Growing up in Rochester, New York, I have always been attracted to nature. During school, I found myself staring at the landscape and during services at Temple Sinai, I recall watching birds and trees from the skylights.
Having lived in a large Jewish community before enrolling at Allegheny College to study environmental science, I was surprised to find only 40 people present at a Hillel brunch, but happy that one of those individuals was Eric Pallant, professor of environmental science. In addition to explaining that Israel’s environmental problems and solutions can be viewed as a case study for the United States to deal with its own environmental issues, he encouraged students to study abroad at Masa Israel Journey’s Arava Institute for Environmental Science in Israel. There, Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis and others live in a community and work towards solving the Middle Eastern conflict by helping to ameliorate regional environmental issues.
Early on, it was clear that I would study abroad at Arava. The idea of living in the desert for five months, only a short distance from Egypt and Jordan, and working with top-notch researchers was very appealing to me. Nestled in the southern Negev Desert, Arava is located on the progressive, pluralistic Kibbutz Ketura. On a regular day, students at Arava take courses in which they confront environmental issues first-hand, including the unsustainable use of water through industrialized agriculture, take part in communal meals with the rest of the kibbutz, explore the desert and have late-night discussions about regional issues and cultural differences. On Shabbat, there are beautiful services filled with richly chanted prayers that are reminiscent of those at my home congregation.
Some of my most positive experiences at Arava took place at the Peace Building and Environmental Leadership course, which provided a safe space for students to come together and discuss the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, listen to each other’s ideas and opinions, and occasionally hear insights from Arab or Jewish leaders. Under the guidance of Uri Gordon, we learned how to direct our environmental activism productively, communicate with officials and mobilize within existing systems. Just two days after Operation “Cast Lead,” the Israeli, Arab and American students rallied together to protest the operation, having decided on three slogans that best expressed our feelings that although Israel had a right to respond to the kassams, its use of fighter jets was unjust. At Arava, I learned more about the Palestinian perspective, while I reflected on the struggles of young Israeli Defense Force members.
I started to realize that so many people are ensnared by monumental structures that define the conflict such as the separation wall, check points, religious views, water issues and other environmental issues that transcend borders. From my work at Arava it became clear that there are extraordinary people who are constantly pushing forward towards resolutions and attempting to break the barriers that shape the conflict.
Upon my return to the United States, I have worked actively on campus to express the Israeli and Palestinian narrative to other students. Still deeply affected by Operation “Cast Lead” when I returned to the school, I created “Roots,” a sculptural art piece that depicted the hasty decision made by Israel to respond aggressively to kassams and its potential effect on future generations. After almost a year, I have chosen to focus on those who work towards solving the conflict in another art installation entitled, “Under Shadows,” which works to convey the simultaneous normalcy and tension of life in Israel amidst conflict. Everyday people are confined physically, mentally, socially and spiritually by history, binding beliefs and unrest. Yet, at Arava, I learned that these same people often become extraordinary, pushing forward towards resolution, attempting to break the barriers that shape the conflict.