The green oasis

The members seem infused with a unique energy, when talking about the plethora of trendsetting ecological and environmental programs Lotan has pioneered.

Alex Cicelsky 88 224 (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Alex Cicelsky 88 224
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
If you had to choose just one word to describe Kibbutz Lotan, vibrant would do it. Not only is the 50-member kibbutz a lush, verdant spot of green in the heart of the arid Arava, but the members seem infused with a unique energy, especially when talking about the plethora of trendsetting ecological and environmental programs Lotan has pioneered. As one of the last kibbutzim to be authorized, the age range in Lotan runs from newborn to 73, but everywhere you go, a youthful feeling of life, ideas and enthusiasm seems to flow. Lotan enjoys being unique. "We're still a kibbutz-kibbutz," says Alex Cicelsky, one of the 20 young North Americans who founded Lotan 25 years ago. "We're a totally socialist, communal organization. Israel still has about 260 kibbutzim, but only a few still functional according to the original plan. "Here, all income goes to the kibbutz, and then our members decide how to spend it - with due consideration of our 60 kids and the five or six families who rent. Education is our spending priority, then health, then water, electricity and everything else. Individual members receive monthly allocations to pay for things like entertainment, travel, clothing or whatever else the kibbutz doesn't pay for. We like it this way. It works for us." Everyone seems to share a commitment to the creative ecology that's become Lotan's hallmark. Its famous Center for Creative Ecology, with its recycled water-wetlands, the bird reserve, straw-bale building construction technology and a host of other recycling projects have attracted favorable attention the world over. Even the UN recognized Lotan's Ecovillage Design Education curriculum, a part of its Green Apprenticeship Program that attracts students for 10-week stints, housing them in straw-bale geodesic domes. Kibbutz Lotan began as a project of the Youth Division of the Reform movement. "In 1979, the Reform movement decided to form another kibbutz to follow Yahel, which had been established five years before," Cicelsky recalls. "It took a long time to find the right location. We were offered several spots in the Golan or Gaza, but we wanted to live in an area that wasn't subject to territorial dispute. Ecology is the study of the relationship between creatures and their environment, so for us, choosing the right site was critical. We finally picked this place in the Arava, about 50 kilometers north of Eilat. We're on the frontier - the frontier of both the country and of Judaism." The first members arrived in 1982. "Most of us had been active in the Reform movement for years," Cicelsky says, "either in long-term programs in Israel or with years of summer camp. Most of us came from academic backgrounds, which was a disadvantage. We knew next to nothing about literally building a community, constructing houses and finding a way to earn a living from the land. When I came with the first group, nothing existed on the Lotan site at all, so we went first to Kibbutz Yotvata. We worked for Yotvata, ate in its dining hall, and worked in its date factory. But we lived as a community in separate little houses with our own Shabbat celebrations." About a year later, they moved to the Lotan site. "All that existed here was twenty tiny, bare cottages. Not a single thing was growing, and it was extremely hot. There wasn't a speck of shade, anywhere. Twice a week a truck would come with groceries, and we hauled water from Ketura. We had one phone and a generator for electricity. It was a real challenge." Inda Martinez - who shortly became Inda Cicelsky - arrived in 1983. "I was with the third group. We came directly to Lotan, but for three years, we lived two to a single room, plus a tiny kitchenette. Alex and I worked together designing the whole area. For five years, I worked in gardening and landscaping. As a new kibbutz, we could get whatever vegetation we needed free from the Jewish National Fund, so we started hauling in carloads of plants - bushes, trees, flowers, whatever we could use. "My friend Sherry and I would drive one of the vans to Beersheba, stuff it absolutely full with as many plants as we could squeeze in, then drive back. Usually we were so overloaded, we had to creep along at about 60 km. an hour. Any faster, and we'd swerve all over the road. Little by little, Lotan began turning green. We learned as we went along. At first, we planted grass in rows, but then we realized that if we just threw it out, stamped on it a little and then watered it, it would grow. That's one thing about the desert: Just add water, and everything grows." To eke out a living, the founders tried several things. "We had tomatoes, dates and a lot of melons," she recalls. "We tried onions, cucumbers and corn. No chickens - the only chickens we had were pets, who hung out with the goats. We tried growing a waxy-flowered bush for export; that didn't work. We tried raising cockatiels for export, but that wasn't great. Then, five years later, the cows came." KIBBUTZ LOTAN'S cows - and its now thriving dairy operation - are the stuff of legend. It began with Alex Cicelsky's personal dream. "Every day, I'd say, 'Let's build a dairy!' but we didn't have any cash. Finally we came up with a crazy idea: How about an 'Adopt a Cow' program? We raised money overseas by inviting everyone - individuals, synagogues, bar/bat mitzva kids - to become adoptive parents of a Lotan cow. For a $750 donation, we gave them an adoption certificate and a photo of their 'girl,' plus a standing invitation to come visit her. We even offered 'Mootual Shares' so people could invest as little as $2. It worked - we got our dairy. I was the first manager." Today, in addition to the dairy operation, Lotan earns its living from tourism, dates and other crops and from off-kibbutz salaries of members. "We have 250 cows - we'd like more, but we don't have enough space," Alex says, referring to a pervasive problem. "We have a share in a date plantation, and had an interest in an Eilat fishery, but that's closed now, moving to dry land. Our tourism business is growing nicely because of our birding, hiking and ecological education center. "Several of us work off-site, so our salaries go to the kibbutz. I spend half-time as an educator for the Center for Creative Ecology. Inda is an art teacher at a regional school. About half our members are sabras, and the other half come from all over the world. We've got travel agents, tour guides, teachers and social workers. We all commute. The kibbutz owns only four cars, so we either travel together or take an Egged bus into Eilat." One of Lotan's big businesses is birding. "Some 500 million to 1 billion birds fly over the Arava," he says. "Some mornings, there are clouds of birds, eagles and storks. Birders of all kinds come here, both researchers and people who just enjoy watching. We're developing an international bird park, creating a bird path - a green highway - to attract all the birds that fly over this part of the world. The intifada hurt our birding business - the birds kept coming, but the people stopped. In Lotan, we pray for peace." Jordan lies on Lotan's eastern border, with just a wire fence between them. "It's okay. They want peace as much as we do," Alex says. Even so, on August 8, 1989, there were a few tense hours. A Jordanian soldier went berserk, crossed the border and opened fire on a group of Lotan volunteers. "He shot one volunteer and took another hostage for several hours. Finally a sharpshooter shot the Jordanian. It turned out all right - when our volunteer was shot, a Lotan member ran out to help her. They ended up falling in love and getting married. For the most part, the problem now is smugglers, who try to use the open space to run drugs." IN 1986, LOTAN made the critical decision to go green. "I was a big recycler from the beginning," Alex says. "The kibbutz itself didn't start until later. Our first effort was to separate out organic waste for composting - and we immediately got into trouble. The regional authority came to empty our garbage cans, and they were empty. 'We're not coming in!' they warned us. They learned to love us - we reduced our waste by 70 percent. After that, we started getting more creative, recycling all kinds of things." Water is among the things they recycle, not just once, but over and over. "For drinking water, recycled filters from the Eilat desalination plant are used in a reverse osmosis desalination plant that Mekorot - the national water company - maintains. Every house has two faucets: one for RO drinking water; the other for salty water, pumped from the aquifer. Everything that grows is watered with salty or recycled water. When water is short, you have to be creative." In terms of building materials, creative doesn't begin to describe it. Here, buildings, benches and artistic flourishes of all kinds are constructed from recycled waste. Old tires packed tight with non-degradable plastic containers form the base, which is then covered with rock-hard "cement," local mud mixed with straw. It dries, and then several coats of Lotan's secret ingredient - used falafel oil - are painted on as a sealer. The result is incredibly beautiful. If it weren't for an occasional "truth window" - exposed parts showing the inside - it would be hard to believe what's underneath. "The idea to use old tires came from a visitor," Alex says, "the mother of one of our members." Today, that visitor - Pauline Kaplan, together with her husband John - is Lotan's newest resident. "We made aliya on January 28 from Essex, England. Our son came to Lotan in 1985 - since then, we'd planned to join him," Pauline says. "We visited several times a year to see our grandsons, but still, living here is wonderful, better than being on holiday. We're not settled yet, our lift still hasn't arrived. But it's fun to be the first Lotan grandparents." Kaplan's idea for using old tires came out of her own experience, she says. "In the 1970s, we had a truck farm in England. Even then, there were fears about the oil giving out, so we wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible. We experimented with a lot of things, and recycled everything." Today, the delightful tire-and-mud structures are all over the kibbutz. Not just buildings and benches, but fun things, too, like the Noah's Ark playground with huge imaginative climb-on-me critters, including ladybugs, salamanders and dragons. The techniques are taught at regular "Magic of Mud" weekends. Easily the most elegant of the innovative construction method is the new Water Shiatsu Center, a project that came about because of a new member. "I was in ninth grade when I came to Lotan for the first time,' Hiddai Shaked, a Haifa native, says. "During my army service, I was stationed near here, so I came whenever I could. It felt like home. I joined in 1999 because I wanted to be part of a real community, one that was celebrating the Jewish tradition. I was serious about organic gardening, too, and Lotan was one of the few places in Israel that recycled everything. I knew I could live in Tel Aviv and try to be green, but here, everyone was doing it." Shaked's dream was to build a pool. "I told them I'd need a pool if I was going to live here. In fact, I told them I'd bring it myself. The result is the Water Shiatsu Center - which also turned out to be the beginning of my own career. We finished this one, now my students and I build similar places in other communities." The Water Shiatsu Center is a restful, light-filled building with a lovely pool, surrounded by graceful curving walls, private dressing rooms, compost toilets and a colorful seating area filled with overstuffed cushions. "You can feel the energy of the place," Shaked says. "Before we started, we experimented, checking to see where the wind blew, where the sun hit, where the shade fell. Now, it's calm and serene." Shaked, a member along with his wife and two daughters, emphasizes the communal aspect of the project. "More than 50 people worked on it, both the pool and the building itself. That's important to me. The point was not so much just to build, but to involve everyone. At Lotan, the process is part of the project." TRADITION HAS it that kibbutzim are not ideal for singles, but Sivan Sofer, a single young lawyer originally from Tel Aviv, says Lotan is different in that respect, too. "When I first decided to come here in 2003, my friends in Tel Aviv said, 'Are you crazy?' But there wasn't much of an adjustment. I miss my friends, of course. I liked the city, the movies and the streets. But during the five years I worked in Tel Aviv, I didn't enjoy those things then either, because I was always stuck in the office. Now when I go to visit, I enjoy it." Sofer isn't Lotan's primary lawyer. "I've helped with a few things, but it would be difficult, if there were disputes among members. Instead I do some legal work in Eilat. Here, I'm involved in all kinds of projects." Being single in Lotan is great, he says. "One of the best things about Lotan is that you get the chance to meet so many people from all over the world. Students and tourists come here all the time," he says, grinning. "I get to meet them all." With all this - the creative focus on ecology, recycling, tourism, bird parks - the future of Lotan would seem secure. That's not necessarily true, says Alex Cicelsky. Several years ago, the kibbutz weathered a financial crunch, and now has paid off all its loans. "We're not poor, but remember we don't own the buildings or the land. The government built all the houses, and we rent them on long-term loans. Lotan's assets are our people, four cars and a little cash. But that's not our big challenge. The real crisis lies ahead, if we aren't allowed to grow." The shortage of housing threatens Lotan from several directions. "If we can't build more houses, then Lotan will be a one-generation kibbutz. We have 150 people living in 60 houses," Cicelsky notes. "For the past 10 years, we've had lists of people who want to start our three-year absorption process, but we can't welcome them. Why? We're at 100% capacity - we don't have any room for anyone else to live. Our first kibbutz kid just finished the army, and wants to come back. Where do we put her? If we give her one of the rental units, we lose income. "To keep Lotan going, we need to reach critical mass in terms of members. Right now, we have 50, but we need 100, or better yet, 125. With only 50, we're all doing two jobs, and we're all burning out. It can't go on forever. It's frustrating, because potential new members are banging on the door, wanting to come. It's a serious problem." Housing tourists - which would result in income - is another issue. "We're doing some amazing things here. Groups from all over come to visit - they partake in our day activities, but then we lose money because they spend the night at Ketura or Yahel. We have nowhere to house them. We desperately need 20 houses for tourists. Maybe even a dormitory." Cicelsky echoes the complaint heard everywhere in the South. "This is a great place to live - the quality of the regional school where our kids go is the world's best kept secret. So why isn't this region being developed? Why is the government creating new villages up north? Here, in the South, we have flourishing communities that will die if they aren't allowed to grow! Give us 50 more houses today, they'd be filled instantly." Politics aside, the cost of construction is one factor. "It's expensive to build in the desert, no question about that. Our house is typical - Inda and I and our four children live in 80 square meters. Today, building in the Arava costs $1,200 a square meter. Everything has to be trucked in - even bringing in labor takes two hours a day. But what's the alternative? To survive, we need to grow, but government shekels don't flow south. "It's expensive to be a pioneer," Cicelsky acknowledges, sighing. "But when I first came here, I learned a very valuable lesson. We were starting to plant trees on Lotan, and a guy from Ketura was advising us. 'Dig very deep holes,' he told us. So I looked at the tree I wanted to plant. It was pretty small, so I thought a half-meter hole would be fine. Maybe even a meter. 'No', he said. 'It has to be two meters, at least. The earth here is sand, clay and rock. For anything to survive, its roots have to sink in deep. You need a really big hole.' "So that's the thing. If you want to survive in the desert, you have to sink your roots in deep. At Lotan, we did that with the trees - look at all this greenery, in the heart of the desert. In the process, we've sunk our own roots in deep here, too. We're part of this land now. We're here to stay."