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Director’s Blog: Arava Institute Alumni – where we were, where we are, and where we are going

Photo by: Marcos Schoenholz

Two weeks ago, the Arava Alumni Peace and Environmental Network (AAPEN) held its 12th Annual Alumni Conference in Dana, Jordan. 130 Arava Institute alumni and staff along with 9 children of alumni and staff gathered in a small village on the outskirts of one of Jordan’s most beautiful nature reserves, for 3 days of hiking, dialogue, learning, planning, reconnecting, and bonding. As Dror Ben-Ami, an alumnus from the first semester of the Arava Institute reminded us, “When we started we were just 20 people (the first semester in 1996) .” After 20 years, the Arava Institute now has almost 1,000 alumni throughout the Middle East and the world.

The first alumni conference was held in 2005 in Aqaba, Jordan. A group of about 50 alumni gathered in Aqaba to establish the Arava alumni network naming it AAPEN. It was very exciting to reconnect with alumni from the early semesters and to connect senior alumni with those fresh off the program. The same phenomenon we see at every conference occurred for the first time in Aqaba in 2005 – alumni who had never studied together and never met before, formed an automatic and immediate bond because they had experienced the same transformative experience at the Arava Institute. For the first few years, the alumni conference was held in Aqaba, because it was easily accessible to everyone. Palestinians and Israelis do not need special permission to cross over into Jordan. After a few years however, the alumni decided that the conference should be rotated between Israel, Palestine and Jordan.  The Alumni Conference has become a fertile ground for the sprouting of ideas for new alumni initiatives such as the Youth Environmental Education Peace Initiative (YEEPI) which provided informal environmental education programming between Jewish and Arab schools in Israel, and EcoME, a Palestinian/Israeli eco-village and conference center in the West Bank.

Over the years, numerous attempts have been made to create ongoing alumni programming throughout the year by fostering regional activities within the countries of the region. Some years have been more active than others but a long-term formal structure has yet to be achieved. For the most part, we have seen our alumni become active in other environmental organizations in the region or founding their own environmental organizations. Our Jordanian alumni have been particularly prolific in establishing environmental NGO’s, probably because of the generally nascent environmental movement in Jordan. Israel has a very active environmental movement so there is less of a need to establish new organizations but it is hard to walk into any Israeli environmental organization without encountering one of our alumni. Our Israeli alumni have been particularly attracted to eco-villages, sustainable farming and sustainable food sourcing. Palestinian civil society is not strong and with high unemployment, a weak Palestinian government, and the challenges of living under an Israeli military regime, our Palestinian alumni face the most difficulty in translating their experiences at the Arava Institute into actions back in their home communities. Despite these roadblocks, our Palestinian alumni look for ways to combine a concern for the environment with economic opportunities. Therefore, a number of our Palestinian alum have become engaged in renewable energy and trying to build a market for solar energy production based on lessons learned in Israel with the help of Israelis like Gershon Baskin and Yossef Abramowitz.

The North American Arava Alumni Network (NAAAN) was established 5 years ago and has convened an annual conference in parallel to the Friends of the Arava Institute annual meeting. This year’s conference in Philadelphia was attended by 25 alumni, and though the setting is quite different than that of the Middle Eastern conference, the same reconnecting and bonding between alumni who had never met before takes place. There have also been a few attempts at establishing a European branch of the alumni network. Currently, the number of European alumni is not large and they are spread throughout Europe, making physical gatherings a challenge but as the Institute continues to attract more Europeans, especially to our internship program, the pool of European alumni will grow, providing energy and motivation to strengthen the alumni network.

Sharon Benheim established the Alumni Department at the Arava Institute in 2001, helped foster the first alumni conferences, the establishment of the alumni network, and launch a number of alumni initiatives. Sharon’s most important contribution to the building of the network was her strong personal connections to each alum which she managed to maintain over the years as the number of alumni grew. Sharon left the Institute in 2012 and is now pursuing a doctorate in Conflict Resolution at Ben-Gurion University. Tamara Rejwan has been the Institute’s Alumni Coordinator for the past 3 years. Because of her experience as an alumna herself, Tamara has brought a strong identification with alumni needs to the position. She has invested a lot of energy into reconnecting with alumni with whom we had lost touch.. Tamara started a number of important new initiatives such as the bi-monthly alumni conference call which draws participation from alumni around the world and from all the past semesters.

Last year, with the support of the Friends of the Arava Institute, the alumni department launched the Arava Alumni Innovation Program which provides small seed money grants to cross-border/cross-cultural alumni initiatives. Last year’s recipients include a green-tech start-up to produce a prototype engine for a car based on Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed’s research into on-board hydrogen production, an Arab-Jewish eco-education farm in the Galil, an Art Knows No Borders festival, and a compassionate wildlife conservation organization in the West Bank established together by an Israeli and a Palestinian alumni.

The real challenge facing the Arava alumni is how to communicate the miracle of the relationships built on trust at the Arava Institute and continued through the alumni network to the general public in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and throughout the world. In the 20 years since the founding of the Arava Institute and the first alumni returning to their home communities after this transformative experience, the world has become a much darker, fearful, and distrustful place. The black clouds of religious and cultural conflict, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, hatred against immigrants and the fear of refugees has, along with green-house gasses, polluted the skies of countries around our planet. Now more than ever, a network of Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and young internationals is needed to shine the light of tolerance, cooperation, and trust on the world. In the coming year, the Arava Institute Alumni Department will be working closely with the alumni themselves to empower them to make sure that their voices are heard. The Arava Institute alumni’s unique message that Arabs and Jews do not have to hate each other and that the world can be a better, more sustainable, and more peaceful place if we just learn to trust each other is a message worth amplifying in the Middle East and around the world.

Submitted by David Lehrer                 

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