Driving down the scenic Dead Sea road to Israel’s Arava desert on a sunny day in 2006, Merav Carmi was somewhat nervous about leaving behind a glamorous TV journalism job to go construct mud buildings with a group of strangers on Kibbutz Lotan.

She was 32, single, and in search of “a new container I could put myself into.”

She’d built a successful career far from her roots on a sixth-generation farm in Israel’s Jezreel Valley. But a growing passion for sustainable design led her to the Green Apprenticeship (GA), Permaculture Design and Training program at Kibbutz Lotan’s Center for Creative Ecology.

Since 2000, about 700 Israelis and internationals have learned the fundamentals of building, farming and living in accordance with natural ecosystems within an intentional community setting at the GA.

A mud house and garden in Kibbutz Lotan’s ecovillage. Photo by Zoe Sher/zoesherphotography.com

Graduates have started initiatives from community gardens to “green” construction companies to leadership positions in Hazon, a group focused on strengthening American Jewish life through engagement with food and the environment. In fact, Carmi attended GA on a Hazon grant.

Along with fellow students from places like Mexico and New Zealand, she found a sense of healing and purpose amid the mud and the compost.

“I suddenly saw clearly how I wanted to live my life and raise my children. I felt I had the knowledge to do the spiritual work to change my life and other people’s lives,” Carmi tells ISRAEL21c.

Merav Carmi at Kaima Nahalal. Photo: courtesy

And when she discovered that the soil from her family’s Nahalal farm was perfect for making mud plaster, all the dots connected.

“I wanted to create a center at Nahalal where people could come to practice what I’d learned. Other students joined me. We started our venture, Yesh MeAyin [Something from Nothing], without money, only with the belief it could happen.”

After the center was well established with tours, workshops and classes, Carmi and two partners added another element: Kaima Nahalal, a branch of the Beit Zayit-based sustainable farm franchise that trains and employs at-risk high-school dropouts – in this case, girls aged 15 to 18. The first 12 arrived in the summer of 2017.

“GA changed my life,” says Carmi. “This course is magic. It brings out abilities, creates a community and brings back real priorities.”

Change-makers

Mike Kaplin, director of Lotan’s Center for Creative Ecology, tells ISRAEL21c that many GA participants “come to us at a crossroads in their lives, looking for a kibbutz experience and an ecological experience, and here they get all that and a hell of a lot more.”

The GA’s aim is “to open up people’s possibilities and give them the confidence to be change-makers. Even the smallest changes can make a difference. Everyone who comes will latch onto something, whether ecological design or water purification or organic gardening, and it will influence their future path in life,” he says.

A closing campfire at the Green Apprenticeship program on Kibbutz Lotan. Photo by Zoe Sher/zoesherphotography.com

The many topics covered in the four-week course are categorized under sustainable agriculture (41 hours), natural building (25 hours), renewable energy and alternative technologies (24 hours), ecological design (11 hours), building regenerative community roots (49 hours) and permaculture design (39 hours).

The course concludes with hands-on student projects, usually to fill a need on the kibbutz but sometimes as far afield as a “green” performing arts center in Ghana and an almond-milk factory in California.

Final permaculture class projects presentation at the Green Apprenticeship program on Kibbutz Lotan. Photo by Zoe Sher/zoesherphotography.com

Longtime Lotan member Alex Cicelsky, an energy engineering researcher at Ben-Gurion University and cofounder and core faculty member at the Center for Creative Ecology, says the egalitarian liberal Jewish kibbutz adopted the engineering objectives of permaculture in the mid-1990s.

“We investigated straw-bale construction and started building like that. We succeeded in building our own soil with composted waste from our dairy, from which we grow all kinds of vegetables and moringa trees. Our teahouse was the first on-grid solar-panel building in the country,” he says, noting that when the kibbutz was established in 1983 “all we had here was sand and salty water.”

The GA, now on its 55th cohort, evolved from a new understanding of how communities can be experimentation and demonstration sites.

A recent GA group of 10 Israelis and 10 internationals included the program’s first Palestinian participant, Cicelsky tells ISRAEL21c.

“One of the principles of permaculture is that diversity and variety brings stability. In the desert there is diverse life, from acacia trees to coral reef, and we incorporate that socially.”

Building hope

Maya Galimidi, 36, came to the GA while working as a conference organizer based in Istanbul.

“I was very interested in hunger, environment and sustainability,” Galimidi tells ISRAEL21c.

“I had taken an introductory course on permaculture in 2016 and I wanted to see if I could really do this. I asked for some time off and went to Lotan to do the GA. It changed my life and I see how it changes others’ lives, too.”

Maya Galimidi using the solar oven at Kibbutz Lotan. Photo: courtesy

Still working professionally in Turkey, Galimidi has been volunteering on the kibbutz’s ecovillage for the past year running educational, internship and volunteer programs for international students, GA alumni and visiting corporate workers. She plans to make aliyah and live in Israel permanently.

“It’s hard not to be hopeless when there is so much happening in the world with loss of natural resources,” she says. “I have become someone who has hope.

“When you know how to build a sustainable habitat, purify your water and grow your own vegetables in soil made from compost, it contributes to that sense of hope.”

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