Brian Crann was an intern at the Institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management in 2021/2022, and is now moving on to complete a Master’s Degree in International Development at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The Arava Institute held its annual Alumni Conference this past August. Held at the intimate but spacious Talitha Kumi Guest House in Beit Jala, Palestine, this was the first such event in three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The conference brought together a rich constellation of over 100 alumni including ecologists, yogis, engineers, activists, lawyers, and educators with the intention of connecting the dynamic individuals within the community.
Programming began Thursday evening as alumni poured in from all over Israel and Palestine with buses organized from Haifa, Tel Aviv, Hebron, Nablus, and Jerusalem. Alumni arrived to a sea of hugs and smiles. “It immediately brought me back to my days at Ketura and reminded me of the strength of relationships that the Institute cultivates,” remarked one alum referring to her arrival.
Over the course of the weekend, we had an opportunity to attend workshops, share passions and ideas, showcase skills, and to discuss upcoming events related to the community.
Opening ceremonies began with live-streamed speeches from our three Alumni Coordinators and Executive Director Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed who highlighted the ongoing work of the Institute and the potential that lies within this gathering of alumni. Following the speeches, an icebreaker activity provided an opportunity to discuss, in small groups, personal expectations of the upcoming conference. This gathering was meant to be not only social but also an opportunity to harness the strength and energy of the alumni to expand our impact beyond our own community.
As scheduled programming came to an end for the first evening, former students, interns, and staff stayed up late into the night playing music, reminiscing about shared experiences, and eating fresh knaffeh. In the courtyard of Talitha Kumi something felt so natural and familiar about what I was seeing and feeling: a big family of Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs. But in retrospect, I must wonder, on this night was anything like this happening anywhere else? This is the magic of our community, and it is what many of us would like to see in more places in the future.
Friday morning began bright and early with a 6:30 Aikido lesson led by the most veteran alum in attendance, Gadi Cohen, who studied at the Institute in 1997. After a healthy breakfast, people filed into the large meeting hall for an activist panel aimed to clarify and discuss the role of the Arava Institute alumni community, and how we can act to make the changes we wish to see in the world.
The panel included Huda Abu Arquob, Regional Director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, Suf Patishi, Institute alum and a lawyer and member of Standing Together, Dina Garadashkin, Co-Director of the bi-national youth education organization Sadaka Reut, and Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed. As an alum in the room, I felt empowered and proud knowing how respected an organization the Arava Institute is in the eyes of other regional organizations which support social equality for all living here. The discussion encompassed methods of translating the efforts and interest of involved individuals into tangible change in our society.
Following the panel came an opportunity for alumni to define what the alumni community means, and explore how it might grow. Here I saw what alumni of the Institute truly have in common: It is not that we all have the same values or visions for the future. Rather, we are a community composed of as many stories as there are people, yet we are all individuals willing to listen to and share ideas and perspectives other than our own, even when they come from the other side of a separation wall.
Following a lunch featuring mujadara, the afternoon included workshops, a tour of Beit Jala, and a crafting workshop led by Eco-Freako, an environmental education project established by Institute alumni. Workshops such as this one provided alumni with tools for engagement beyond the conference.
The final day of the conference saw alumni take the lead, bringing our experience and expertise to discussions ranging from meditation workshops, contact dancing, and art therapy, to upcoming environmental events like COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh. The wide variety of offerings from alumni showcased the diversity of skills and interests present in the community and certainly made me proud to be a part of this group.
The Arava Institute is one of many cross-border organizations operating in a region where division, fear, and contempt are the default conditions between societies. As the institute continues to expand these cross-border partnerships, the alumni community has the opportunity to offer a unique constellation of skills, attitudes, and experience. It is now up to the alumni to capture the momentum created by our gathering and to use it to deepen our cooperative efforts in the face of our regional challenges. The success of this year’s conference will be measured at the 2023 Alumni Conference, where we will see how the space for connection has initiated action and cooperation within and beyond the sphere of the Arava Institute’s important work.
As a new alum, I am grateful for the work to organize this gathering and for the opportunity to meet so many ambitious and thoughtful people whom I can relate to. Seeing the community gather in this way elicits feelings of hope and empowerment that I do not feel among any other group, and I am excited to remain engaged with an organization determined to make changes in a region starving for environmental improvement and equality.