On the frontlines

She moved to Shokeda, some six kilometers from Gaza, to create an ecological paradise. Even with the fighting, Bat-Zion Benjaminson is not leaving.

As Kassam rockets and Grad missiles arc overhead toward their targets in Netivot and Sderot, 52-year-old Bat-Zion Benjaminson, a divorced religious mother of four, is planting the seeds of what she envisions as the country's first eco-village in Shokeda, some six kilometers from the fence separating Israel from the Gaza Strip. Used to the precariousness of life on the border with Gaza, the full-scale war now raging on Benjaminson's doorstep is yet just another challenge to be overcome in realizing her environmental vision. Eden's Herbs Farm, the name she has given to her remote homestead, sits on a small plot with a greenhouse and a banana plant. It is planted with peppermint, herbs and spices that scent the air. Chickens cluck and run unfettered; a passion-fruit vine winds its way up the outside wall and on to the roof of the rambling villa, keeping it cool in summer and eliminating the need for electricity-guzzling air conditioning. There are no screens on the windows because, according to Benjaminson, frogs attracted by the banana plant eat most of the mosquitoes, while the free-range chickens gobble up fly larvae before they hatch. With the help of volunteers from abroad, Benjaminson tends peppers in her greenhouse and raises medicinal plants and herbs. Strictly adhering to the ideals of permaculture - small-scale, self-sufficient agriculture that depends on locally available resources that are renewable and sustainable - she shuns the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, relying instead on pest-eating insects and compost from her own home. No water used at Eden's Herbs is left to go down the drain after just one use. Instead, it is collected to irrigate the garden. Conserving water, says Benjaminson, is the essence of environmentally conscious living. Her main cash crop, herbs native to the Judean Desert, are grown in a field behind the modest home, crushed and mixed with olive oil on her kitchen counter to produce face and body oils marketed under the label of Moses & Abraham, the names of two of her sons. As she peels potatoes in her spartan kitchen on the last night of Hanukka, Benjaminson describes how the fighting in Gaza is affecting life on the farm. "We hear and see a lot of helicopters and smoke. The windows rattle," she says. "We've learned to distinguish between the sound of Kassam rockets and IDF fire. This conflict has heightened our sense of Jewishness and has given us courage in the face of a fierce enemy." Since her house was built before the code required the construction of a protected room, when the siren wails portending the arrival of Kassam or mortar fire, she and her volunteers either have to dash the 50 meters to the closest communal shelter or take their chances by remaining close to home. Her sons, five and seven years old, have been staying in nearby Netivot during the Hanukka break, which has been extended in that region due to the fighting. Two older children are living in the US. "My kids say that they are not scared most of the time," says Benjaminson. "I am proud of them for their courage." She says for more than a year her son Avi has been studying in a windowless classroom with a reinforced roof and heavy metal door in nearby Kfar Maimon. "Being here doesn't make me feel like more of a target," she says. "We came from Gush Etzion. We're used to it." Shokeda, the floundering moshav Benjaminson chose to establish her eco-homestead, was founded as an agricultural settlement in the 1950s. It fell on hard times long ago; many of its houses were abandoned by their owners long before the current round of hostilities. "We're not a very interesting target," Benjaminson says tongue-in-cheek, remarking that rockets are aimed at neighboring Netivot or Sderot "where there are more people to shoot at." "When we do have Color Red alarms here, the kids are well trained on what to do," she says. "We listen to all instructions issued by the Home Front Command." Equally unfazed by the prospect of danger are American volunteers Jeremy Krones and Sarah Stein who are lending Benjaminson a hand. "My parents were working on a farm near Zichron Ya'acov in the 1980s during the First Lebanon War," says 18-year-old Krones. "My grandfather even flew over from the States to convince them to leave. They refused. Benjaminson asked me to call my parents to let them know exactly where I was in case they wanted me to leave, but in the meantime, I am here." "The intensity of the experience is helpful to me in figuring out my opinions about Israel," says 26-year-old Stein who is on her first visit to the country and volunteering on the farm on the heels of a Taglit-birthright israel trip. "People seem to be at ease even with the sound of rockets." A NATIVE of Cleveland, Benjaminson was a Japanese translator and rebbetzin in the US. Working with senior citizens in Far Rockaway, New York "woke me up to the crying need for healthy living, which is rooted in healthy soil," she says. Before making aliya with her family in 2002, she took an ecological economics course taught by permaculture guru, civil rights lawyer and Global Ecovillage Network founder Albert Bates. As an observant Jew, Benjaminson says that her mission to "live a more integrated life with the natural world and her devotion to promote healthy, Jewish living" is motivated by the Torah and the "mitzva to guard health and nature." "The Torah is my basis for environmental living," she says. Other families who share her vision have joined her in Shokeda to hopefully one day transform the moshav into an eco-village. There are four families involved in this project and all are immigrants from the US. One arrived two months ago straight from the airport. Most of the other families on the moshav are not necessarily involved, although they agreed to the new residents establishing themselves there. The difference between them and other eco-villages in the Negev is that this community is being established in an existing moshav that has had economic difficulties for some time. The other eco-villages were started from scratch and required the building of new infrastructure. Shabbat eve on the farm highlights some of the more noticeable differences between the family's eco-minded way of life and a more conventional lifestyle. Instead of preparing foods like halla and cholent the traditional way, then putting everything on a hot plate, Benjaminson bakes, cooks and keeps the food warm in an aluminum foil-lined wheelbarrow covered with an old window just behind the house. When she and her sons return from synagogue for lunch, their meal is piping hot thanks to the sun. There is no electric urn for hot water; instead, they put a pot in the wheelbarrow and within minutes, the sun, concentrated by the foil and trapped by the windowpane, sufficiently heats the water for tea or coffee. Carrot peels, eggshells and other organic waste from the kitchen are thrown out of the window onto a compost heap instead of being piled into plastic bags and carted off to a landfill. Also attesting to inhabitants' doctrine of sustainable living are an outdoor shower open to the sky, a waterless toilet you pour sawdust into rather than flush and a chlorine-free swimming pool for the kids whose water is of course reused in the garden. At Eden's Herbs Farm, there is no TV or Internet. Referring back to the battle being waged around her isle of tranquility, Benjaminson laments that while "unfortunate, it is necessary and will hopefully bring a period of calm." She sees no peculiarity in her choice of location for turning her eco-dream into reality. "This is an ecological war zone," says Benjaminson. "We are on the edge of the desert here and our goal is to make it recede. This is a very logical place. That is why I am here. Because it is less expensive, I can achieve sustainability quicker. We are on the cutting edge of ecological living." Asked if she can foresee the day when she could share some of these practices with her Gaza neighbors, Benjaminson replies, "The Arabs complain that we Jews use up too many natural resources, and sometimes they are right. This is one message from them that we can listen to and learn to treat our land as it ought to be treated."