Bob Dylan told us that “a heavy rain is going to fall. It has come like a deluge as we are beset by angst, exhaustion and disagreement over COVID-19, the growing crisis of the global climate that sustains life as we know it, and a political system, once. a fraying “shining city on a hill.” It says nothing during Christmas week about the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.
As many of you know, 25 years ago, in 1996, I received an 11-month sabbatical from the Congregation of Israel where I was at the time its first full-time rabbi. My family and I spent that year at Kibbutz Ketura in the desert of the Arava Valley on the border of Israel and Jordan, where I worked for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. . I quickly discovered that the Institute was the address for so many of my passions: peace, the environment, intercultural learning, desert life, kibbutz life and the best of Zionism. At the Institute, we bring together Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Moroccan and international students to study and live together to be trained to become environmental leaders for the Middle East and the world. In addition to learning from environmental experts in a number of environmental fields, in our Peacebuilding Leadership Seminar, our students directly confront the various elements of conflict; not an easy process, but an eye-opening process for all. A number of BBA alumni have studied at the Institute as a college study abroad option.
It’s wonderful to be back. The other day I spoke with the students about conflict resolution theories and their application to their environment and peace work; as always, these future leaders had insightful comments and questions. I also spoke at the open house for potential students of my “The Bible and the Environment” course which I look forward to teaching again next spring.
Last week I also met Nadav Solowey, the son of Elaine Solowey. She taught sustainable agriculture at the Institute for decades and now focuses solely on research. One of the challenges of living in the desert is finding crops suitable for such an environment, especially the extreme heat and lack of water. While date palms are an essential part of the economy in the Arava Valley desert, each tree drinks 1000 liters of water per day! Years ago, working on a project between the Institute and Morocco, Elaine obtained argan trees. In comparison, the argan tree uses only about 50 liters of water per day and has medicinal, cosmetic and culinary applications. It is explored as a new culture for the region. In addition to all this, the Institute’s Center for Applied Environmental Diplomacy continues its important fieldwork in Gaza and the West Bank. Our new Executive Director is Dr Tareq Abu-Hamed. When he visited our home in Manchester Center a few years ago, when he was the director of our renewable energy and energy conservation center, and saw the solar shields on our house , this gave him the idea of solar collector air heaters that the institute is now researching.
In the attached photo, I stand in the photo below in front of ‘Methuselah’ – a date palm grown at the Arava Institute (by Eliane) from a 2,000 year old seed found near the Dead Sea . He was able to pollinate another tree from a seed from this period, “Hannah”, and it produced 600 Judean Dates that we have not had since the time of Jesus and the Second Temple. A beautiful message of hope and rebirth for this holiday season.
This week was the official 25th anniversary celebration in Jaffa of the Institute I attended. I was interviewed for a pre-recorded part of the evening. I said: “Bobbie Kennedy was quoting George Bernard Shaw:” There are those who look at things as they are and ask why? I dream of things that never existed and I ask why not? – For 25 years, the Arava Institute has responded positively to this question.
Over the past 25 years, I have continued to work and returned for long periods to the Arava Institute partly as a role model we cannot give up when what we watch and read seems hopeless. As our Canadian neighbor, Leonard Cohen sang, “Ring the bells that may still ring; Forget about your perfect offering; There is a crack, a crack in everything; This is how the light enters. A convincing message for this season of light.
Rabbi Cohen is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Congregation of Israel and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Burr & Burton Academy and the Mount Equinox Preservation Trust.