Set deep in the heart of the Negev desert in southern Israel, a small community is inviting travellers to connect with nature and learn to live a little more consciously.
y very first taste of Israel was as a teenage volunteer at a kibbutz, and after 25 years, I was returning to stay at the country’s newest one: Kibbutz Lotan. These small, agrarian collectives (whose name means “gathering” in Hebrew) were founded at the start of the 20th Century as a communal, egalitarian way of living and working for Jewish immigrants and settlers. Today, there are around 270 such communities scattered around Israel.
The aims of the kibbutz system evolved over time, and it came to play a role in forming the boundaries of the new state of Israel. In the late 1930s, many of these communities were established in the Negev and other outlying desert areas to try to claim land that they hoped would be incorporated into a future Jewish state. After cultivating the once-infertile land, these communities also helped develop the nation’s highly acclaimed agricultural industry through advances such as drip irrigation technology, which is now used globally since Israel pioneered it in the 1960s. From water conservation systems to innovations in pest control, the kibbutz movement has been at the helm of global agricultural technology.
Originally, all wealth and income generated from a kibbutz was shared among its members and profits were reinvested in the community. Today, roughly 75% of these collectives have moved to a more privatised model, allowing members more financial independence and the ability to work away from the kibbutz while still living there. Traditionally, meals were prepared and eaten communally, but now, more and more kibbutz members eat as families at home. Yet, all communal matters – such as building renovations or delegating funds for the children in the kibbutz to go to university – are still done in the traditional manner by voting, and jobs are assigned by rotation, choice or skill sets.
But as times change, economic opportunities are luring many young families away from these rural collectives and into towns and cities. As a result, the kibbutz movement has been steadily shrinking since the 2000s. Yet, Kibbutz Lotan, which is a four-hour drive south of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has 200 residents and is growing. It has also found a new raison d’être. Set up in 1983, Lotan is the only kibbutz educating tourists about sustainable living, and in the process, it’s changing how travellers experience Israeli culture and transforming people’s relationships with food and the environment.
I discovered the kibbutz’s bohemian “eco campus” years ago on social media. A series of sustainable, carbon-neutral mud domes offers a taste of communal living for visitors. Tourism is one of the three means of funding for the kibbutz, which also has a separate guest house, along with a dairy farm and extensive date orchards.
Travellers to Lotan understand their trip will not be the usual holiday, so with my working clothes in hand, I rolled up my sleeves. We worked from 06:00 until 11:00 Sunday to Thursday, learning skills from gardening to seed cutting. Anyone can drop in for as little as a few nights or participate in Lotan’s month-long academic courses, where they learn skills such as solar cooking with a box oven and building functional objects from mud. They can also see how compost can be used to grow vegetables in the organic garden and fuel the two biogas systems in the kibbutz, a totally renewable source of energy.
The air-conditioned mud domes (made of a mixture of clay, sand, straw and water) use 60% less energy to heat and cool than other structures in the arid region. They are surrounded by the endless mountains in the distance, and at night, the sky becomes a myriad of stars. Everything around the eco campus is sustainable, from the waterless composting toilets to the solar-powered hot water showers, lighting and biogas-powered kitchen. The fruit and vegetables you eat are either grown on the small kibbutz farm or on nearby Israeli farms using Israeli methodologies and techniques – such as using brackish water from aquifers beneath the Negev – to grow a diverse array of crops from cherry tomatoes to avocados, more native to the Mediterranean than the Middle East.
This is an excerpt from an article by Melanie Swan earlier published by BBC.