At the start of the tour in Tel Aviv, we heard Ben Gurion’s own words, in Independence Hall, declaring the establishment of a State of Israel, and that the Israelis would ‘make the desert bloom’. Our journey to the Central Arava today demonstrated that Israel is still executing on that vision of making the desert bloom. In the Central Arava, a few thousand people are as much settlers and pioneers of what most would consider barren land, as the original 66 families that founded Tel Aviv. As we leave the Isrotel Hotel and drive south along the bank of the Dead Sea, it is difficult to choose between the beauty of the sea to the east, and the mountains to the west.
It is remarkable that the Dead Sea was easily 50 to 100 feet higher 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, and as the water level dropped over the centuries, a dramatic landscape of striations remains. Each striation is a historic testimonial of a past geological event. As we pass a salty rock formation named “Lot’s wife”, we are reminded of the message in the Tanach of our duty to respect our fellow man and that our actions can destroy each other and the earth. We pass a huge industrial complex of the Dead Sea Works that seems a little out-of-place in this barren area, but realize that it provides for a large workforce, exporting chemicals to support the region’s economy, yet another example of how the Israelis have learned to make the most of this landscape.
Our stop at the Arava Visitor’s Center showcased some of the innovations that the Dead Sea Council has brought to desert farming. We spent time in one of the research greenhouses and saw the most luscious cherry tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and unique flowers produced under very controlled conditions.
From there, we went to the school where about 1,100 students a year come from Asian and African countries (Vietnam, Napal, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Ethiopia and South Sudan) to learn agronomy, and the successful farming methods developed in the Central Arava. We visited 2 classrooms and met students from Vietnam and Thailand.
Seeing what has been accomplished in the desert, these students are taking away techniques that they can apply at home, even though their farmland is situated on wetlands. They are learning to question the old ways, and to consider the art of the possible. The students also learn the economic side of farming, how to write a business plan, and how to make decisions about switching to other crops that might bring a better economic return when products are sold in the cities. They live in the moshavim with the farmers, get paid to work on the farms, and earn enough money to pay their school tuition, and to save enough money to bring home ($2,000-$4,000) to support their own vision for an agrarian project in their hometowns when they return.
In line with the Jewish focus on learning, these exchange students are becoming leaders in their communities, are good will ambassadors of Israel, and have opened diplomatic discussions in countries where Israel previously had no relationship. This project is extremely inspirational and promising, and an enterprise that CBJ can be proud to support for the expansion of this program in the near future. With the Israelis’ experience in building communities from the ground up, the Arava Medical Center is a good example of how putting infrastructure in place like a medical center is a key step in bringing new immigrants and those who are looking for a more affordable lifestyle to the Central Arava. Prior to the creation of the Medical Center, people needed to travel 90 minutes north or south to get medical care. Before the expansion of the facility, there was only one doctor and no specialists on site. Our guide, Samantha, who is 4 months pregnant with her second child, was thrilled with the expansion of the medical center, as they now have an ob/gyn, two treatment rooms, a pharmacy that is open 24/7, an HMO office, a PT room and a 24 hour emergency room with an EMT (available 24/7) who can triage an emergency, until a medi-vac helicopter can pick up the patient and take them to the larger hospitals in either Ellat or in Be’er Sheva. Having the Center not only provides local care, but also becomes a magnet to pull medical professionals and their families into the area. Every staff member we spoke with at the medical center voiced their appreciation of the monetary contributions made by CBJ that allowed the last construction.
We had a chance to briefly meet with our own Barbara Sommer and Alan Fisher, the visionaries of this project, about plans to continue to expand the Center as the population in this area continues to grow. Todah Rabah and Kol Hakavod to Barbara and Alan for their amazing work! It was now time for our pre-arranged lunch with the local restaurateur, who owns the only restaurant and catering service in Sapir, Daniel Shnitman. He and his wife prepared an amazing lunch of various sandwiches, but the most wonderful menu item they prepared was the pureed red pepper soup from the gorgeous and plump peppers that Sapir’s yishuv (town) exports. Following lunch, we quickly returned to the hotel for spa treatments, and/or time at the Dead Sea. I will not go into the details of my massage and facial, except to say…wow, I needed that! This being my first time in Israel, it was also my first time at the Dead Sea. I knew what to expect when I entered the water which is 30% salt content (the Great Salt Lake has 13% salt). Totally cool experience! For as much as I have been eating at the buffet breakfasts every morning, I was happy to say that I still floated!!!! I will end with a story about dinner. When we arrived for dinner at 7PM, there was a line of about 30 people waiting to get in. Upon entering the dining room, I thought I had walked into a buffet line at a casino in Las Vegas. There were hundreds of people, Israelis, Americans, but it was the Russians that made the greatest impression. Let me just say that Bill almost got run over by a Russian woman who was playing the role of a linebacker, and Bill was in her way to her goal…the tilapia!!!!! Jeff and I are having the most amazing vacation! Israel has been a magical journey back in time, and has the promise of a wonderful future that cannot be put into words or seen in pictures, but will always be felt in our hearts. Shalom.