The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies has taken on two seemingly impossible tasks.
One is that it exists to assist our beleaguered natural world. Two, it does so by bringing Jews and non-Jewish Middle Easterners together in the Israeli desert to work and study. Yes, together, and no, it does not go perfectly.
Dr. David Lehrer has toiled for it to all work, and you can ask him about that and more when he visits with Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun over the weekend of March 4-6. The Jewish Community Relations Council and the Israel Center, both programs of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, plus Women of Emanu-El and CEEBJ are cosponsors.
Lehrer led the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies for more than 20 years and is now the international development director for it. This year he is also a lecturer at Boston University. The current weekend plan is that he will visit Milwaukee for several open-to-the-community events at CEEBJ. The whole plan will shift to fully virtual if needed, depending on the state of the pandemic.
The Lehrer visit is a direct result of CEEBJ Cantor David Barash’s deepening involvement with the Israel Ride, an annual bike ride that supports the Arava Institute, Hazon and the Jewish National Fund.
Barash and his wife Debra met Lehrer when they went themselves on the Israel Ride from Jerusalem to Eilat in 2017.
It was inspiring. In 2019, David Barash organized a team of 13, and for the November 2022 Israel Ride, he’s brought together a team of 17, mostly from Wisconsin. Barash is now on an Israel Ride marketing committee and heard that Lehrer would be in Boston.
“It started the wheels turning: Now that he’s in the states we should bring him out here,” Barash recalled.
So how does that work?
Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians working together to build a more sustainable and peaceful Middle East – how does that work?
When the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies was founded in the 1990s, it was at first believed that “we could just bring a bunch of Jews and Arabs together in a room and teach them about the environment, because that’s something everybody can agree on,” Lehrer said.
“We found out very quickly, that doesn’t work,” he said. “If we didn’t initiate the conversation, then the conversation wouldn’t happen.”
The Institute thus created a program called the “Peace Building Leadership Seminar,” which was added to studies on topics including water, energy, nature, conservation, environmental law and environmental education ethics.
The Peace Building Leadership Seminar is once-a-week, not for credit program, required for all students.
“It’s where we talk about what they don’t want to talk about. We talk about history, politics, religion, war, occupation, terrorism, and because it’s the Middle East, these sessions are not very quiet. And they often end with the students screaming and yelling at each other and stomping out the door. But, you know, because the institute is located in the middle of the desert, in the middle of nowhere, they really have no place to go and head back to the same dormitories, where they’re all living together. Jews and Arabs are sharing tea, sharing coffee, sharing space.”
Lehrer said these efforts act as a valve to relieve pressure, which can often come from external events in the news.
“In the United States, a lot of times on university campuses, they talk about a safe space as a place where nobody talks politics, nobody can talk about any hot button issues,” he said. “At the Arava Institute, we consider a safe space the exact opposite. It’s a place where anybody can say anything that they feel about their opinions, about their differences, but in a way that is accepting of the other, in a way that allows you not only to state your opinion, but to be able to listen to the other.”
“And we do this through training people really how to talk about the most difficult issues in the region, and still stay colleagues, stay friends and work together on the environment. And I think that that’s really the biggest achievement of the Arava Institute.”
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Weekend events: “Environmental Peace Building in the Middle East”
- Friday, March 4, 6:15 p.m. Environmental Shabbat Worship service. Israel’s role in meeting the challenge of the climate crisis in the Middle East.
- Saturday, March 5, 9 a.m. Shabbat Morning Study Minyan. Climate Change and Regional Stress in the Middle East – What can Israel do?
- Sunday, March 6, 6:30 p.m. Arava Institute presentation. Nature Knows No Borders: Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and international students learning together how to protect the environment and build peace at the Arava Institute.
All events are free and open to the community – in person or online. Call Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun at 414-228-7545 or visit Ceebj.org for details and to register.