From Finland to Israel - Six Months in the Arava Valley So Far

Shmuel Willner


This is the blog of a young Zionist from Finland who is experiencing the life in the Arava Valley of Israel.  In the beginning of September 2011, I started out on my journey to Israel with an open mind, full of enthusiasm, vision and pioneering spirit.  I packed my bags, said goodbye to my family and friends, left my home, and finally reached the airport terminal in Helsinki to board my plane with a new destination, a new home.  As I sat in my airplane seat, I started thinking about what my motives were; what made me leave my home in the comfortable, safe and relatively easy environment; what actually made me choose to come to Israel the land of the Bible, the land of “milk and honey”.


The first weeks and months have passed, and it is already March 2012. The place where I am living feels very much like home.  I am literally living in the middle of the Arava Valley desert, in a small community called Ketura just 50 kilometres from the city of Eilat.  I didn’t come to Israel to establish a home in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.  Not that I didn’t love Jerusalem but because I wanted to experience the same dream that the founding fathers of Israel had, like David Ben-Gurion, who wanted to see the wilderness bloom, who saw the great potential of the land; that it actually was possible to live in the desert.  In fact, he wanted other people to live the same dream he had; to make people realize that the dry land was actually an opportunity in accomplishing one’s dreams – but he knew this wouldn’t be easy.


View of the Arava/Avi HirshfieldView of the Arava/Avi Hirshfield
View of the Arava/Avi Hirshfield

The sand storms, the hot and dry winds couldn’t stop me; I had determined to stay here.  If the first Zionists could do the same, so could I.  I started working at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies as a Teaching Assistant and Finance & Research Intern.  The Institute that is also known as “Machon Arava” is an environmental education and research program in the Middle East.


What makes the Arava Institute very special are the people it hosts, the students and staff who have the most colourful backgrounds, each and everyone having diverse experiences of life.  The students are from Islamic, Jewish and Christian backgrounds from the Middle East, the Americas and Europe, many of whom afterwards continue to work in the environmental field in non-profit or governmental organizations.  It offers a perfect opportunity to research and study the current issues in the fields of the environment, politics and diplomacy.  Most of all, it offers us an opportunity to gain perspective and understanding, while creating networks and friendships.


In addition, my role as a Board Member in Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund, (KKL-JNF Finland) has inspired me to study the environmental aspects of business while gaining an intimate understanding of what the concept of ecological Zionism actually means.  KKL-JNF has contributed a great deal to Israel by building the land.  During its 110 years of history, it has achieved numerous things, but its work is not finished, quite the contrary, it still has a lot to achieve.  Many environmental projects are being been implemented and scores of new ones are being planned.


Just like any other person, I also have expectations; I want to achieve and do things, I want to make a difference, I want to challenge myself.  In order to achieve goals, one needs to work hard, make decisions, set up milestones and prioritize tasks whenever needed.  It takes courage to stand behind the values one believes in, but first and foremost, one has to be stubborn and steadfast, not giving up when the first setbacks occur.   I have been here for six months; my work has just begun.