Josef Newman

Arava Institute for Environmental Studies
In February 2009 I arrived at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies after five years of working in construction. Ready for a change, I was looking to explore my new interests. Having participated in Young Judaea’s Year Course program after high school, I was enthusiastic about being in a professional environment in a setting that held positive memories for me. The desert landscape that surrounds Kibbutz Ketura was a change from the traffic of southeast Florida and I was excited for a new experience.
Greeted by two Jordanian staff members upon my arrival, it was immediately clear that The Arava Institute was a unique place. At other academic settings, I have been accustomed to seeing a large divide between Muslim and Jewish students, but at the Arava Institute, environmentalism is an avenue for building peace and joint projects between Jews and Arabs is the norm.
Having grown up in an environment where Israel was a popular topic of conversation, I always assumed that peace was something political, something that was brokered by officials who drape their pens over official documents in big conference rooms. I never considered the possibility that working together on the restoration of the Jordan River would be a way for Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians to form friendships, bonds and a common identity.
I spent six months at the Arava Institute soaking up skills and knowledge related to the environment. Course topics ranged from the Middle Eastern water management policy to environmental politics. The professors came from all over the world with diverse backgrounds, but they all shared the belief that peace is something that happens each and every day by people who want to make a difference. We may not all have the power to sign a declaration on behalf of our country, but we certainly have the power to embrace people who are not as different as we may have first assumed. Before people are Israeli, American, Muslim, or Jewish, they are all human beings living in the same world, a world that requires our help.
I sincerely believe my time at the Arava Institute was among the six most meaningful months of my adult life. It has forever changed the way I view Israel, the way I view my friends over the river and those behind the fence. It inspired me to further my education in environmental science, leaving behind five years in the construction industry in pursuit of a new calling. I hope that other young adults will look into similar Masa Israel-sponsored opportunities in Israel.
In August 2009 I returned to Southeast Florida to begin my studies at Florida Atlantic University. I enrolled in the biology department and began the track I knew I was meant to take, but also began a new track as an environmental activist. Having taken home the message that it is we as individuals who create change, I quickly found FAU’s local student activist group, the Mission Green Student Association. Together with other likeminded students, we continue to push the message through education and action. Whether through small activities like beach cleanups and nature preserve maintenance to larger activities like planning speakers and dedicating a day on campus to new green initiatives, the message remains.
The Arava Institute opened a new chapter in my life. Recognizing the consequences not only of my actions, but also of my inactions, has made me more aware of the need to act in daily life. With a new perspective not only on Israel but also on myself, I look forward to a future where I can share with others that which I was so blessed to receive, and I will continue to work on behalf of the earth and all its citizens.