Friday, June 18, 2010

Weekly Report June 13th - 18th

  • The Dead Sea Arava Science Center (DSASC), which is a local R&D center funded by the Hevel Eilot Regional Council and the Israeli Ministry of Science and hosted by the Arava Institue, welcomed Dr. Ilan Stavi who began work on Sunday. Ilan was recruited to work on bio-fuels together with Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed in the framework of the Center for Reneawable Energy and Energy Conservation.  Ilan and his family will be living in the new faculty house on the Arava Institute campus.
  • The Arava Institute Board of Directors met on Monday in order to approve the Institute's financial statements for 2009.  The meeting was timed to coincide with AIES Night (see next item) in order to enable Board members the opportunity to see student presenations.
  • Monday afternoon and evening, the Institute held the end of semester AIES Night, when Masters students and Independent Study students make presentations about their research projects.  AIES Night Schedule Some students, made Power Point Presentations while others produced posters for the evening.  This semester's AIES Night included guest speakers from Jewish Hearts for Africa, Engineers Without Borders and Abraham's Path as well as an exceptional array of high quality presentations and posters on subjects as varied as Hydrogen Production via Boron Hydrolysis to Non Violent Struggle: A Means for Saving Our Environment.
  • That same evening two students from the Institute spoke to the Secretariat of the Kibbutz in order to update the Kibbutz members on the current semester and to express their positive feelings about their experience living on Ketura.
  • On Tuesday, Representatives of the Israeli Ministry of Regional Cooperation visited the Institute and brought with them Jochen Reiger, Director of the Middle East Office of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) in order to discuss possible cooperation with the Institute and with the DSASC.  GTZ is especially interested in cross border cooperation with Jordan and renewable energy projects.
  • On Thursday, Michael Ben Eli was invited to the Institute by the Arava Center for Sustainable Development in Arid Lands (ACSDAL).  Michael is an architect by profession but a few years ago, founded the Sustainability Laboratories whose mission is to act as a catalyst to transition the world's societies towards sustainability through the establishment of sustainable pilot communities. One of Sustainable Laboratories first projects is in Wadi Yatir among the Bedouin Community. The project is creating a sustainable desert farm owned and managed by a Bedouin agricultural cooperative. The project is supported by the JNF USA.  Michael came to the Institute in order to present the project and to discuss how the Institute could colaborate with the Sustainability Laboratories.  At the end of the visit, Michael, Kristina Donnely from ACSDAL, Abby Lutman from the Research Programs Department and I agreed on a list of potential areas of cooperation including help with the Wadi Yatir project as well as the Institute joing the Sustainabiltiy Laboratories international network of research stations.
  • On the same day, the Institute was honored with a visit from the new Rector of Ben-Gurion University, Professor Zvi HaCohen and the outgoing Dean of the Eilat Campus Professor Shaul Krakover. This was an opportunty for the Professor HaCohen to get to know the Institute and for me to thank Shaul and Professor HaCohen's predecessor, Professor Jimmy Weinblatt for all they had done to enable the signing of the agreement with the University.  Dr. Elli Groner, Moishe Siel, Cathie Granit and I also discussed some of the technical problems we have run into in registering our students in their courses.  Professor HaCohen left me his card and said that I should call him any time if I need his help.
David Lehrer

Friday, June 11, 2010

Weekly Report June 6th - 11th, 2010

This was a relatively quite week at the Arava Institute.

  •  On Sunday, Associate Director Miriam Sharton, Academic Director Dr. Elli Groner and I met with Dr. Arieh Nesher, Director of the Porter School for Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University and his staff. We have had contact with the Porter School in the past. The Porter School has become an important and influential institute within Tel Aviv University and is now offering graduate degrees. The meeting was initiated by Arieh, who wanted to update us on their plans and to discuss possible cooperation and a joint program. Though we are in some ways in rivals, it is clear that both institutes are more interested in cooperating that competing. We concluded that Elli would write up a proposal about how the two institutions could implement a joint program.
  • That afternoon, Elad Topel outgoing Director of Eco-Paths, Tali Adini, the new Director of Eco-Paths and I met with Howie Rodenstein, the Israel Ride Chair and FAI Board member. The meeting was Tali's first opportunity to meet with Howie. Tali is transitioning with Elad this week learning the ropes of organizing the Ride. 
  • The week was filled with lots of organizational meetings from Research Programs to the Academic Department. 
  • We said good bye to intern, Cameron Davidson who was here working on her Masters Thesis from Brisbane University. We welcomed Lisa Blake from Cornell University who will be working on planning and policy issues with Elli Groner. 
  • Wednesday afternoon, I was urgently called by Dorit Bannet, head of the Eilat Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative for an last minute meeting with Yossi Inbar, the Director-General of the Ministry for Environmental Protection who was visiting planned solar panel fields in the area. Yossi decided at the last minute to visit the Samar Sand Dunes as well. Dorit called me to quickly come to the dunes to meet Yossi and explain Sababa's position on saving the dunes from intended sand mining. We had sent the Ministry a letter asking that the planned mining be halted and that tests should be done in the areas already mined to see if it is possible to use land disturbed by previous mining rather than destroy 600 dunam of a pristine sand dune ecosystem. Yossi agreed to pay for part of the testing along with the Regional Council and the Ministry of Infrastructure.
  • For the final PELS session this week, Michelle Shachar invited Rabbi David Rosen and his wife Sharon Rosen to visit the institute and speak to the students.  David and Sharon are one of our current students, Amirit Rosen's parents.  Both David and Sharon are very active in coexistence efforts in Israel and each spoke to the students about their work.  Rabbi Rosen is the head of the AJC's Department for Inter-religious Affairs and Sharon Rosen is the co-director of Search for Common Grounds in Israel
  • Taal Goldman, Sababa Coordinator and I met with Sarit Cohen, the Sectretary of Beer Ora community near Eilat. Taal and I are meeting with the General Secretaries and eventually with members of all of the communities in the region in ordert to introduce Sababa to residents of the region and to present our postions on the different environmental issues we face. We discussed the Samar Sand Dunes, Timna Valley, the planned hotel in Timna Valley and the planned golf course at Beer Ora itself. 
  • That afternoon, I spoke at the regional research meeting, a bi-monthly meeting of researchers in the area. I presented the Arava Institute's Research Department's activities. 
  • Friday morning, I hosted Loyd and Alyson Fogler from Toronto Canada at the institute. The Foglers are active in philanthropy in the Jewish Community in Toronto and were very interested in hearing about the work of the institute and the regional renewable energy initiative.The productive visit was arranged by the Toronto Jewish Federation Partnership 2000 committee and the Hevel Eilot Regional Council.


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Weekly Report May 30th - June 4th

Weeks like this are the most difficult times for students and staff at the Arava Institute. The flotilla incident off the coast of Gaza, with the deaths of numerous foreign activists and the injuries and life threatening situation to Israeli soldiers generated anger and conflict among our students. At the same time, the mixed feelings of both staff and students towards the situation also created internal conflicts inside each one of us as we listened to the news and watched the television reports.
During times like this, I see my role as Director of the Arava Institute to keep the calm, to ensure that the students continue to feel comfortable on the kibbutz and to ensure that the kibbutz feels comfortable with the students. It is of course, not easy. At these times I do not see my role as explaining Israel's position to the students, giving a history lesson or using the opportunity to teach a message. I simply look for the right words to say to the students that will lower the flame under the pot and keep the pot from boiling over.
Before the week started, the Academic Department had been planning on sending the students on a two day trip to Jerusalem as part of the Peace Building and Environmental Leadership Seminar (PELS). The trip was scheduled for Thursday and Friday. On Monday morning when the events began to unfold on the news, the Academic Department Staff as well as other staff members, met to discuss whether or not it was right and safe to send the students to Jerusalem on the trip. The original program of the trip was to meet with politicians, journalists, human rights activists and alumni involved in an environmental project. After giving thought, the staff decided to go ahead with the trip but to make some adjustments to the program in order to avoid meetings in East Jerusalem. I also decided to join the students on the trip.
In the meanwhile, the student life staff, worked to create a safe space for the students to release their feelings in a way that would avoid hurting each other and would enable the program to continue to function. That evening, the student life staff helped the students organize an internal discussion that allowed them to exchange opinions and to get out their anger. It was a difficult discussion but the students used the many tools they had learned in PELS which enabled them to say difficult things to one another without things falling apart. Michelle Shachar, head of PELS and Student Life, and I made a strategic decision not to participate in the discussion but to give the students their space. Of course Program Associates were present, but the students ran the discussion themselves and it went on until the wee hours of the night. We understand that it was a very difficult discussion and that some students left still angry and conflicted.
Despite the difficulty, it seems that this session was enough to enable students to continue in the day to day campus life, going to class together, eating in the dinning room and preparing for the upcoming field trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Tuesday night, the night after the flotilla incident, I sat in front of the television, falling deeper and deeper into depression as I watched the Israeli and international coverage of the tragic events off the coast of Gaza. Suddenly I was reminded of a birthday party for Shira Kronich, one of our staff members, being held in the Keren Kolot lobby. My wife, Barbara and I were both happy to escape the televsion and walked over to the Keren Kolot guest houses.
We walked into the Keren Kolot lobby/coffee house as if we were entering a dream. About 30 students had organized a surprise party for Shira with cake, cookies, juice and so on. The students, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and North Americans, were all sitting together around one long table, smiling, laughing, telling jokes. As soon as Shira walked in, they burst into singing Happy Birthday in three languages of course. They acted like a group of students anywhere's else in the world, happy to take a break from studies and just enjoy being together.
On Thursday afternoon, the studetns left for a day and a half field trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In Tel Aviv, they met with Tania Hary, Director of International Relations of Gisha, an Israeli NGO whose goal is to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians through the Israeli legal system Gisha was the organiztion which helped the Arava Institute win its case to allow Palestinian students to study at the Arava Institute. The students met Tania in the outdoor park of old Jaffa. It was a beautiful night as Tania managed to overcome the surrounding noise to give the students a very vivid description of life in Gaza and some of the challenges faced by Gazan and West Bank Palestinans to travel. Obviously, many of our own students had no problem relating to these issues on a personal level. After the talk the students ate together in a great Middle Eastern restaurant - Abulafiah (I highly recommend it).
That eveing, the students went to spend the night at the Hava V'Adam Eco-Farm outside of Modiin. Two of our Arava alumni, Hayim Feldman and Dafna Dgani live and work on the farm.
The next morning, the students got a tour of the farm and some participated in one of the classes. After breakfast, the students packed up and we headed to Jerusalem for a few more meetings and lunch. Michelle, with the help of Miriam Sharton, the Associate Director of the Institute had organized a room in the Olive and Fish restaurant on Jabotinsky Street in Jerusalem (another restaurant I highly recommend). Before lunch, the students heard from two journalists, Amira Hass, who writes for the Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz and Tom Weiss, who hosts an American radio program called "The Ambassadors Show". Amira and Tom (both Israelis) represent very different perspectives on the blockade of Gaza and so the discussion was, let's say, quite lively, at times. Students participated fully in the discussions, asking quesitons, arguing and engaging in an issue that even for the North American students, has by now, become very personal. After lunch, the field trip closed with a talk from the two Co-Director's of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), Gershon Baskin and Hanna Senora. These two speakers were obviously in much more agreement than the previous speakers, though Hanna as a Palestinian was able to present the general mood of the Palestinian people, while Gershon concentrated on what he believes must happen in order for the proximity talks to succeed. Surprisingly, with all that is happening in the Middle East, both Hanna and Gershon are very optimistic that the end of the occupation and peace between Israelis and Palestinians under the two-state formula are within reach.
It was nice to finish the field trip and this week in general with a hopeful message.
As this tough week comes to a close, I am filled with awe at the continued courage and resiliance of our students. It is an unfortunate part of reality in this part of the world that as soon as conflict breaks out, the first thing that happens is the end of discourse. It is percieved as not honorable for enemies to speak to enemies and so often the secondary casualties of violence in the Middle East are the very coexistence activities between Palestinians and Jews that are designed to lead us out of the cycle of violence. The small revolution that is taking place at the Arava Institute is that the first thing that our students do in a time of conflict and crises is to meet and talk. The talks are difficult but that is how trust is built, by knowing you can say harsh things and still remain friends. The first reaction of our students, to meet and talk, during a time of crises may seem obvious and yet it is apparently not so obvious to the leaders in the region.

The political events overshadowed everything else that happened this week at the institue but I do want to mention some other important activities.
  • The institute held its first "Grant Writing" Course for staff and people from the region. The course was organized by Sarit Maagen Rosenfeld, our Hebrew grant writer, and was taught by David Epstein, one of Israel's leading experts in the field. Over 20 people attended the two day course. Five staff members took part  while the rest were paying participants from the local area. The course was so successful that we plan to do a second course on "Fundraising" in the fall.
  • The Arava Institute Research Programs staff held a department meeting reviewing the impressive achievements of the department. Dr. Clive Lipchin, head of the department began by laying out a clear vision of the departments strengths and concentrations. Iff in the past, the institute has been opportunistic in its pursuit of research funding, today the institute has 4 very clear areas of concentration, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, transboudary water management and ecosytems. The four areas of research are represented by the four research centers. In addition, the Arava Center for Sustainable Development in Arid Lands (ACSDAL) which is a partnership between the Institute, the Science Center and the Agriculture R&D Center, though not part of the Research Programs Department, a critical mechanism for dispersing the information and knowledge developed in our research programs.
  • The JNF organized a visit by a few trustees from the Reiger Foundation. The Reiger Foundation, located in Santa Barbara, California, works with the JNF to allocate scholarships to students studying sciences in Israeli universities. The trustees met with three of our students just before the students left for their field trip and after that we took the trustees on a tour of the institute.
Wishing you and the world a peaceful weekend.
David Lehrer