By Lori Kotlen Stark
The first time I ever heard of Kibbutz Yahel, I was a high school student, temple youth grouper and newly elected regional officer of MAFTY, now NFTY-MAR (Mid-Atlantic Region of Temple Youth). Within a short period of time, it seemed the whole North American Reform Movement was infused with the excitement of building Reform Jewish roots in Israel with the establishment of the first Reform Kibbutz, Kibbutz Yahel. It was the 70′s and the Reform Movement was (once again) making history and influencing lives.
The UAHC Youth Division partnered with the kibbutz movement in Israel. The Youth Division and NFTYites were busy developing an Israel identity and founding “Garin Arava” the settlement group, or “Garin” for North American young adults to Kibbutz Yahel.
At the same time, the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (now WRJ) was very busy with another dream of partnership at the new kibbutz. This dream was to establish a Seminar Center for Education and Culture, primarily for Jewish youth visiting Israel and the Arava The project was called Ma’ayan B’Midbar translating to “A Wellspring in the Desert.” The inspiration for this project came to the NFTS leadership from the Book of Pslams, 107, verse 35:
From conception to building, the sisterhood women from coast to coast designed a North American campaign involving all ages, from youth through adult. After much hard work and determination, the women of NFTS were successful both in building the seminar center at Kibbutz Yahel and giving the then young kibbutz one of our first Anafim (‘Anaf’ means the branch of a tree, or in this case, one of the kibbutz collective businesses). This was not merely a gift of tzedakah, but a statement of purpose and mission. As an involved NFTYite, my introduction to those phenomenal sisterhood women was their personal example and unstoppable force. There was no question that NFTY on the local, regional and national levels would follow the NFTS Wellspring in the Desert Project, educating about and raising funds for the Youth and Culture Center in OUR new kibbutz.
Little did I know then that a few years later I would make aliyah through “Garin Arava” and became a member of Kibbutz Yahel. Today, Yahel has been my home for more than thirty three years. Almost 25 of those years have been spent working in educational tourism at Ma’ayan B’Midbar envisioned by(now) Women of Reform Judaism. Just as NFTS touched my life as a youth group member and NFTYite, WRJ was the vision behind my professional adult life as well, my personal mifal chayim (life’s work) through the past quarter century. It has been my privilege to design and run programs over the years for thousands of NFTY in Israel participants, aiming also to strengthen Jewish Identity and instilling an Israel Identity in our visitors.
Hands down, here at Ma’ayan B’Midbar, the highlight of our year is the summer. That’s when we host the NFTY in Israel Desert Experience, a four day three night camping adventure in the desert, including hiking in the mountains, snorkeling in the Red Sea and running down smooth sand dunes. This program is an example of how we can still travel through the desert exactly where our ancestors did, thousands of years ago. Bible in hand, it’s a living example of how the desert comes alive.
Ma’ayan B’Midbar, a dream turned reality by WRJ, touches personally on the deepest sources of the creation and the development of the Jewish people duringthousands of years of history. Through the dedication and vision of WRJ, the wildness has turned into wellsprings, indeed a Ma’ayan B’Midbar.
Lori Kotlen Stark is a founding member of Kibbutz Yahel and is married to Drew Stark. Together they have two sabra sons, Nadav and Elan. Lori has recently completed four terms serving on the Executive Board of the Israeli Reform Movement (IMPJ) and as the National Chairperson of the IMPJ’s Education Committee.