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How One Jewish Mother Inspired a Global Eco-Revolution

How One Jewish Mother Inspired a Global Eco-Revolution

When I first visited Lotan, a Reform kibbutz in the Negev Desert, and witnessed the community’s artful integration of ancient and modern building methods, I asked founding member Alex Cicelsky how Lotan had become an internationally recognized center for ecological experimentation and training.  

It all started 20 years ago, he said, when one kibbutz member’s mother came to visit him from a town north of London, where she grew organic vegetables in her small backyard. Dismayed by the sight of food scraps discarded into trash bins in the kibbutz communal kitchen, she complained: How can an intentional community built on Jewish values not be composting?

Lotan’s members took the complaint to heart and decided to recycle all of their waste.

As there were no municipal recycling programs anywhere in Israel at that time, the    kibbutzniks experimented with mixing soaked waste paper with clay and sand to make papier-mâché mud. Tires filled with bottles, cans, and other waste plastered with the mud became playgrounds, warehouses, and bird-watching hides. They also smoothed the mixture over straw bales to construct dome-shaped buildings, each powered by a solar panel.

As word spread of Lotan’s combining the world’s oldest building materials, recycled trash, and emerging technologies, people started coming to Lotan to learn about its practical, eco-friendly building methods.  

In response, Kibbutz Lotan established the Center for Creative Ecology, offering various educational programs and workshops predicated on the community’s commitment to Progressive Judaism and Permaculture design – a concept developed in the 1970s that emphasizes care of the earth, care of people, and the equitable consumption of the planet’s limited resources.

Cicelsky explains, “At Lotan, we live at the intersection of Jewish ethics and Permaculture.”

When Loui Dobin, director of URJ Greene Family Camp (a Reform Jewish summer camp in Bruceville, TX) became interested in expanding Israeli and environmental programming, he visited the kibbutz – and left with the idea of building an eco-village at the camp modeled on Lotan’s. In preparation, camp alumna Jessie Swann visited Lotan to take its intensive Green Apprenticeship program, which focuses on sustainable agriculture, natural building, renewable energy, alternative technologies, ecological design, community building, and Permaculture design.

Jessie returned to Texas with a Lotan expert to lay the groundwork for the Greene Family Camp Eco-Village. Since the summer of 2012, some 450 campers – all students entering the 10th grade – have experienced living in dome-shaped dorms cooled by solar cells, growing organic produce, using a solar oven to heat food, and caring for farm animals. They’ve also taken field trips to garbage dumps to witness our society’s wastefulness and to work on solutions, such as living more lightly on the earth and recycling.

Says Dobin, “The interest campers developed in sustainability has led many of them to further environmental studies and professional pursuits.”

When my son, Isaac, a drummer and ethnomusicologist, prepared to plan to build a cultural learning center in Ghana, West Africa, I suggested he first travel to Israel and take Lotan’s Green Apprenticeship course. In addition to acquiring a deep understanding of Permaculture design and practical building skills, he came away with a workable plot plan. Several months later, he constructed Unity Ecovillage by using mud-brick construction, integrating renewable resources, harvesting rainwater, applying solar technology, and installing composting toilets.

In recent years, Isaac and Unity have hosted student groups who learn about Ghanaian drumming, dancing, and glass bead making, as well as sustainable building and organic farming. Visiting students from Yale, Princeton, and beyond have engaged in hands-on service learning projects, including the building of a kindergarten in the neighboring village and semi-permanent shelters at a United Nations refugee camp for people exiled from the neighboring Ivory Coast.

More recently, Isaac and his team, including one of the Ivorian refugees, have invited small-scale Ghanaian farmers to Unity’s demonstration organic farm to learn the bio-intensive approach to sustainable food production. He has also established fair-trade distribution system to connect these farmers to markets.

If not for one Jewish mother’s complaining and prodding to do better, Kibbutz Lotan may not have ventured into environmental education – and the more than 500 graduates of the Green Apprenticeship program, along with the thousands of others who have participated in Lotan workshops, would not have gained the life-altering experience this geographically remote Negev outpost inspires.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism’s editor-at-large. He is former editor of Reform Judaism magazine (1976-2014) and founding editor of Davka magazine (1970-1976), a West Coast Jewish quarterly. He holds an M.A. and honorary doctorate in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His books include Jagendorf’s Foundry: A Memoir of the Romanian Holocaust (HarperCollins, 1991) and Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (HarperCollins, 1998) with Arthur Hertzberg.

Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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