish in their own living spaces, the Kibbutz itself observes kashrut, Shabbat, and holidays in its public spaces and at cultural events.

Being wholly communal and socialist in nature, as most kibbutzim were in Israel’s early years, the income of all the Kibbutz members is collected by the Kibbutz and then distributed equally among the members. Meals are provided through communal dining halls, cars are used through a renting system administered by the Kibbutz, and education is paid for by the Kibbutz. Committees made up of Kibbutz members are assigned with decision making and governing of the kibbutz.

In fascinating discussions with Kibbutz members, I learned the benefits and drawbacks of socialist living–which is truly sui generis. One of the women admired and praised this unique way of life, emphasizing how it serves as a social safety net for weaker populations while also encouraging accountability for working and contributing to society. In contrast, another fellow we spoke to showed us the flaws, telling us he feels robbed of personal income and benefits, as well as an encroachment on his liberty. Indeed, most of the Kibbutz children, after their army service and higher education, end up foregoing membership.

Various committees, such as Intake, Jewish Tradition, Health, and K-12, meet and make recommendations to the General Assembly. As a pluralistic kibbutz, these committees must tackle unique issues relating to religion, democracy, and liberty.

Back to our Bar Mitzvah dilemma. My group understood that the Bar Mitzvah boy is seeing all his friends becoming Bar Mitzvah-ed, and would feel left out and alienated if stripped of this opportunity. The solution we came up with was to have him commit to undergoing a halachic conversion before the Bar Mitzvah, and then allowing him the same privileges as all the other kids. We later learned how the Kibbutz addressed this problem: They had his father, who is halachically Jewish, read the Haftarah blessings, and the boy then read the Haftarah, thus allowing him participation in the service while not violating Jewish law.

In addition, we were exposed to the unique ecosystem that shapes much of life there, particularly the prevalence of acacia trees. The acacia tree–etz shita–is arguably the most important tree in the Torah. As pointed out by Rabbi Michael Cohen,who works on the Kibbutz, it is mentioned 29 times in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Joel, with most of the references related to the building of the Mishkan [Tabernacle] – the place of God’s dwelling among the Children of Israel during the decades in the desert (Exodus 25:8). In the construction of the Mishkan, acacia wood was paramount. As we read in Parashat Terumah and read again in this week’s Parashat Vayakhel, It was used in numerous ways: for the ark (Exodus 25:10); the poles for the table (Exodus 25:28); the beams for the Mishkan (Exodus 26:15) the screen (Exodus 26:37); the olah altar (Exodus 27:1); and the poles for the altar (Exodus 27:6).

The acacia trees to this day are the keystone to the Arava fragile ecosystem. They provide a structural habitat for a wide variety of birds, reptiles, and invertebrates. For local human communities, acacia trees are important as a food source for livestock, and a supply of wood for heating, cooking, and construction. The Acacia tortilis trees of the Arava do not bloom during the months when it rains – October to February – but bloom during the extremely hot and dry summer. This is because it evolved out of the East African savanna, where in the summer it rains – an interesting parallel to humans who, when they emigrate, hold on to customs and traditions from where they came, which is especially pertinent to the melting pot population of the kibbutz.

The Talmud notes that just as the acacia tree is the keystone to certain ecosystems, the Torah is the keystone to the Jewish people. It is therefore not surprising that the Torah was placed permanently in the Ark of the Covenant, constructed from acacia wood.

Drawing upon the unique ecosystem of the Arava, the kibbutz houses the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. This leading research institute in the Middle East provides accredited academic programs, research centers, and international cooperation initiatives focusing on a range of environmental concerns and challenges.

With a student body composed of Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians, and participants from around the world, the Arava Institute offers students the opportunity to learn, research, and implement solutions to the Middle East’s most pressing environmental challenges. Directors of the Institute explained how bringing Israelis, Palestinins, and Jordanians together to study the environment allows relationships to grow and paves the way for more serious identity discussions. The research undertaken at this institute takes place in both Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, as they all share the unique climate and environment of the Arava.

Through immersing in the one-of-a-kind social and environmental climate of Kibbutz Ketura, I was exposed to a world most people only hear about, and felt the vigorous energy of Israeli determination and perseverance.

About the Author
Abby is a student and volunteer on the Nativ College Leadership Program. Originally from Israel, she moved to Silver Spring, MD as a baby and grew up there with her parents and twin brother. Inspired by Jewish concepts of Tikkun Olam and the Jewish refugee narrative, she hopes to go to law school and work in human rights law. Back in the US, she led a student advocacy group called F.A.I.R- Fans of Asylum and Immigration Reform, taught at Temple Emanuel Religious School, and was a teacher’s assistant at CityDance School and Conservatory. During her free time Abby loves to take dance classes, play backgammon (and win of course), and read!
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