The first sight one sees from the airplane window upon touchdown in Israel is the very large lettering on the contemporary airport terminal proclaiming, Ben Gurion Airport, which is also the last sight one sees upon departing Israel. It’s a fitting welcome to Israel’s ultra-modern airport invoking the person most credited with turning the Zionist dream into a homeland for Jews. As I landed this past November 4th, the fact that it was also the 21st anniversary of the assassination of another giant Israeli leader, Yitzhak Rabin, hadn’t yet sunk in. That would all change in less than a week.
The 200 Israel Riders arrived by bicycle at Kibbutz Ketura, home of the Arava Institute, less than 10 days later, and a welcome sight it was. After completing the first four days cycling from Jerusalem to the central Negev, we didn’t know all that awaited our appearance there. An afternoon and evening of guided tours followed by a very moving ceremony dedicating a brand new on-campus amphitheater facility, an emotional student-led memorial tribute to Yitzhak Rabin and a wonderful dinner with Arava staff, faculty, current students and alumni, filled our afternoon and evening.
The Rabin memorial was a joint effort by Arava’s rabbi-in-residence/director of community relations Michael Cohen and current students Keren Kestenband, Zohar Weiss, Alex Kaufman, Louis Kraham and others as well. As students often do, there was no sugar-coating or glossing over Israel’s political environment after the signing of the Oslo accords and subsequent Palestinian Intifada which led to a fearful and traumatized Israeli populous. A Jewish Israeli right-wing extremist took it upon himself to damage the Oslo process by shooting Yitzhak Rabin in the back just after a Tel Aviv peace rally. Prior to leaving the stage that night, 21 years ago, to meet his terrible fate, Rabin joined the speakers and assembled crowd in the singing of Shir LaShalom, a song of peace.
Many 2016 Israel Riders were not first-timers (unlike me) so they were already familiar with Kibbutz Ketura, the Arava Institute, and the striking beauty of the Negev. For the rest of us, however, our time at Ketura was the centerpiece of an extraordinary 6 day adventure. It might be a unique form of fundraising for Arava, but it’s truly much, much more for the participants.
Through solicitations of family and friends, Israel Riders have raised over $700,000 so far, which we are told by the new executive director of Friends of the Arava Institute, Miriam May, “equipped more than 950 Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, international students, and a growing network of researchers, with the knowledge and entrepreneurial skills to tackle our world’s most challenging environmental and social issues.” I’m proud to be part of that!
Many readers certainly know that David Ben Gurion was also the pioneer father of Israel’s development of towns, kibbutzim, agricultural farms, archeological excavations, tourism, and recreation facilities in southern Israel’s Negev desert. Not only did Ben Gurion dream it, he lived it, settling down in his retirement from political leadership to Kibbutz Sde Boker. The founding generation who moved to what was then Palestine, in the 1920s, 30s and 40s carried a new paradigm for Jewish living and the Negev was the perfect location to realize it.
Now several generations later, students, faculty, and researchers of the Arava Institute are living Ben Gurion’s dream while setting an inspiring example of coexistence. Even in this dramatic setting, when history intercedes in a challenging way, the young people of the Arava Institute turn the dream into reality every day. And with the new Guy Bar-Yosef amphitheater, they have another on-campus gathering spot exhibiting the wonderful living legacy which advances the spirit and the light of this amazing place. Ride on!
Submitted by Ken Toltz, 2016 Israel Ride participant