Nestled in the Beit She'an Valley at the foothills of the Gilboa Mountains, overlooking Jordan, Sde Eliahu is an anomaly on several levels. To begin with, it's a kibbutz that still practices a communal lifestyle. Unlike most kibbutzim, which over the last 20 years have undergone privatization processes, Sde Eliahu is still jointly owned and operated. While a vast majority of kibbutzim have given up on the co-operative and are now little more than small villages, the Sde Eliahu dining room is still packed three times a day, and the members still share in the work and the proceeds of the collective.
Sde Eliahu is also different in that it is a religious kibbutz. As opposed to the majority of kibbutzim, which were founded by members of left-leaning Zionist movements like Hashomer Hatzair, Hanoar Hatzioni and Habonim Dror, who adopted strict socialist values, including ingrained secularism, Sde Eliahu belongs to the Kibbutz Dati movement and all of its members practice an orthodox lifestyle. Whereas in most kibbutzim the dining room is situated in the center, in Sde Eliahu the structure that lies at the heart of the community is the synagogue.
Another feature that makes Sde Eliahu stand out is that it is one of the few remaining kibbutzim where agriculture is still at the core. While most kibbutzim have long since given up on agriculture and have diversified into industry and tourism, Sde Eliahu, with its wide array of enterprises, remains steadfastly loyal to its agrarian roots.
In order to better understand the anomaly that is Sde Eliahu and to get to the root of what makes it unique, I spent a day with Sara Goldsmith, a 20-year Sde Eliahu member and the director of Bio-Tour, a kibbutz-founded tour company that provides guided tours of the kibbutz and its many attractions.
THE TOUR started at the Sde Eliahu visitor center and gift shop that sits next door to the large dining room. The first thing Goldsmith showed me was a box full of bees. "Put your hand in. I promise they won't sting you," said Goldsmith with a smile.
Somewhat apprehensively and only after she assured me that all the bees were male and that they didn't sting, I put my hand in the box and watched as furry black bumblebees crawled over it. "We get the kids to reach in and pull out toffees. At first they're too scared, but once they get into it they start petting and caressing them. In most cases it's the parents and not the kids that are too frightened to try." Goldsmith explained that the bees in the box, like nearly everything else in the shop, were produced on the kibbutz.
"The bees come from Bio-Bee, the kibbutz's largest industry, and are intended for use in agricultural pollination," explained Goldsmith.
Aside from the bees, the visitor center was stocked with a wide array of organic products, from spices to dates, from cosmetics to pomegranate juice. "The only thing here that isn't made in the kibbutz is the organic olive oil. We recently planted olive trees so soon we'll have that too, but for the meantime we bring it in from elsewhere in the valley," said Goldsmith.
From the visitor center we went to the dining room where over lunch, Goldsmith explained about the history of the kibbutz. Sde Eliahu was founded by German immigrants in 1939 as a tower and stockade settlement. This settlement method, which was practiced under the British mandate, took advantage of a British law, which stipulated that the authorities could not dismantle existing villages. Settlers would construct the fortifications very quickly - usually in the course of a single night - and in this way establish facts on the ground by morning, which were then unable to be removed.
The German settlers, fondly referred to as Yekkes, were shortly afterwards joined by immigrants from Italy and France. "I think it's the combination of the famous German punctuality and strict attention to detail, and the creative and easygoing nature of the Italians and French, that made all of this work," stipulated Goldsmith.
The natural conditions of the time made life on the kibbutz a daily struggle for the early settlers. Malaria took its toll and the oppressive heat in summer and the freezing winter nights contributed to the hardships. Settlers dwelt in humble rooms with five couples sharing a collective bathroom. One of the original housing structures remains intact, and the kibbutz plans to renovate it as a museum for enshrining pioneer kibbutz life. "There's one lady on the kibbutz who is a pack rat. Over the years she hoarded away a huge collection of everyday objects and we hope to use them to bring that period back to life," said Goldsmith.
As is it, it seems that every object on the kibbutz has a great story behind it, from the remnants of a palm tree plantation that lies between the synagogue and the dining room, to the engine of an ancient tractor that was once used to hide ammunition from the British. In a small park next to the dining room Goldsmith just happened to stumble across a World War I era soldier's helmet lying next to the path.
Today the kibbutz has 200 members and 700 residents. "There are a lot of kids on the kibbutz," said Goldsmith noting my surprise. "Each family has an average of 5.5 children, among the highest of all kibbutzim." But Sde Eliahu's expansion doesn't depend only on natural growth. Unlike most other kibbutzim, Sde Eliahu continues to absorb new families, and according to Goldsmith, there are currently three families on the waiting list to gain membership.
Outside the dining room, several members of the kibbutz were busy decorating a giant succa. Goldsmith explained that during the holiday, all meals were held in the 500-sq/meter structure and the dining room was fitted out as an activity center for the children.
After lunch, Goldsmith took me to the regional school, located next to the kibbutz, to meet with the principal and help me learn more about the people who live there.
"The school operates in accord with the kibbutz ethos. It comes across in a genuine commitment to the place you come from and the land you live on," said Moshe Tur-Paz, the high school principal, who is known to everybody as Kinley.
"We stress the relationship with nature and the land in nearly everything we do. We take the students on a lot of field trips and on extracurricular activities. The Ministry of Education has designated a huge natural area around the school as part of school grounds, so teachers can take their students outside whenever they like and classes often have an outdoor element to them," said Tur-Paz.
Tur-Paz explained that for the teachers, staff and parents, sustainability was more about action than talk, and that commitment filtered down to the students. He gave an example where the students, after learning about the values of recycling, approached the catering company that provided the food for school and asked them to replace the disposable plastic dishes that were then in use with more durable ones that could be re-used.
"These are lessons that carry on for later in life, too," said Tur-Paz. "I often tell the story of one of the school's graduates who participated as a soldier in Operation Cast Lead. He and his unit were in an orchard on the outskirts of Gaza and the guys began picking oranges from the trees. Despite the fact they were tired and thirsty, he asked his buddies to stop. He explained that the orchard belonged to someone and that that person had put great effort into growing the fruit. He believed picking from the trees was wrong. It offended his value system."
According to Tur-Paz, it's a value system that brings results. A few months ago, the Ministry of Education granted awards to the schools with the most graduates that entered combat units upon enlisting in the army. Sde Eliahu's school came in first place. "The two main sectors that produce combat soldiers are the kibbutzim and the religious communities; here we have a combination of both."
Tur-Paz explained that as opposed to the majority of the youth, who are focused solely on their rights as citizens, students at his school are very aware of their obligations too. "They respect the tradition of volunteering and many are prepared to do whatever it takes to protect the country and its citizens, even if it means paying the ultimate sacrifice."
Careful to emphasize that the students were not raised on militarism or combativeness, Tur-Paz explained that they were raised to give their maximum to the country. "Most of the students also do a year of community service before their enlistment," he noted.
Following the visit at the school, Goldsmith took me to meet one of the kibbutz founders and the driving force behind Sde Eliyahu's organic initiatives. Mario Levy is considered the father of organic farming in Israel, and at 87 still works in the fields with the energy of a man a third of his age. Wearing a pomegranate-stained work shirt and the permanent tan of a man accustomed to outdoor living, Levy looks like the embodiment of the land itself. The fact that throughout the interview he had ants crawling up his arms only added to the impression.
LEVY IMMIGRATED to Israel from Trieste in 1939, at the age of 16. After two years in a training farm he joined the rudimentary settlement when all there was around wee swamps and Beduin. "I came to settle the wilderness," said Levy.
For 30 years Levy practiced conventional agriculture like everybody else, but said he always felt that they were doing something wrong. "I felt that the things we were doing were contrary to nature's plan. We found that the more we sprayed insecticides, the more the pests returned. Every time we'd use stronger and stronger chemicals, and every time some of the bugs would develop immunity and reproduce. We were making a living, but it was obvious that the methods were flawed."
It was a visit to Switzerland in 1967 that opened Levy's eyes to the possibilities of organic farming. "I saw that what they were talking about made sense from a health point of view, and I came back to the kibbutz eager to try out some of the methods in our fields," said Mario.
He recalled that back then the Ministry of Agriculture refused to fund trials, but that he managed to convince the other members of the kibbutz to dedicate a plot of land for independent studies.
The philosophy of organic farming, according to Levy, lies in seeing the land as a living body. "We do our best to leave the land as much as possible in its natural state." Levy explained that many of the actions that conventional farmers take to improve their yields have harmful effects on the environment, and even on the food itself.
"Many of the practices, even though they are allowed by the state, seriously damage the land," he warned. "Any use of chemical and synthetic materials alters the cells of the plant. Instead of being deposits for health, our food is turning into a source of diseases. We are losing the natural balance and we don't know what the implications of it may be."
What started 35 years ago with a 20-dunam organic vegetable plot, has turned into a multi-million-shekel industry that drives the growth of the kibbutz. The flagship of Sde Eliahu's organic revolution is a company called Bio-Bee, which specializes in producing insects for work in agriculture.
The use of insects and mites to control harmful pests in crops is by no means a new idea. Mother Nature uses this system of regulation, and gardeners have practiced the conservation of natural predators and parasites for centuries. What Bio-Bee does is introduce an unnaturally large amount of these "little helpers" into the growing area at key stages in the growing process, and by putting the food chain out of balance, manages to overwhelm the pests and greatly reduce their harmful effect on the crop. This technique means farmers can do with little or no use of synthetic chemicals, drastically decreasing the amount of chemical residue in the produce.
Apart from the biological control products, Bio-Bee also offers a unique alternative for hormonal or manual pollination of agricultural crops. Bio-Bee mass produces bumblebees for pollination of thousands of hectares of greenhouses and fields both in Israel and abroad. The bees are grown in an artificial hive containing a queen bee and around fifty worker bees. The hives are cared for until they reach maturation, and then packaged and shipped out to all corners of the earth.
A further development is the recent production of an environmentally friendly solution to eradicate the bothersome Mediterranean fruit fly. Bio-Bee produces a large amount of sterile male flies and releases them in breeding areas where they "mate" with the females, resulting in a dwindling population as no new generations are hatched. The use of this method greatly reduces the need for spraying, particularly around human dwellings.
"Health is at the heart. The reason I'm nuts about organic farming is that I know for certain that it goes to the very core of our being. If I wasn't out there explaining about the importance of it and instructing people on the various methods, my conscience would not let me rest," said Levy. "People need to look past the end of their noses. Sure it's more expensive to produce and to buy organic produce, but in the long term it's a worthwhile investment in health."
For Levy and the members of Sde Eliahu, organic farming is part of their religious practice. "Health is more important than any commandment. You can break the Shabbat if it means taking care of someone who is sick. Here it's the same. It is commanded upon us to make people healthier," said Levy.
After the meeting with Levy, it was time to go out to the field and get a glimpse of Sde Eliahu's environmental philosophy in action. Because it was so soon after the harvest, most of the fields looked empty, but even a cursory glance could tell you that these were no ordinary fields.
To begin with, the arrangement looked all wrong. Instead of the regular, clearly defined rows you normally see in a conventional farm, in Levy's fields everything looked messy and natural. Goldsmith explained that it's the chemical herbicides and pesticides that make conventional farms look so clean and ordered. "Here, none of that is necessary," she said.
On the tour, Goldsmith pointed out some unique features of the organic farming methods. One of them is to use animals as pest control. Friendly insects and mites work great against the small pests, but when it comes to things like mice or moles, you need bigger weapons. For them, Sde Eliahu uses kestrels (a type of falcon), barn owls and bats. The latter are the natural predators of rodents and if you provide them with a suitable environment, they'll do your eradication for you. "People often ask me where they can buy an owl to help rid their property of rodents. I keep on explaining that you don't need to buy them, all you need to do is to place a nesting box in the field and if there's food, the owls will come by themselves," Goldsmith said.
Birds of prey aren't the only animals enlisted in the service of agriculture on the kibbutz. Sde Eliahu's large organic date groves are tended by a herd of donkeys who eat all the foliage on the ground, as well as the rotten dates which fall from the trees and are a source of disease. The donkeys are regularly moved from section to section with the aid of electronic fencing.
Aside from the animals used for work, you will also find on the kibbutz dairy cows, poultry and a fish hatchery. All the human work that's required is done by local workers, either residents of Sde Eliahu or people from the nearby towns and villages. Unlike in most other Israeli farms, in Sde Eliahu you won't find Israelis standing and giving instructions to Thai foreign workers. At this kibbutz, everyone is Israeli. "We really believe in Avoda Ivrit (Hebrew labor) and it pains us to think that we'll need foreign hands to work our land," said Goldsmith.