JERUSALEM (Dec. 18)
A guide showing an inquisitive group of Americans around the Arava kibbutz of Yotvata was asked what were the “qualifications” for an individual to become a member of the kibbutz. Without blinking an eyelash, the guide, Dan Whale, shot back: “I would say you should be a mentsch.”
It was not that membership was of primary concern for the 50 American visitors, participants in the uniquely informative Presidents Mission of the United Jewish Appeal. But for some, it was their first visit to Yotvata; for others, it was their first visit ever to a kibbutz.
Deep in the Arava, some 25 miles north of Eilat, Yotvata was founded in 1957 and today is an oasis amid the dry, hot and rugged terrain of Israel’s southern region. It was here that 50 of the more than 250 participants in the Presidents Mission chose to spend an afternoon.
About 600 persons live in Yotvata — a membership which includes about 250 youths under the age of 18. Fifty residents were born on the kibbutz, from where one can clearly see the imposing and picturesque Jordanian Hills in the not too far off distance.
Security is an issue, but not an overriding preoccupation. “We hardly had any problems along the border,” said Whale, a lean, bearded 42-year-old. “We feel quite safe.” Nonetheless, with the border just a few miles to the east, there are routine night watch patrols.
KIBBUTZ IS BASED ON A MILK ECONOMY
Yotvata is based on a milk economy, and is probably best known for its yogurt. It supplies about 15 percent of all the flavored yogurt in Israel, while it makes about 80 percent of its total income from milk products, according to Whale. Yotvata provides milk products to the population of the Negev from Eilat to Beersheba.
There are about 50 cows on the kibbutz and they don’t leave the cowshed, Whale said in response to a question. He explained that walking about drains the energy of the animals and “we want them to put all their energies toward producing milk.” They are milked three times a day.
While most kibbutzim and moshavim in Israel have cows, they sell their milk to dairies in the urban centers near Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. But on Yotvata, the milk is processed on the kibbutz within 24 hours, nearly a third of the time it takes for the milk from another area to be transported and processed. “The is important to milk quality,” Whale said.
The kibbutzim in the area send their children — about 150 all total — to the regional school of Yotvata. There, they are joined by the some 180 students from the kibbutz itself. The crunch of students had led to the construction of a new regional school on the kibbutz. It was nearing completion during the UJA delegation visit.
Most of the members of Yotvata are Israelis, though about 10 percent are emigrants from various countries such as the United States, South Africa, Canada and Denmark. One of those who came to Yotvata from another country was Martin Weinberg, a native of Cape Town, South Africa. He and his wife Rina and their four children have been at Yotvata for 17 years. The Weinbergs opened their home to this reporter and Larry Zusman of Dayton, Ohio, for an afternoon visit of tea, cake and conversation. Rina was born in Haifa and Martin came via London, where he was studying anthropology.
They enjoy the lifestyle of the kibbutz, the work and the hardships. Martin works as a gardener, maintaining the plush lawns and healthy shrubs on the kibbutz. They described themselves as supporters of Premier Shimon Peres, and said about 90 percent of the kibbutz voted in the last elections for the Labor Alignment.
The Weinbergs said they feel the educational system on the kibbutz for their children is very good. Rina, meanwhile, is enrolled in a new experimental program — An Institute of Learning — which has classes on the kibbutz for seven months, meeting every Sunday from early morning through late afternoon.
Before leaving the kibbutz for the bus ride to the airport in Eilat where the UJA delegation boarded military transport planes for a brief flight back to Tel Aviv, Whale explained what the “true qualifications” were for an individual to become a member of the kibbutz.
“I would say that if you are a person who really wants to join, to be part of the community, to work as everyone else works, to be active in social activities, to raise your children the way they are raised on a kibbutz, then you can be accepted,” he said.