“Starting our first full day in Kibbutz Ketura and the surrounding area, my roommates and I groggily walked to breakfast at around 8, as the sun started to feel hot but the morning was still cool, a remnant of the colder desert night.
At breakfast, we discussed the latest news in the Israeli judicial reform, that Prime Minister Netanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who spoke out against the reform. Our madrichim, Amit (הבן
the boy) and Omri, told us about how this is a glaring sign of a dictatorship and that the nation had erupted in protest over the night, with roadblocks and universities closing across Israel. Amit said flatly, “I am sad about this country.” Meanwhile, relaxing elevator music played in the cafeteria and rays of sunlight shone through palm tree leaves and in through the windows in the one-story building which had a beige exterior akin to a Florida housing complex. Our pleasant setting, but difficult conversation, at breakfast, set the tone for our first day in Ketura. It was truly wonderful, to take in some of the best natural beauty in Israel in a resort-like kibbutz, relaxing and hanging out, a vital part of appreciating what Israel has to offer, but at times, being so remote and far from the center, it felt like we were not experiencing the most politically charged day (so far) of one of the most politically charged moments in Israel’s history.
Though I spent some idle moments struggling with the tradeoffs of our getaway in the south, that certainly did not mean I did not experience and enjoy our packed schedule of fun in nature. Our first activity had two options: a bike ride around the kibbutz or a painting workshop in the desert. I went on the bike ride. On the ride, we smelled the sweet, woody scent of the kibbutz’s date orchards and felt the bumps of the gravel agricultural roads. It allowed us to get our bearings on the layout of the kibbutz and to grasp the various projects constantly in action here.
As the excitement of our bike ride fizzled, our group was snapped into a worried buzz when we got the news that the general strike in response to Netanyahu’s firing of Gallant had shut down Ben Gurion Airport. I felt removed from the massive protests in Tel Aviv, the boisterous protests that usually keep us awake with car horns and chants when we stay in Jerusalem, because in Ketura, in the middle of the desert, there was no outcry, just sunshine.
However, just as quickly as the news came, we were on to our next activity to learn more about the utopic kibbutz. Our next stop, was the “off-grid village” where the kibbutz researches and displays efficient solutions to help people who live off the grid (without access to a system of water, electricity, and sewage) like a drip irrigation system powered by solar energy that requires much less water pressure or an oven heated by the sun (we even tried sun-baked cookies). We had been told about the kibbutz’s value of social action, but it was amazing to see a genuine intersection of social action, environmentalism, and Israeli innovation. It was an impressive example of Ketura’s commitment to its goals.
After lunch in the communal kibbutz dining hall, Amanda and I did some stretching in the astroturf courtyard near our rooms. We heard the notes of one of Ilan’s signature jazz playlists as the smell of sautéed onions wafted into the courtyard from my room. My industrious roommates, Boaz and Ilan, had gone to the kibbutz store and were taking advantage of the kitchenette in our room, preparing for gourmet grilled cheeses later that night.
Following the free time, everyone was feeling a little bit more rested and ready for our afternoon hike. However, on our way, we were reminded again of the political turmoil exploding almost everywhere else in the country, when our madrichim Omri and Amit (הבן
the boy) announced that they would be making their way to Eilat to demonstrate. They felt they could not stand by, trekking through the isolated desert, and not have their voices heard in their democracy.
While Amit and Omri set off to protest, we set off for an iconic GOA Neshama activity: the hike up to the sand dunes. While we trudged along up the steep path, Sophie, Isabelle, Tali, Rob, and I discussed our opinions on how we could improve Shabbat on Neshama, while ahead of us, Elias told an apparently shocking and hilarious story of a Craigslist mishap. Finally, we arrived at the dunes where we ran the soft sand through our fingertips as Rob talked to us about the spiritual value of the desert in its history, purity, and serenity. Afterwards, we ran, rolled, jumped, lounged, and climbed in the dunes and took pictures. When we were tired out, we took some time to sit by ourselves in silence and contemplation. Looking out over the vast desert it was hard to believe how empty it was, how if I had been there alone, I would not have seen a single person and very few signs of human civilization until the horizon in every direction. Also, the unchanging landscape that must have looked nearly identical thousands of years before and will look nearly identical thousands of years in the future was difficult to wrap my head around. To end our meditation, Rachel blew a shofar which echoed out across the desert mountains, and we packed up and headed back to Ketura.
After resting for a while, we went to dinner prepared by the Ketura staff outside of the kibbutz in the desert, where we made our own pitot over fire and ate hummus, salatim (salads) and more. We sat at low tables around fires eating our dinner and then s’mores. The darkness surrounding us in the desert, the filling food, and the smoky smell made for a homey, satisfying meal after a tiring day. As people were roasting marshmallows for s’mores, I heard Omri pronounce, “Ben Gvir will have his own private militia!” People started pulling out their phones to check the news as Omri explained the deal. The judicial reform would be delayed a few weeks and in order to appease far-right extremist national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Netanyahu would approve a large budget to establish a “national guard” (a portion of the police) solely under Ben Gvir’s direct control. As we started processing the news, words like “crazy” and “fascist” started flying around. It was monumental and scary news, an even more glaring sign of dictatorship than the morning’s events. I could tell Omri was upset he could not be in a major city in the center of Israel during this enormous moment, by his frustrated facial expression and his repeated sentiment that the protest he and Amit had attended in Eilat was “cute.”
After dinner we walked back to our rooms at around 8:30. The official programming of the night might have been over, but my night activities were set to begin. First, was tasting Boaz and Ilan’s delicious grilled cheese for second dinner. My compliments to the chefs. Second, Ilan, Betty, and I sat outside in the courtyard in anticipation to watch the first episode of season four of Succession.
In looking back on the day, at the forefront was lots of fun, whether it was taking in the nature of the area or casual homemade fun amongst friends, but on the back burner were reminders of the real-life political educational experiences we were missing 3 hours north, and more importantly, reminders of the dissatisfaction in an undemocratic government, and subsequent fiery exercising of democratic freedoms, that gripped the country.
To start our second full day in Ketura, we headed to breakfast and packed sandwiches for our hike in the Eilat mountains. There was a palpable excitement for our day in Eilat. Also, after the agreement had been reached in the government, though problematic, the country was somewhat calmer which added to the relaxed vibe of our vacation-type day in the south.
We hiked in the desert mountains, through gorges that many of us exclaimed looked like they were out of a Star Wars set, and up steep rock faces where we had to use all four limbs to hoist ourselves up. The sun was hot, and some of us faced our fears of heights, but good conversation and the motivation for the rest of our day carried us through. It was a 2-hour or so hike with a great view in the middle, and few complications or complaints from our group, evidence that we are starting to gain a rhythm and an appreciation for hiking together.
When we came back to the bus, we quickly ate lunches on the drive to our next destination: snorkeling in Eilat. Until that point we had done a surprisingly small amount of swimming on the trip as a whole, and considering the dust and sweat we had acquired on the hike, we were all enthusiastic to jump in a beautiful body of water as we drove into Eilat. After some safety training, we strapped on our snorkels and hopped in the bluish, emerald green water. It took some time to adjust to breathing through our mouths, but when we did, we floated on our stomachs and looked at patterned coral reefs and fish of various shapes and sizes in pink, green, dark purple, sandy camouflage, and rainbow multicolor. Growing up swimming at the Jersey Shore, the clear water alone was luxurious, not to mention the captivating wildlife. After we finished snorkeling, we had about an hour and a half to sit in the sun on the beach, swim more, and eat some ice cream bars and french-fries from the food stand. It was one of those afternoons of pure relaxation that are rare on Neshama and we much appreciated it.
Our relaxing, vacation esque afternoon continued into evening with a whopping three hour pizur in a boardwalk-type shopping plaza right on the water in Eilat for an early dinner and shopping. Sophie, Talia, Boaz, Rachel, and I went for poke bowls and smoothies. The palm trees and views of the water made for a picturesque backdrop for dinner. But perhaps the best part was that we left to return to Ketura at only 6:30, and after many days in a row of early mornings we were ready for an early night to catch up on sleep.
All in all, our second full day in Ketura was one of the few Neshama days where we did not encounter a controversial Israeli social issue or listen to a lecture from a speaker. Unlike the encompassing political tone of the day before, it was a day just to spend time with each other and envelop ourselves in the beauty of the land of Israel.”