After our meeting with the minister, we suffered rush-hour traffic one more time, fought our way out of Tel Aviv and headed south, past Beer-Sheva (where years ago I visited the market, bought a keffiyeh like the typical young tourist, and later saw several Bedouin men running beside my bus, laughing and shouting, “Arafat! Arafat!”) and, as night fell, descended off the plateau of Negev Desert and down into the Arava Valley. We dropped our bags in a guest room at Kibbutz Lotan and then woke the next morning for breakfast and a tour of the kibbutz’s innovative eco-education facilities.

Netta, a resident (but not a member), gave us a brief history of Lotan, and then led us to the Bustan, the student quarters where she also lives—a series of energy-efficient mud-covered straw-bale huts, like earthen igloos or Luke Skywalker’s home on Tatooine. We tried out some of the solar ovens and then walked to the Ecokef, a demonstration park and teaching area, with a cool playground made up of clayed-over garbage, composting toilets and an organic garden, where we plundered tea leaves and the last of their tomatoes. “Permaculture is my religion,” Netta told us. And it’s here on Lotan (where members also practise Reform Judaism) that newcomers get initiated into this philosophy of living lightly on the land.

After lunch, we hooked up with Alex Cicelsky, the director of research and development at Lotan’s Center for Creative Ecology, and had a long, wide-ranging and engaging conversation about the history of this unique kibbutz, its mix of spiritual and ecological philosophies (an environmental spin on tikkun olan), the challenges of building eco-friendly buildings, and other topics related to how ecological literacy has sprouted out of the communal life of Lotan. He invited us to the kabalat shabat ceremony later that evening and for Friday night dinner, where we met some of the students and volunteers. The song and prayer and shared meal helped us appreciate the melding of spiritual and communal life in this fascinating desert community.

The only disappointment of the day? The sign on the gate to the swimming pool: “Closed due to sandstorm.”