TAKE A long drive on the highway to the south across the stunning landscape of the Arava Valley with the Edom Mountains of Jordan to the east. When you reach the fields of date palms 35 miles north of the resort town of Eilat, you’ve arrived at Ketura.
The kibbutz founded by a group of American “crazies” is a rather stunning success story. Ketura has managed, against all odds, to launch and maintain innovative businesses, retain its original vision of religious pluralism and maintain its status as a true communal kibbutz.
One of the few cooperative settlements that have survived into the 21st century without privatizing, the kibbutz has evolved from an abandoned army outpost into a 150-member kibbutz (plus a similar number of children) renowned for its biotechnology and educational projects.
One of the country’s youngest kibbutzim, Ketura was founded in 1973 just after the Yom Kippur war by a gar’in (nucleus group) from Young Judaea, the veteran American Zionist youth organization, and members of an Israel Scouts group. The government had offered the would-be kibbutzniks a choice of five army outposts they planned “to civilianize” – two in the Golan Heights, two in the Dead Sea region, and one in the Arava – the only one within the 1967 border. As a non-political American- youth movement, the group felt that, of the five options, only Ketura had no question as to its political future.
That first core gar’in was followed, four years later, by another group of Americans from Young Judaea. Four of the original founders still live on the kibbutz, including Judy Bar-Lev. “When we first came here, it was a tiny army outpost with intolerable conditions,” she recalls to The Jerusalem Report. “There was nothing here, but we were young and crazy, and had an ability to make it work.”
Living conditions were very difficult in the beginning. By most accounts, the kibbutz would not have survived without the political and financial backing of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which, until recently, supported Young Judaea.
“It was not so much Hadassah’s money, but their influence and making the phone calls so things would move quickly, so that the government would give us the treatment plant for the drinking water,” recalls Bar- Lev. Young Judaea and Hadassah formally separated in 2011, following Hadassah’s financial crisis related to its two private hospitals in Jerusalem. But Ketura clearly has been a success story for Hadassah. “We wanted them to want us to succeed and it was important that they be behind us. We are naches [a source of pride] for Hadassah, and we’re proud of this,” says Bar-Lev.
Though today the adult members are no longer predominately native English speakers, having been joined by South Americans, French and Russian speakers, as well as native Israelis. Nevertheless, the impact and the mission of the original members and the direction taken by the kibbutz are still very much in evidence today.
Leah Kayman, originally from St. Louis, Missouri, was among the group that came in 1977. “Why would you come to this place, truly in the middle of nowhere?” The Report asks. “We were looking for a challenge,” Kayman responds. “Part of my Zionist and worldview was not to come to this country to be ‘absorbed.’ I came because I wanted to change things and I wanted to be part of efforts to build a better society, and I thought that the kibbutz would be a good place to gain support for some of our ideas,” says Kayman, who studied dairy farming at the University of Wisconsin in preparation for moving to the kibbutz.
The kibbutz movement, based on the utopian ideal that everyone works according to their ability and receives income based on their needs, has undergone many changes during its 105-year-old history. In recent decades socialist fervor has waned as the communes faced ballooning debt, and a majority of the country’s 274 kibbutzim have been forced to scrap their egalitarian lifestyle. The privatized model in most kibbutzim today replaces budget allocations with regular salaries, though joint ownership of the kibbutz’s assets remains.
Kibbutz Ketura is among the last holdouts, still functioning successfully according to the old system of the communal approach to decision-making and property ownership.
“Many kibbutzim have changed and gone to differential [regular] salaries, and call themselves ‘renewed kibbutzim,’ Ketura General Manager Noah Morris relates to The Report. “I think they’ve hijacked the term. We’re the renewed kibbutz, with lots of new businesses and new ideas. We’ve been prepared to remake ourselves but that doesn’t mean stopping being a cooperative kibbutz.”
“VERY EARLY on, we began encouraging members to start working off the kibbutz,” says Morris, explaining that the kibbutz has set up a series of businesses that have proven to be very successful – an auditing business, an algae plant, a solar electricity business, and even tourism.
While the date plantations that were cultivated from the beginning have flourished and are today the economic mainstay of the kibbutz, other branches of agriculture the government handed them in those early days were a failure.
Ketura is the most educated kibbutz in the country with a high percentage of members holding advanced degrees and the most PhDs of any kibbutz in Israel.
That may account, in part, for the entrepreneurial spirit that has propelled the kibbutz and transformed it from an exclusively agricultural community to a leader in eco-technology ventures.
Solar energy is a harvest that does not require irrigation, and there’s plenty of sun in the Arava. The creation of the Arava Power Company happened thanks to a combination of Yossi Abramowitz, an entrepreneur with a vision who loved the kibbutz, and backing from members. Years ahead of its time, with fields of photovoltaic panels that connect to the national electricity grid, the company is now the leading commercial developer of solar power in Israel.
Today, the Arava Power Company is jointly owned by Siemens, the German engineering and electronics conglomerate, and the kibbutz. With the recent introduction of solar panel robots that need almost no water to operate, the largest photovoltaic field in Israel has become the world’s first self-cleaning solar-energy production facility.
At the edge of the 20-acre solar field stands a statue of the biblical character Ruth, symbolic of the Jewish tradition of leaving the corners of fields for the needy.
In a move “to create a standard of social responsibility in the solar industry,” the company designated the four corners for donations to four charities, explains Morris.
“We felt we shouldn’t just build a business for profit, but that there should be some charitable aim, as well. That’s been one of the principles of the Arava Power Company.”
Another successful Ketura venture is the Algatech algae facility, which processes red algae through a filtration system to extract natural astaxanthin, used as an anti-oxidant dietary supplement. Israel is now the world’s leading supplier of natural astaxanthin for human consumption.
The algae venture idea was proposed and driven by a kibbutz member working on his PhD on algae at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “Again, one of our members brought up an idea and we decided to support it, though it was a big risk for us,” relates Morris, explaining that the kibbutz now owns 20 percent in partnership with outside investors in what is a very profitable business.
Ketura also runs a successful accounting business, and cooperates with other kibbutzim in the area in additional pursuits such as the regional date-packing plant and Ardag, a large fish hatchery that was moved recently from the Red Sea coast off Eilat to the coast off Ashdod in the Mediterranean.
“When members came with an idea we went with it, even when it sounded a bit crazy,” laughs Morris. “Sometimes they worked, sometimes they failed. But we’ve run Ketura as a good place to live and remain relatively efficient and economically stable, a necessary condition to keep our way of life.”
That way of life in Ketura referred to by Morris is unique, even among the country’s small kibbutz population, for its religious pluralism. Originally from England, Morris and his wife, an anthropologist, moved to Ketura from Jerusalem in 1983, drawn by its pluralistic and tolerant approach to Judaism. “What attracted us was a kibbutz that aims to include both observant and totally secular Jews, that it is all inclusive.”
THERE ARE 17 kibbutzim that belong to the Religious Kibbutz Movement, plus Hannaton founded by the Conservative Movement in the lower Galilee, and Lotan, three kilometers north of Ketura in the Arava, of the Reform Movement. The latter two were founded in 1983.
Although Ketura is not considered a religious kibbutz, Shabbat and kashrut are observed in public places and during social events. The egalitarian synagogue services are “Conservadox” and led by the members themselves. (Although there’s no official affiliation to the Conservative Movement, the kibbutz hosts groups from Noam, the Masorti youth group, for their gap year.) For Ketura’s dedication to progressive religious policies, unique among kibbutzim, it was awarded the Speaker of the Knesset Prize for religious tolerance in 1987. The kibbutz used the $10,000 prize as seed money to set up what would become a successful educational tourism branch, Keren Kolot.
“We received the award as a pluralistic community,” explains Keren Kolot director Leah Kayman. “So we decided to set up an educational foundation to develop programs to express our beliefs in the importance of studying classical Jewish texts from an open perspective.
In the late 1980s, that wasn’t so common in Israel. Now there are other organizations that do this, but then it was unique. We’ve got a message that we want to give out, which has defined the kibbutz,” Kayman adds. “A communal way of life can be successful and is worth striving for, and the desert environment can be preserved, not just as a nature reserve.”
Participants in the educational seminars, which cover both religious and spiritual themes and desert ecology, stay in the well laid out, comfortable rooms in the Keren Kolot guesthouse.
In addition to being at the forefront of green technology and entrepreneurship and running the educational seminar center, Ketura is perhaps best known internationally as the home of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES), the leading environmental teaching and research program in the Middle East. When it comes to Jews and Arabs working together in the region, it certainly seems that the environmentalists have done far better than the politicians, having grasped the fact that, as the Institute’s slogan goes, “Nature knows no borders.”
AIES, the only institute of its kind in the world, was begun in 1996 by Ketura member Alon Tal, an environmental law professor (who would go on to found the Israel Union for Environmental Defense – Adam Teva ve- Din). The Institute, accredited by Ben-Gurion University, is an environmental academic and research program conducted in English.
The student body consists of about one third each of participants from North America and Europe; Israel (Arabs and Jews); and Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, who cooperatively study the region’s environmental challenges.
“It’s said that water is the scarcest resource in the Middle East, says Institute Director David Lehrer. “It’s not. The scarcest resource is trust. We don’t trust each other, and what we do here is create bonds of trust.”
Usually 30-40 students in each session get an interdisciplinary look at the environment, natural sciences, environmental law and ethics – tools they need to be leaders when they return to their home communities. The 800 Institute alumni in the Middle East work on cross-border research and education, and initiate humanitarian assistance projects.
Could such an institution have come into being anywhere else? “There’s no question that the support and concept of the Institute comes from a place that many of the members of Ketura identify with,” states Lehrer.
“It’s not a given that kibbutzniks would invite a bunch of Palestinians and Jordanians to come to their homes. In many ways, the Institute was modeled after our concept of bringing different types of Jews together – so let’s bring Jews and non-Jews together.”
“It’s not easy for people from the Arab world to come to Israel and study with Israelis,” says Tal, who lived in Ketura from 1990-2000. “Where Ketura gets credit is the stamina, the determination to keep it going.
While other environmental co-existence groups have pretty much gone, the Institute is still here and flourishing. Most of the other peace initiatives from the 1990s have not lasted. The leadership and the alumni have kept it going for 20 years now,” states Tal.
“The Institute has been a great thing for the kibbutz, and is very much a part of who we are,” says Morris. “It’s had ups and downs financially, but it’s been a great success.”
What’s the secret of Ketura’s success? “A successful kibbutz is not a question of whether it’s rich or poor, but of leadership, which has a lot to do with the ability of a kibbutz to maintain itself and to grow economically and socially, and initiate new ideas,” says Iri Kassel, a member of Kibbutz Hatzerim in the northern Negev who, in various roles, mentored and shepherded the gar’in, right from the beginning, even before they set up Ketura.
“It’s still a struggle in the Arava, but I believe that Ketura was fortunate in having very committed and strong believers in their way. The fact that they succeeded in having a rich spiritual life, creating Keren Kolot and the Arava Institute in such a remote location is unbelievable for such a small kibbutz,” he contends.