Kibbutz Ketura – Pioneering Israeli History

Kibbutz Ketura is a unique community in the middle of the Arava Valley in Israel.  It is a lively settlement with a colorful history; a history of pioneering and Zionism; a piece of the land of Israel.  In this blog I want to open up a little bit about the story of the establishment of a Jewish home in the middle of desert.
Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava ValleyKibbutz Ketura in the Arava Valley
Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Valley. Photo: Akos Simon
Judy Bar-Lev works as Office Manager for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, and is one of the founding members of Kibbutz Ketura.  She has a unique story to tell about the first steps that led to the establishment of the kibbutz - from a small establishment to a successful pluralistic community.  Part of its roots is inspired by the first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, helped by the Jewish organizations such as Keren Kayemeth Le''Israel (KKL-JNF), who worked to make the desert bloom.
Kibbutz Ketura was founded by young people from the United States, who all were members of the Young Judaea youth movement.  The movement offered many programs, one of which was a year in Israel for high school graduates.
"I participated in the year-long program in 1969-1970, which if you put it in a historical background, was a year and a half after the Six Day War.  Israel one year and half after the Six Day War was a phenomenally marvelous place.  Everything was still victorious, naïve and not understanding of the ramifications of the victory.  Economically Israel was booming.  It was a great place to be eighteen, away from parents and from home", Judy Bar-Lev began.
In the Sixties the world was different.  "There was no computers, no email, in Israel there barely were phones in street corners.  We were cut off from many previous influences," emphasizes Bar-Lev.
The people who decided to establish the Kibbutz Ketura were influenced by the Jewish and Zionist ideology, and the founders of the State of Israel, one of which was the first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion.  "When they gave us a tour down south of Israel toward the end of our year,  they took us to meet David Ben-Gurion in Sde Boker. He was already an old man.  When we got to Ben-Gurion''s home someone helped him out of his house onto a chair and we all sat in a half circle around him.  He spoke to us about making the dessert bloom," Judy Bar-Lev remembers.
According to Bar-Lev, an idea to establish a kibbutz came up after discussions with their counselors.  During those months in Israel, people who were interested in this idea stayed together in a kibbutz to learn what it was all about.  "Before the year ended, we approached the kibbutz movement with our idea.  We were given criteria, a to-do-list, and we decided to complete the check-list."
The Government of Israel wanted to civilianize five settlements between 1970 and 1973.  The five places were two in the Golan (Kfar Haruv, and Afik), two in the Dead Sea region, and Ketura in the Arava Valley.  "In the background of our minds was that the youth movement we had belonged to in the United States was very non-political. Therefore, at that point, to go either to Golan or to Mizpe Shalem was not the preferred option.  The idea of coming to the Arava became more and more the preferred option as time went on.  So we chose and asked for Ketura."
In the meantime, in 1970, the government opened an army outpost at Ketura and soldiers were doing guard duty on the border with Jordan.  Ketura was only the fourth settlement in the Southern Arava at that time. The northern Arava, on the other hand, was developing faster.  Down in the southern Arava the region was developing slowly.  Kibbutz Yotvata was the first settlement, Kibbutz Eilot the second and the third was Kibbutz Grofit.
"We made aliyah in October of 1971.  We went to the army and Ketura was approved to be ours."
"We were assigned a mother kibbutz, which was Kibbutz Dorot where we recieved the basics of how to become ‘kibbutzniks’.  We were sent to learn different tasks, whether it was agriculture, kitchen work, or machinery.  We stayed there a little over a year from May 1972 until fall 1973."
The original date to establish Kibbutz Ketura was set to be on October 12, 1973, which would have been in the middle of Succoth holiday.  However the Yom Kippur War broke out on October 6, and therefore the establishment of the kibbutz had to be postponed.  "At that time we did not know what was going to happen," says Judy Bar-Lev.
"In the meantime, we had a number of advisers who worked hard to get us to Ketura as fast as possible. They convinced the army to close the outpost at Ketura, and hand it over to the kibbutz. Eventually the army agreed to give us the settlement."
"Kibbutz Ketura was finally established on November 22, 1973, which was Thanksgiving Day in the United States.  What we did not realize at the time was the fact that the Kibbutz was established just five days after we had read the Torah portion in synagogue where Ketura is mentioned.  In the Torah, there is a line where it says “These are the sons of Ketura” [Genesis 25]. It was fate.  Even I, as a traditional person, did not catch up to that for years.  Had there not been a war and had we come to Ketura on Succoth, we would not have had that significant Jewish and biblical connection," says Judy Bar-Lev.
Now almost forty years have passed since the establishment of Kibbutz Ketura.  According to Bar-Lev, Ketura has three interesting social aspects which make it unique: First, is the mix of different cultures.  The original founders were American, which were more recently joined by members from Russia, South America, France, Great Britain, and of course Israel.  "Thus today you have an ingathering of Exiles in a miniature kind of form.  We have a high percentage of immigrants living on the kibbutz."
The second is the determination to create a Jewish community.  "Because of the members'' diverse backgrounds, it encouraged us to create our own Jewish lifestyle.  One of the things that helped us was the fact that we were so far away from the center of Israel."
Finally, the community is unique due to its wide variety of social activity: "We our own holiday celebrations, music week, receptions; our own way of doing things.  We can only do that because we have amazingly talented people living here.  The fact that we have these three things make the kibbutz unique," concludes Judy Bar-Lev.