In Israel, the first vision that alternatives to urban living may conjure up is the kibbutz. Yet, as the kibbutz lifestyle ebbs from the Israeli landscape, there is the spawning of a new movement of individuals, as idealistic as the kibbutzniks of the past, who are designing alternative lifestyles, where they are nourishing and being nourished by the land. They are creating hubs of growth and activity amidst hostile natural and man-made elements, on lands long ago seemingly abandoned, and remote and isolated in every sense of the word.
As our bus departed Jerusalem's bustling midtown district, descending into the hot belly of Israel's eastern border with Jordan, on one of the hottest days of the year during the hottest week registered this summer, Marc Prowisor of the One Israel Fund and Eve Harow, our tour guide explained, we're going to show you what people don't show you. Everything you will see today is off the beaten track. Truer words had not been spoken that day. We were definitely heading off the beaten track.
We began by taking the 'road not usually taken' but apparently traveled by the local Jewish, Palestinian and Bedouin residents (yes, Bedouins do have cars.) According to the large sign plastered along the roadside on State of Israel lands, this particular newly paved road was rebuilt and funded by US Aid and the European Union (Japan also paid for some sections of the road, but that was further north of us).
We were slowly descending eventually we would descend 1,200 meters and as we journeyed, the sculpted mountainous slopes whose finger like emanations resembled the limbs of pre-historic animals began to tower above us.
Occasionally, we spotted graceful, lean mountain gazelles the region's indigenous water experts each one serving as a reminder that knowing the region's water sources is crucial for survival, whether man or beast. The Jordan Valley enjoys 360 days of sunshine a year, the remaining five days a year are rainy.
Mevo'ot Yericho - Communal Life, Communal Responsibility
Our first stop was Mevo'ot Yericho, a communal village, located one kilometer north of Jericho. It is also nearly walking distance not in this heat, of course from the new US base commanded by Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton, known as the US Security Coordinator for the Israel-Palestinian Authority, but according to our guides, providing advanced military training for Palestinians.
Doron Alush, tanned and bearded with a flapped hat covering his head, ears and neck, greeted us at the edge of the date plantation. He encouraged us to stand under the shade of the date trees, and as we guzzled bottles of water, he clipped off a bunch of succulent fresh dates from the closest one. While we were snarfing them down, we quickly became enthralled with his own story of how he arrived here at the southern edge of the Jordan Valley.
Originally from France, Doron's area of expertise is agricultural research (he received training when he lived in Gush Katif.) Then eleven years ago, he and three other bachelors packed up their meager belongings and moved to Mevo'ot Yericho (Doorway to Jericho).
At the time we moved here, there were three IDF army camps nearby and all we had were the approvals from the government, our tents and ideals. The tents are long gone, as are the IDF army bases and the bachelors are no longer bachelors. Instead, there are homes for the 25 families and their 60 plus children and fields of date, lemon and fig trees.
There is also the first solar-powered mikveh in Israel, which harnesses the region's seminal natural asset the sun. The sun is not the only natural asset here. All of us began to sense a kind of serenity that wrapped us in its arms. Meeting with Doron's wife, Meirav in the community's moadon (multi-purpose club), we learned more about what the families are doing here and what motivates them. Yes, a sense of national idealism, but also a sense that the region's remoteness, serenity and peacefulness is the ideal environment for raising children.
No wonder then that the Ginat Eden Ulpana, a special religious girls high school for severe at-risk teenage girls, was opened here by Rav and Rabbanit Efrati (now also residents) five years ago. What distinguishes this Ulpana from other such 'educational institutions' is the customized alternative therapeutic program. And, of course, there is this community, which opens their homes to the girls and integrates them into their families.
Many of us wondered how we might find living here where ideals are translated daily into practical actions that touch beyond the borders of this isolated oasis at the doorstep to Jericho.
Omer's Farm - Living Life Close to the Ground
When Moshe stood on the eastern side of the Jordan River, this is what he saw Marc explained, as the bus yanked itself up the footpath road that we had gingerly traveled since leaving Mevo'ot Yericho less than a half hour ago. All that our eyes could take in was the spotted greens dotting swaths of desolate hillsides.
We opened the door to Na'ama and Omer's 80 square meter dining room-cum living room-cum kitchen. The air conditioner chugged along as we settled ourselves around their 20-seat wooden dining room table and sunk into the tattered, but comfortable couches.
Na'ama, whose quiet demeanor blended with the region's echoes of Biblical times greeted us with cups of refreshingly cold water, dishes of cookies and dates from their plantation as three of her four young children pulled at her skirt. By the way, Na'ama tells us that all the children were born at home. Home is a single level structure that she and Omer built with the help of a 'few friends.' The public living quarters face the main road (that road that we barely could locate) and the private quarters are around the back.
Na'ama and Omer, a newly married couple in 2004 she from Ramat Gan and he from the Arava just south of the Jordan Valley, arrived here here is midway between the village of Mevo'ot Yericho and the village of Yetiv with an idea to settle the land and also provide a kind of sanctuary, independent-like existence for young boys and girls, who, for one reason or another do not enjoy the strictly 'structured' frameworks. Six years later, Omer and Na'ama are busy tending 250 dunams of olives, 100 dunams of dates, and 550 sheep, who were bleating loudly in the background (now is apparently their birthing season.)
Each year, Na'ama and Omer are also joined by a handful of teenagers 12 to 16 years of age who help with the farming chores, study as they wish, and become part of the couple's family life. Many of the teenagers complete their matriculation exams, and then do their army service. One teenager, who began with them, has since married, and moved into one of the small temporary homes that dot the farm, with his wife and two young children, literally doubling the number of families that live here. Na'ama assures us that all the teenagers who have since left the farm keep in touch with them, and come back often for visits.
Life is lived simply and by the labor of their own hands their organic olive oil Einot Kedem is sold throughout the country, and now Na'ama tells us that there are negotiations with a Chinese company to purchase the oil.
They live the land, cultivate it, and enjoy its bounty. The quietness and contentment of their lives tugs at you, for even the lively play of the children seems to be more hushed than those of their counterparts in the city.
Maskiot Spreading their Energy
The gentle stillness we encountered at Omer's farm boarded the bus with us as we traveled north along the main Jordan Valley road #90 to a new-old settlement called Maskiot.
The Jordan Valley, part of the Great African Rift stretches about 70 kilometers (32 miles) and we had traveled from the Israel's southern tip to one of the most northern communities, a few minutes outside of Beit She'an. Like its name which is derived from a sentence in the Book of Proverbs (25:11), Maskiot are pendants which appear to be silver, but in fact hide layers of gold.
Officially, Maskiot was founded in the 1980's as a Nachal outpost. It hobbled along, until all that was left there 2-1/2 years ago was a pre-military Torah academy (mechina) and one family. That is until a small group of families who had been bounced around after being expelled from Shirat Hayam in Gush Katif, decided overnight to move into Maskiot. The group has grown to now 12 families, bringing with them a new kind of energy to a sleepy region.
Here, in Maskiot, they are creating in many ways, much of what they had lost in Gush Katif. There is agriculture, and in typical Gush Katif fashion, innovative agriculture. The community has invested in argan trees, whose oil is in great demand around the world by cosmetics companies. They are among the first few to cultivate this genus in Israel (it's also grown in Morocco) and the first ones to adapt to the very special Jordan Valley environment.
There is also a flurry of small businesses here, cottage industries that employ local residents. We arrived just a few hours after Maskiot had received a new pre-fab facility that they will be using as a day care center for their children, who were not playing outside in the 40°C temperatures that chased us quickly into the air conditioned room.
This new energy that Yossi Chazut, our host and 'managing director' of the community and his peers have brought with them, is quickly transforming Maskiot into the fastest growing community in the Jordan Valley. They have a list of families who want to move here and as soon as their new homes are completed we could see them rising on the hillside just above us the temporary facilities that they are currently living in, will be vacated for the newer residents.
Just imagine. In but 2 ˝ years, the Chazut’s and their 11 fellow families have managed to establish a playground and early childhood center, both funded by One Israel Fund, have planted groves of dates, argan and olive trees, are planning to start a regional elementary school, have created an exciting site plan for a Land of Israel Park, received approval to build a memorial for the IDF's elite reconnaissance division, and are working towards establishing a trauma-medical center (there is none nearby.) And, that is just the tip of the iceberg (which would have been refreshing here.)
The ultimate vision is to become the capital of the entire region. Possible? We thought so. They are well on their way to becoming a self-contained community so that they can provide services not just for their resident families, but also for their immediate neighbors.
What ties these communities together is an interesting fact: rather than the remoteness and isolation becoming barriers for growth and development, they had, in fact, enabled each of the communities on our off the beaten track journey to create a paradigm of an alternative lifestyle that was inspirational as much as it was awe-inspiring.