At Kibbutz Lotan
In the Kibbutz Lotan garden: “AND THE ETERNAL GOD TOOK THE HUMAN AND SET THE HUMAN IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN TO TILL IT AND TO TEND IT” Genesis 2:15
When I knew that Barry and I were getting to go to Israel, one of the first things that I wanted to do was experience working on a kibbutz, one of the communal settlements.
The first kibbutz was founded in 1909, about 40 years before the establishment of the State of Israel. The kibbutzim were founded on Communist and Socialist principles: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
The founders, young Jewish pioneers, mainly from Eastern Europe, wanted to create a new way of life, but they had little or no experience with agriculture, and the land was barren and dry – desolate, and they have had to fight repeatedly for the land and their country.
Lotan without soil enrichment or water :(
From their inauspicious beginnings, the kibbutzim have played a dominate role in creating thriving, productive communities in Israel today.
At Lotan, constant experiments create new ways to grow food.
I wanted to find a kibbutz where I could work and learn something about the agriculture there. The Israelis have created fertile, productive farm land from the neglected desert. To accomplish this, among many other techniques, the Israelis invented the drip irrigation system that delivers an appropriate amount of water to the roots of the plants, and they are leaders in desalination.
In the middle of the desert – lemon trees at Kibbutz Lotan are loaded with fruit.
Kale, tomatoes, lemon grass, dill, . . . – all organic and wonderful at Kibbutz Lotan!
Today, most kibbutz want 20-30 year olds as strong volunteers. Or they charge to stay in a hotel room on the kibbutz. But I wanted to work and learn. So what about us? In a Google search, I found Kibbutz Lotan, located near the southern tip of Israel (in fact, only about 800 meters (1/2 mile) from the border with Jordan).
Kibbutz Lotan is very close to Jordan and not far from the Red Sea and Egypt.
Kibbutz Lotan – art – made from clay, mud, and straw.
As part of their sustainability program, Lotan offers a week stay that includes attending classes, working in the gardens, and living on the kibbutz. Yeah! That’s for me. Barry wasn’t as eager as I, but he was willing to come for the experience.
The program started on a Sunday.
It was by early bus we left Eliat on Sunday morning and made it to Lotan in time for a tour and then breakfast.
Entrance to the Lotan visitor/volunteer area.
This is one of the 10 visitor/volunteer rooms built of straw bales: mud, clay, and straw – over a geodesic dome. We stayed in dome nine. The thick walls kept the room cool in the day when the sun beat down and warm at night when the desert cools. Our windows looked out onto the beautiful desert, and we loved our room!
Each dome is decorated in a unique way.
Adam, who grew up at Kibbutz Lotan, gave us a tour:
Adam showing us a wood- burning oven.
Hilary – from Chicago – a kibbutz volunteer, in the field kitchen (mud dome).
Behind the kitchen where yesterday’s food scraps turn into biogas – and then are used as the heat source for cooking.
Fat worms are kept to make compost “tea” for healthy vegetables.
Adam showed us various “sun ovens.”
Another kind of “sun oven.” Lotan recycles many things.
The green room – bomb shelter, library, and classroom.
Down to the classroom & library.
If you had to spend time in a bomb shelter, the Lotan shelter with all its books would be a perhaps tolerable place to be.
The Lotan campus.
Lotan buildings – created and decorated with sustainable materials.
Older buildings – but still beautiful and functional.
Homes of the permanent Kibbutz Lotan members.
Plants grow in all kinds of pots.
The Kibbutz Lotan Dairy does much to support the community.
Date palms in the kids’ orchard.
The sale of dairy and dates help sustain this kibbutz.
“As no part of the date is wasted . . .”
As all parts of a date palm are useful and needed, so too are all members of the kibbutz.
Besides living collectively and productively in sustainable ways, Kibbutz Lotan has a mission to educate others.
Come to learn at the Kibbutz Lotan Eco Kef
How a solar cooker works.
A school group comes to learn. We saw groups from Vietnam, interested farmers from around the world, an Israeli army unit, and more – all come to visit and learn.
Welcome to the Lotan Eco Kef – where everyone can learn many sustainable techniques including how to plant vegetables, make mud and straw brick, use recycled material in creative ways, and cook pancakes over a wood oven.
Pancake grill in the Eco Kef
The kids loved their pancakes – and I did too.
Alex told me how to make my pancake taste wonderful – add Nutella!
Give the Eco Kef your old stuff
This old VW Bug is in the Eco Kef
And if you think the kibbutz is just about working and being productive, look at how they recycle.
Even after this VW Bug had been decorated and put in the Eco Kef playground, someone wanted a part, so he jacked up the car, got what he needed, and then set the car back down – where it is giving much pleasure to kids today.
Other Eco Kef playground structures.
Kid created Eco Kef mud art.
A kid tent made from posts and a climbing vine.
This shaded classroom is just a bigger application of the frame and vines idea.
The volunteers, staff, and everyone at Kibbutz Lotan encourage each other to create and make a better living environment for everyone there.
Are these volunteers creating a new herb garden under a shading tree?
Adam – Par 6
Welcome to Kibbutz Lotan’s new disc golf range!
Some of the creative ideas are just for fun; some are for experimenting for new sustainable ways of planting or building.
The kibbutz farmers are constantly trying different types of plants and different ways of cultivation.
For planting, they must take into account the salty water, high temperatures, and intense sun.
“It’s not for you to finish the task – nor are you free to desist from it.”
— from “Ethics of Our Fathers”
Experimental vertical garden.
This garden is made from old wooden pallets turned on end. A drip system waters from the top.
This closed compost bin also made from wooden pallets allows air to reach the depth of the decomposing pile.
An experimental snail-shaped rock herb garden.
How well will this “snail-shaped” garden do in the heat?
Constructed wetland wasteland treatment system
Waste water treatment
R2D2 is now living at Kibbutz Lotan – and reminding people to recycle cans. Who knew? :)
The art classroom is being repaired. The recycled tires under the mud/clay/straw bricks keep any water on the ground from undermining the walls.
A fence made from old bicycles.
The showers and bathroom sinks have solar heated water and are housed in the mud/clay/straw structures built by the kibbutzim.
The builders added colorful decorations.
A shower stall
Now we come to the serious part of being ecologically conscious in this desert setting. The following may be too much information; if so, just skip ahead.
The deposits here go directly into a covered bin and used (somehow) as fertilizer. Note the nice desert view. There is a door behind.
Entrance to toilets.
Compost toilets – I promise, they are kept clean and do not smell! Ash from the wood-buring ovens and chopped straw are added every day. My favorite one had classical music playing – really!
Behind the toilets – the “contributions” mixed with the straw and ash are collected and left to decompose and then used as fertilizer for trees.
6,600 gallons (25,000 liters) of water are saved every year by using these compost toilets!
And there is a choice for doing your laundry:
A washing machine hooked up to a bicycle.
A boy trying out the bicycle washing machine. I don’t think many clothes get washed this way, but it is an idea.
The kibbutz is focused on eco-friendly life. This “washing machine” was near our dome. We could just lug over water, add soap, and, of course, our dirty clothes-then peddle for 20 minutes to agitate the clothes; then drain the soapy water, lug over and add clean rinse water, peddle more, then drain – and wring out and hang up the clothes to dry. I kept thinking I would try it, but it never happened.
The kibbutzim mainly use the communal system. So for this chore, they just turn in a basket of dirty clothes to the laundry. A night security guard puts the clothes in the washer and dryer, and then the owners pick up the washed and dried clothes in the morning!
Not as romantic as the bicycle washing machine, but these units are practical.
A day at the kibbutz begins at 6 a.m., so it was still dark when we made our way over to the Eco Kef, grabbing some fresh mint along the way to add to hot water to make tea.
Sinai mint in a raised bed – great fresh tea.
As we did loosening up exercises with Mike K., the sun would be rising – spectacular!
Sunrise at Kibbutz Lotan- from the Eco Kef
Mike K. also gave us our assignments for the early morning – most often weeding for me, but I got to plant and harvest too.
A herb garden
Kale, onion, and green pepper beds.
Keren, who grew up on a kibbutz in the north of Israel, at Lotan’s constructed wetlands. She was often our able work leader.
At about 8:00 a.m. we headed over to the busman, the field houses where we were all living, and got our assignments for cleanup of the communal areas. The first day, I got the compost toilets! But Hilary showed me what needed to be done, and we shared the task, so no big deal.
Then about 8:30, we went for breakfast in the communal dining hall where there was always a lot of healthy food and as much as we wanted. We could join groups already there, sit with other volunteers, and eco-staffers, to enjoy our breakfast and learn more about what everyone was doing. Then it was back to the gardens until 10:30.
I was too busy eating and talking to get more than this one photo of a Lotan meal :)
At 10:30, it was on to classes or to another work assignment until about 1 p.m. For some, it was Hebrew lessons. Our first one was a case study of building a straw bale building at Wadi Al Naam.
Alex sharing his experience of building a health clinic with and for Bedouins: what went wrong and what worked.
Another class that Barry and I had was on Eco-Zionism with Michael, one of the early members of this kibbutz. It was interesting to see the questioning and discussion among the participants too.
Those who stayed longer than we did also learned practical skills such as welding and bicycle repair. That week, Keren got to learn how to drive a massive tractor!
Then lunch – again many choices, and it was all ready for us in the dining hall. The afternoons were varied. Lotan encourages participants to be creative – and useful.
Some people learned to make the clay/mud/straw bricks that was used to build much of Lotan.
These bricks will be used later for building projects.
To the front of his dome home, this volunteer was adding a vertical garden (made out of recycled plastic soda bottles)!
During the time we were at Lotan, Hilary proposed to build a Hugel Mound, a no-dig raised bed of decomposing wood that retains water, maximizes surface volume, and builds fertility. In most climates, Hugel Mounds allow plants to take as much water as they need, when they need it, and the mound avoids the set-up and maintenance of a irrigation drip system. So we joined Hilary and other volunteers a few afternoons to build the Hugel.
Adam and Hilary at the mound.
Wood to be buried in the Hugel Mound.
Measuring the size and depth of the hole. Don’t worry, Ori’s alive and didn’t stay there. :)
Yes, the Hugel needed good soil layers, so here is Barry and other volunteers shoveling dried cow manure.
Ori, Mike (with turban), and others adding layers and water to the Hugel.
Etai from Berlin in the foreground and others adding water, compost tea, and tree branches to our Hugel.
Then came the logs that had been soaked in water. We lugged that water to the Hugel too.
At the end of the week, the Hugel Mound was looking like this.
By the time we left Lotan, our Hugel needed a few more layers of compost and mulch, and then the planting could begin. I’m sure by now, sprouts will be growing all over it.
It will be interesting to know if this mound will require less water and less compost than other beds. It was fun to be part of this planting experiment.
In the evenings, it was back to the dining hall – and more food. Some people gathered to play instruments or hang out around the field cooking fires. Israeli dancing was once a week. One night, we saw a documentary about a backyard in Australia being converted to a permaculture garden. But many just went to their rooms and read. Night comes quickly in the winter desert, and we needed to be back at the Eco Kef by 6 a.m.
However, it was a special time during the week we were there – the start of Hanukah! And we were in Israel.
On the afternoon of the first day of Hanukah, several of us tried to make pesto as our contribution to the evening. What should have been a rather simple task considering we had lots of basil and lots of hands – didn’t work. Everything that could go wrong did – including the blender blowing up! Oh well, we took fresh basil with us.
The pesto brigade
Since Barry comes from a Jewish family that always told the Hanukah story and made latkes, those oil soaked delicious potato and onion pancakes and such to celebrate, we went to the first night of Hanukah in the dining hall expecting a similar experience.
We arrived to find food, salsa dancing, and things for sale!
The first night of Hanukah included a farmer’s market and a crafts fundraiser for needy kids in Eliat!
These kibbutz kids sold terrific Jaffels, toasted sandwiches to raise funds.
Banana pancakes on a stick were a choice as were lavender sachets (on the table).
You could pay to have tea with a Brit! A raised pinky finger was required!
The many practical, tasty, creative offerings during this first night of Hanukah raised over $1,0000 U.S. for needy kids in Eliat!
Of course, there was singing and lighting of Hanukah candles too.
Latkes too were available to eat, but they were a healthy version made with carrots and little oil! They were one of the many things that surprised us in Israel.
The second night of Hanukah at the field kitchen – Barry, Zoe, Hilary, Keren, & Jeremy
Several of us including Jeremy, the new volunteer from the States who had decided to immigrate and was getting the kibbutz experience before looking for a job in Tel Aviv, all got together for the second night of Hanukah. We each made something to contribute to the meal; Keren roasted red sweet peppers from some we had picked that morning – yum! And we lit Hanukah candles.
So overall, we had a wonderful and interesting time at Kibbutz Lotan.
There are some issues, however. Although everything was peaceful at the kibbutz, we weren’t to go beyond the Lotan fence.
That’s Jordan we can see from Kibbutz Lotan!
No walking beyond the fence.
Are the kibbutzim changing? Well, yes.
Besides the Eco Kef playground, there is this modern one for the kibbutz kids. And most of the toilets are regular, not compost. We could get the Internet from inside our straw bale room! And the solar hot water and biogas are augmented with regular electric and gas.
Only about 2% of Israelis now live on kibbutzes. The economic reality is that many kibbutzes are becoming more capitalistic rather than solely socialistic.
Soon you will be able to buy land and build your own house at Lotan!
I think I could live happily at Kibbutz Lotan. However, I did sleep until 11 am the day after we left Lotan (which I haven’t done that since I was in my 20s and had stayed up all night). It was a workout!
The work and the learning are never ending, and the community life means it is shared work with a sense of purpose. It’s a place of beauty and community.
Birds in the desert.
Several of the young adults there say they will probably work somewhere else after doing their army service and going to college, but they would like to return to the kibbutz to raise their children.
The kibbutz seems an ideal place for children.
We’ll be watching to see if the kibbutz can survive.
Kibbutz Lotan offers several terrific ecology and sustainability programs.
To find out more, go to <http://www.kibbutzlotan.com>.
At Lotan, you can be creative in many ways.
“You need only ask the beasts and they will teach you, the birds of the sky will tell you, . . .”
Come join a Lotan table.
There’s likely to be a program for you at Kibbutz Lotan.
And you never know where the learning you get at Lotan will lead you.
After his program at Kibbutz Lotan finishes, this Swiss guy is off to Africa to help with water issues there!
Sunset over the Kibbutz Lotan cow shed.
I loved being at Kibbutz Lotan and am looking forward to applying my new knowledge at home.