Experience gained as a green apprentice at Kibbutz Lotan is now applied to eco-projects in low-income areas of Minneapolis
By JOSH TOLKAN
After graduating from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., with a concentration in environmental and technology studies, I was interested in gaining hands-on ecological experience and seeing Israel. On Kibbutz Lotan’s Green Apprenticeship program, I was able to explore the fields of permaculture and natural building.
My Lotan experience was sponsored in part through MASA Israel Journey, a joint project of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel. The program enables young adults to spend time in Israel interning, volunteering or studying. (MASA has many programs, so check them out — if Kibbutz Lotan isn’t right for you, another one will be.) While I always had a strong interest in the environment and served as the nature counselor at a day camp during summer breaks from college, Kibbutz Lotan gave me the tools and vision to lead an environmentally conscious life. On the green apprenticeship, I led a truly inspired life for 10 long weeks.
The team of green apprentices would pick vegetables from the garden and use them in homemade breakfasts with hot, homemade pita bread cooked on an earthen hearth. The entire team of nine lived life communally — experience that taught us all important life lessons in teamwork and interpersonal relations.
Our training included practice building unique gardens that employed various composting strategies and planting techniques. We also practiced natural building techniques while constructing straw bale- and mud plaster-covered geodesic domes as well as other structures around the kibbutz. A few other apprentices and I also built a sunflower-shaped bench solely from used material, including old tires and plastic bins.
The most important lesson I gleaned from my experience was probably the simplest one: encourage people, especially children, to connect with the earth. In order to craft a population that cares about the environment, children must have the experience of putting their hands in the earth — planting a seed and watching it become a plant.
Upon my return, I took this lesson with me in my work at JCC Rainbow Day Camp (RDC) in Fredonia, Wisc., where I had worked as the “Nature Guy” for three summers in high school and college. Upon returning to RDC, I decided to go beyond nature lessons and bring some Israeli flavor to the camp, encouraging the kids to get their hands dirty. I started Kibbutz Keshet and worked with the campers to plant a garden, build an earth oven and do team building activities relating to kibbutz life.
Recently, I started volunteering for a program through Project for Pride in Living in Minneapolis called Roots and Reading, which combined reading and gardening for children from low-income families.
I recently received my master’s degree in urban planning with a certificate in metropolitan design from the University of Minnesota. Volunteering in the Roots and Reading program led to an AmeriCorps job at Project for Pride in Living (PPL), a nonprofit that builds low-income housing and fights poverty throughout the Twin Cities. There, I work on a variety of projects, including home repair programs and several landscaping initiatives, such as redesigning poorly engineered storm water ponds.
I am also involved in PPL’s Hawthorne EcoVillage development in North Minneapolis, an area of the Hawthorne Neighborhood that is stricken with foreclosed vacant homes. PPL will completely redevelop four square blocks with a variety of environmentally friendly housing types. There will be community gardens and low impact landscaping featuring native plants. The entire development will be certified with LEED for Neighborhood Development through the U.S. Green Building Council.
Though I had not expected to find such a green-conscious community in the small country, its presence in Israel soon made sense to me. As tikkun olam, or seeking to repair the world, is a core Jewish value, environmental awareness should be a central part of Judaism. In everything I do, I try to remember the values I gained on Kibbutz Lotan and incorporate them into my life.
Josh Tolkan lives in Minneapolis.