Veterans: Alex and Inda Cicelsky

Alex and Inda helped found Kibbutz Lotan, which was recently recognized by the United Nations for the excellence of its educational Center for Creative Ecology.

Cicelsky (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
How's this for musical synchronicity? Alex Cicelsky and Inda Martinez grew up in different parts of the US, but as children, both were attracted to a particular record album - the songs of the Arava. They didn't meet until the early 1980s, when each became interested in aliya. But both went on to help found Kibbutz Lotan in the heart of the Arava. "My mother loved Israeli music," Inda Cicelsky recalls. "She'd dance around the kitchen while she was cooking. There was one album she especially loved, the songs of the Arava. I grew up in Chicago - I didn't even know what the Arava was. But I loved the music." "Music was what brought me to Israel," says Alex Cicelsky, who grew up in Rochester, New York. "The Israeli music my parents played was infused with Jewish spirit. One record I especially loved was a long-playing album of songs of the Arava. When I visited Israel and heard that same music, Israel seemed like home to me." Alex made aliya in 1982 and Inda in 1983. Their marriage in 1984 was Kibbutz Lotan's third wedding. Lotan - now an ecological showplace - just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Located 51 kilometers north of Eilat, Lotan has a waiting list of people who want to join, and even received favorable recognition from the United Nations for the excellence of its educational Center for Creative Ecology. PREPARATION "My parents came from Cali, Colombia," Inda says. "The family had left Romania before World War I. Eventually my parents moved to the US, first settling in Chicago, where my uncle lived, then on to Florida, then Atlanta. I made aliya from Cincinnati, Ohio, where I attended university. My first visit to Israel was with the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad, a year-long program, and I realized I loved it here. When I went back to school, my friends said I was driving them crazy - all I could talk about was Israel. While I intended to return, I wasn't committed to aliya at that point. At that time, the Reform movement didn't place much emphasis on aliya." Alex's father grew up in Uruguay, having fled a Lithuanian shtetl, and came to Buffalo when he was 14. His mother grew up in Rochester. "I was in the Youth Leaders from Abroad program, too, but a year after Inda," Alex says, "I spent the year here, went back, and enrolled in Cornell to study international agriculture so I could be useful here. But I wasn't getting much out of university. I was looking for a kibbutz, but I wanted one that was creatively Jewish, with a focus on social action and social responsibility." THE JOURNEY Since 1979, the Reform movement had plans for a new kibbutz. Both Alex and Inda had expressed interest, attending conventions and meetings. Alex was the first to commit. "It was 1982 and I wanted out of school. I just couldn't stand it anymore. I'd gone to a movement ceremony to celebrate the start of Lotan - they were just beginning construction - and so I thought I'd try it. I came with really low expectations - and they were all met. "The eight of us in my group had all planned to fly together, but when I arrived at the airport, there was a problem. The airline clerk said I'd canceled my ticket. 'What?' I said. 'I never canceled my ticket!' 'Yes, you did', he insisted. It was a mess - someone with a similar name had canceled. 'It's not a problem', the clerk said. 'You'll fly tomorrow.' But the next day, Ben-Gurion Airport was on strike, so I actually arrived two days late." Inda came a year later, in 1983. "My father wanted me to finish my degree first, so I sort of did. I put in four years, but actually finished my degree here. There were three in my group, but we all flew at different times." ARRIVAL "We had the ride through hell from the airport," Alex says. "The driver took us on this crazy route through Mitzpe Ramon. It took so long we had to stop at his house to eat. We finally arrived in the middle of the night." Inda's landing was a little softer, because Alex slipped by security to meet her at the airport gate. "On my free ride to the kibbutz, we went through Mitzpe Ramon, too. It was a terrible, we were afraid we were going to die. The road was curvy, and we were hanging on to the sides of the car." SETTLING IN Lotan wasn't ready when Alex arrived, so his group first lived in Kibbutz Yotvata. "We had tiny houses on the edge of Yotvata, our own little cow town. We worked in their date packing factory, packing dates. All eight of us lived in one house, two sleeping in every space." By the time Inda arrived in 1983, Lotan had houses. "They were very small and hot. There was no air conditioning, no shade, not even a single tree. A truck would show up once or twice a week with groceries, and we brought water from Kibbutz Ketura. For years, we had only one phone. You'd get a phone call, and the question was always, 'Who died?'" Alex and Inda's wedding in 1984 was a big celebration. "Friends brought us horses from Ketura," Alex says. "Four of my high-school friends - not Jewish - surprised us by coming for the wedding." DAILY LIFE "In Cornell," Alex says, "I stayed sane by taking a welding class taught by an old-time Iowa farmer, a guy who really knew his stuff. So I started out welding. But our thing was tomatoes and dates, tomatoes and dates, all day long. In a normal day you'd spend about 12 hours picking and sorting." As luck would have it, they hit a bumper crop of tomatoes in the first year. "People were telling us, 'Don't do that,' but we planted tomatoes anyway, clearly not knowing what we were doing. But that first year, we made NIS 40,000 on tomatoes on a little piece of land. For whatever reason, there were almost no other tomatoes anywhere else in the country, so we were lucky. We still joke about how well that worked," Inda recalls. LANGUAGE From all her years in Jewish summer camps, Inda was fluent in Hebrew when she arrived. Alex went cold turkey. "Some say I haven't really made aliya yet - I didn't do ulpan, and I don't read Bialik. But Hebrew was the language of Lotan from the beginning. There are so many nationalities here, so many languages, Hebrew was the one we had in common." REWARDS "When we started, there was nothing here at all. From the beginning, I worked in landscaping, and little by little, it turned green," Inda says. "Seeing the whole kibbutz blossom and grow was satisfying, both in terms of growing things and in all the wonderful people who've become our family. But if there's one thing we're most proud of, it's the children. Both Alex and I worked to create an Israeli summer camp, the same kind of camp we'd both benefited from when we were kids. We started it in 1990 with just 70 kids in Lotan and Kibbutz Yahel, and just a few years later, over 400 kids were participating. Now you can see the growth, all over the whole country." THE REST OF THE STORY Alex finished his undergraduate degree at Hebrew University and now studies part-time at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, while also running the educational programs for Lotan's Center for Creative Ecology. He is Israel's primary authority in straw bale construction, having developed the technique that received official government approval in 2005. Inda is the director of the arts program at Ma'aleh Shaharut School at Kibbutz Yotvata. As one of the kibbutz members said, "She's one of those committed teachers who really changes kids' lives. When her students graduate, they're working on a university level." There are four Cicelsky children: Shachar, 18, doing a year of leadership training before army. Adam, 16, is in 10th grade, doing his matriculation in psychology and art. Eden, 10, is in fourth grade. Eran, eight, is in second grade. To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one paragraph e-mail to: [email protected]