These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Week 20: The Arava Tiyyul

Posted on January 21, 2012 by Derek Kwait

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(X-posted from my home blog, Yinzer in Yerushalayim)

Tuesday through Thursday those of us who didn’t go on the annual Poland trip went on a tiyyul to the Arava. The Arava is a huge rift valley south of the Dead Sea split between Israel and Jordan. Similar to the Negev tiyyul, our primary activities on this tiyyul were hiking, learning about our surroundings, and eating cookies. This time, however, we stayed at Kibbutz Ketura, built on the site of a former military compound almost right along the Jordanian border. Another difference was the people—not only was half the school in Poland, but we were joined by many of the new students for this semester.

It turns out there are few better ways of getting to know new people than by hiking with them. Seeing the new people choose the hard or easy hike, how they conducted themselves on the bus and in the dining hall, what they wore and the kinds of conversations they made during the hike, what kind of cookies they prefer, and how they are as roommates all made much better ways of judging getting to know them than any superficial ice-breaker game ever could have. Of course we played one of those, too—where we all sat in a circle, dug deep within ourselves, and put our ability to properly throw a football on display before the entire group, some of whom we barely knew. Many tears were shed; a few noses were almost broken, but by the end of this intimate exercise, we emerged as a team, closer than ever before. The new kids are awesome.

We began the tiyyul on the limestone sand dunes, a unique geological feature of the Negev. These sand dunes contain some of the finest sand in the world—you can run, roll and jump through it like snow. And we did. Even now, three days later, I’m still brushing it out of my hair, ears, phone, and wallet, but it was worth it.

Following this, those of us on the hard hike trekked five hours from there to the kibbutz, stopping only once every hour or so to eat cookies, while, from what I hear those on the easy hike saw a rather disappointing Leopard Temple.

Wednesday I did the hard 5-hour hike up Har Amir, which contained only a roughly once every 45 minutes cookie-break plus a hybrid lunch/cookie break at the summit.

After the hike, both groups met-up to go to Eilat, about a half-hour drive away. I had never been to Eilat before, and I found that it lived up to the hype of combining the class of the Atlantic City boardwalk with the ambiance of Breezewood.

I shouldn’t complain, there’s some parts of Eilat I really loved: there’s no VAT in the entire city, and at the Gap in the mall, I got a great new pair of jeans and a belt for WAY less than I could have at any store in Jerusalem. It was so cheap in fact that I think the next time I need clothes, if not for the large amount of time it takes to get there, it would be more cost-effective to buy a bus ticket to Eilat and do all my shopping there. Actually, even with the travel time, I would much prefer this to going to the Shuk on a Friday,

Thursday, I did the hard hike up Har Timna, then the even harder hike back down. Unlike the previous two hikes, this one was only four hours long, including at least two cookie-breaks and a food-break on top of the mountain.

We then saw “Solomon’s Pillars” in the Timna Valley.


Wednesday night we had a presentation about the Kibbutz then Thursday after lunch we got a tour of it. Ketura is an amazing, inspiring place, and its location is the least of reasons why. It was founded by American Young-Judea alumni in the 1970s and has since grown into one of the largest and most successful kibbutzim in Israel and features members from all over the world. Far from just date and dairy farming, they’ve also built a state-of-the-art algae farm, Israel’s first solar field, the lovely resort hotel in which we stayed, hiking tours with a very knowledgeable and friendly staff that guided us through our hikes, and the renowned Arava Institute for Environmental Studies—a school where Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, other Arab, and even some North American and European students learn everything from public-policy to water management to peace-building skills. Impressive as all this is, though, I think the biggest reason Pardes comes here every year is for its unique model of Jewish religious pluralism among kibbutzim. The kitchen is kosher, Shabbat and holidays are officially observed, and there is a synagogue where Shabbat services, B’nai Mitzvot, and circumcisions are held. Yet inside people’s homes there is religious autonomy; in private, some people are Orthodox, most are what we would call Conservative, and some are secular.

Ketura made me realize that before this week, I had no real idea what a kibbutz actually was. Prior to this, I always pictured a kibbutz as basically a farm full of ben Gurion-era socialists, but now I know that’s not entirely true. Yes, 100% of all members’ salaries go into the kibbutz and almost all meals are eaten together in the main dining hall, but children live with their families and you can eat at home any time you want to. Members are encouraged to develop their own projects suited to their needs and talents. I think our presenter Wednesday night was right when she said the kibbutz model is actually democracy in its purest form since all decisions on the kibbutz are made by committees of members, meaning all decisions made effect the decision makers equally as much as everybody else. As our tour guide said, nobody’s about to set-up a tent outside the kibbutz conference room. Very much like the Jerusalem bi-(really tri-)lingual school and the State of Israel as a whole, I am tremendously happy such a place exists, even if I can’t see myself living there.

Currently, the most famous resident of Ketura might be Methuselah, a 5-year old date palm. This plant is guarded as least as heavily as the Mona Lisa at the Kibbutz, and for good reason: It is the world’s oldest 5-year-old, growing from a 2,000-year-old seed of the now-extinct Judean palm variety found atop Masada. Other seeds were found, but this was the only one that still worked. Unfortunately, Methuselah is a male tree, so it will not be able to produce fruit without a female seed. Since I majored in fiction writing and not botany, I have no idea what that means other than what our tour guide said, “We have to find Methuselah a girlfriend.” I smell a reality show…

A 2,000-year-old date seed from Masada growing in the desert soil of a kibbutz in modern Israel. I bet you could make a lot of metaphors out of that.


Quote of the Week: “Earth’s crammed with heaven/And every common bush afire with God: But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,”- Elizabeth Barrett Browning as quoted by our dean, Dr. Bernstein


Hebrew Word of the Week: עוגיות (“oogioht”) – cookies


(Top two photos stolen from Austin Clar and Yishai Paquin, respectively. Bottom one stolen from Andrea Wiese.)