Kibbutz Lotan: Where Every Individual Can – and does – Make A Difference
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.
From their inauspicious beginnings, the kibbutzim have played a dominate role in creating thriving, productive communities in Israel today.
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.
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).
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.
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!
Adam, who grew up at Kibbutz Lotan, gave us a tour:
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 sale of dairy and dates help sustain this kibbutz.
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.
The kids loved their pancakes – and I did too.
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.
The volunteers, staff, and everyone at Kibbutz Lotan encourage each other to create and make a better living environment for everyone there.
Some of the creative ideas are just for fun; some are for experimenting for new sustainable ways of planting or building.
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”
This garden is made from old wooden pallets turned on end. A drip system waters from the top.
How well will this “snail-shaped” garden do in the heat?
The showers and bathroom sinks have solar heated water and are housed in the mud/clay/straw structures built by the kibbutzim.
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.
And there is a choice for doing your laundry:
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!
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.
As we did loosening up exercises with Mike K., the sun would be rising – spectacular!
Mike K. also gave us our assignments for the early morning – most often weeding for me, but I got to plant and harvest too.
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.
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.
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.
These bricks will be used later for building projects.
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.
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.
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.
The first night of Hanukah included a farmer’s market and a crafts fundraiser for needy kids in Eliat!
The many practical, tasty, creative offerings during this first night of Hanukah raised over $1,0000 U.S. for needy kids in Eliat!
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.
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.
Are the kibbutzim changing? Well, yes.
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.
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.
Kibbutz Lotan offers several terrific ecology and sustainability programs.
To find out more, go to <http://www.kibbutzlotan.com>.
“You need only ask the beasts and they will teach you, the birds of the sky will tell you, . . .”
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.
I loved being at Kibbutz Lotan and am looking forward to applying my new knowledge at home.