Returning to Lotan
By Rabbi Warren Stone
As a college student, for one year, I studied international relations at the Hiatt Institute in Jerusalem. Over the course of that time, I became enamored with Jewish history and spirituality and Judaism as a way of life. I was writing for my college paper back home and sought an interview with Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and its visionary of Zionism. I was thrilled when I was invited to go to the Negev to Sde Boker Kibbutz to meet him at his home. I will never forget traveling in the desert to meet him and then sitting outside with him in the sun. He asked me if I was going to live in Israel, and I blurted out that I thought I might.
During this same period, I met with a group of Israeli and American Jews who were forming the first of two liberal kibbutzim in Israel. The first group was to be Kibbutz Yahel and the second, Kibbutz Lotan. The Lotan group was small. These were twenty-year-olds with dreams of cultivating the desert; one by the name of Alex Cicelsky made a particular impression with his total commitment to making this dream real. I traveled to Lotan to see for myself. Well, when I arrived, there was absolutely nothing there except sand, barrenness, the heat of the desert, and the four very simple concrete buildings they had built for homes and a small place to gather. I was drawn to this vision but, frankly, I was shocked at the starkness of the place.
Later that year, after returning to the United States and college and finishing a major in Near Eastern and Judaic studies, I decided to become a liberal rabbi and to make my career and to live my life as a Jew here. Years later, after serving for years as a synagogue rabbi and enjoying it, I still carried the dream of returning to Kibbutz Lotan in the desert and seeing what had happened there. I had followed their progress through the years and knew that they had become Israel’s leading environmental community, another reason that they continued to intrigue me. Alex had even come to visit our own Temple community.
So, as you may recall, this year I put an article in our Temple bulletin and invited congregants to come to Israel and to celebrate Passover with Elaine and me in the desert at Kibbutz Lotan. Twenty-six of us from Temple Emanuel traveled there together, and we returned in May from an extraordinary trip to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Masada, East Jerusalem, a Bedouin village outside Beer Sheva, Eilat for snorkeling, and, a great highlight for me and for the group, staying at and celebrating a Seder with the members of Kibbutz Lotan.
Let me share a moment. We arrived at night, greeted, of course, by Alex Cicelsky. We began the next morning at 6 am, with Alex leading us on a desert hike. Alone and together, we witnessed the coming of light in the desert. We hiked and looked out at the vast beauty and barrenness of the desert. We could see desert sands and waves of sand hills across the border of Jordan, which was also within walking distance. Then, at the end of the hike, Alex led us through a palm covered gateway and into the magnificent flower and vegetable gardens of the kibbutz.
We were awestruck as everything was in full bloom. The colors in the desert were wondrous. We continued our walk through this beautiful kibbutz and saw whimsical straw- and mud-constructed adobe-like playgrounds and places to sit in the shade under fig and palm trees. We finished at a lovely tea house and were served tea and cookies from the kibbutz. It was thrilling for me to return after 35 years and see the flowering of this liberal kibbutz in the desert. I took several pictures with Alex; we had both aged since I had last visited Lotan (I don’t know how that could have happened), but we were both sill smiling.
So, I invite all of you to do two things. One: visit Israel during your lifetime, or, if you’ve been before, revisit the places of Jewish history, the people of Israel, and the cultures of Israel. Two: live your dreams. Alex and his young cohort helped make a kibbutz flower in the desert. We, too, have our dreams, for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world. Let’s make them bloom.
Rabbi Warren Stone has served as rabbi of Temple Emanuel in the Greater Washington, D.C. area since 1988. He is known nationally for his leadership on Religion and Environment, and writes a blog called climaterabbi. This article was originally published in Temple Emanuel’s bulletin, Kol Kore.