On and Off the Beaten Track in . . . Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu

by | in Israel
Photo courtesy of Bio-Tour Sde Eliyahu

Photo courtesy of Bio-Tour Sde Eliyahu

A religious kibbutz that is a world leader in the technology of organic farming

“God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it” (Bereishit 2:15).

In Israel, the words of the Bible come alive in many ways. Indeed, to members of Sde Eliyahu, a religious kibbutz in the Emek Hama’ayanot region, the above verse springs to life as a contemporary imperative for us to see this world as our Gan Eden and to guard and preserve it.

Sde Eliyahu was founded in 1939 as one of more than fifty Homa U’Migdal (Tower and Stockade) settlements established between 1936 and 1939 prior to the implementation of the 1939 White Paper in which the British severely restricted further Jewish immigration to Palestine. To forestall Arab attacks and British opposition, these settlements needed to be built by surprise. Literally overnight, pioneers would move to the chosen site, usually selected for strategic considerations, and erect a wall and watchtower, thus satisfying the technical requirements for a settlement according to British law. (Hence the name Homa U’Migdal.) Living in tents, under primitive conditions, the settlers would quickly establish an agricultural infrastructure around the new “settlement.” Many of these settlements grew into the kibbutzim of today. Some, like Sde Eliyahu, were established as religious kibbutzim. The idealistic founders of the religious kibbutzim believed that the collective lifestyle is of paramount importance and were deeply committed to Torah and to building Eretz Yisrael.

The concept is simple: undo the damage of chemical pest control and encourage what nature intended.

Sde Eliyahu is located just south of Beit She’an in a cluster of religious kibbutzim which also includes Tirat Zvi, Ein HaNatziv and Shluchot. In 1970, Mario Levy, a Sde Eliyahu kibbutz member, began investigating organic farming. Aware that poisonous fertilizers were not only leaving an impact on the crops but were also slowly seeping into the earth as well as into the water table, the residents of Sde Eliyahu sought a way to raise their crops organically—without pesticides. As more and more members of the kibbutz bought into the idea of pesticide-free agriculture, Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu began to emerge as a pioneer in the field. The kibbutz, which prides itself on “working with, not against nature,” grows all seven varieties of plants that the Land of Israel was blessed with in the Torah. It also raises dairy cattle and poultry, and is on the cutting edge of research and development in organic farming.

israelAs I discovered on a recent visit to Sde Eliyahu, home to some 150 families, nature itself provides the secret to eliminating the need for damaging and poisonous pesticides. The kibbutznicks-turned-scientists slowly began to discover that “good bugs” found in nature would attack the pests that were harming the crops. The kibbutz established Bio–Bee (www.biobee.com), a company that mass produces beneficial insects and mites for agricultural purposes. It also raises bumblebees for natural pollination in greenhouses and open-field crops. In state-of-the-art greenhouses, Bio–Bee provides “good bugs” with optimal conditions to reproduce. The concept is simple: undo the damage of chemical pest control and encourage what nature intended. Bio–Bee exports eight different species of biological control agents, plus pollinating bumblebees, to thirty-two countries ranging from Japan to Chile. About 45 percent of its market is domestic. In Israel alone, Bio-Bee products have enabled sweet pepper farmers to reduce the use of chemical pesticides by 75 percent.

Today, Sde Eliyahu remains a purely agricultural kibbutz. All of its industries are directly related to agriculture. It is exciting to see how in the twenty-first century a group of idealistic religious people think “green” and tenaciously cling to their ideals of communal living coupled with preservation of the land and nature.

Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu grows crops organically, using beneficial mites and insects to devour harmful crop pests.

Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu grows crops organically, using beneficial mites and insects to devour harmful crop pests. Photos: www.Sasson-Photos.com

Recently, the kibbutz began offering tours to the general public, providing a glimpse into organic agriculture. Called Bio–Tours, the two-hour-long tours include fascinating hands-on demonstrations and exhibits of live insects and bumblebees. The Bio-Bee tour guides are well-versed in organic agriculture and ecological solutions and are articulate, passionate and inspiring. Tours are geared to participants of all ages and are available in English (but must be arranged in advance). Although winter is an ideal season for a visit as the temperatures in the Beit She’an region are moderate, a trip to the region during the spring or fall can be very enjoyable as well.

There is much to see and do in the Beit She’an region. The excavations at the National Park, just a few miles from Sde Eliyahu, are in and of themselves worth a trip there. The ancient synagogue mosaics at Beit Alpha and on the grounds of nearby Ein HaNatziv offer glimpses into thriving Jewish communities in the period of the Mishnah and Talmud.

Sde Eliyahu reveals the possibilities of living in harmony with nature and promoting a healthier and better life. The combination of an Orthodox lifestyle with organic farming in a vibrant, versatile and cooperative community is certainly worth experiencing. I cannot think of a more powerful way to combat the popular anti-Israel sentiments so prevalent in the world today than advancing the image of Israel as a pioneer in agriculture, technology and medicine, working for the benefit of mankind and the world. Understanding a side of modern Israel that is creative, vibrant, innovative and on the cutting edge of the world’s leading technology is almost as important as viewing the country’s ancient past. “Etz chayim Hi, this is our living Torah,” “Ki miTzion teitzei Torah, and from Zion it shall go forth.”

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Working in the organic fields
Photo courtesy of Bio-Tour Sde Eliyahu

Peter Abelow is a licensed tour guide and the associate director of Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel. Keshet specializes in creating and running inspiring family and group tours that make Israel come alive “Jewishly.” He can be reached at 011.972.2.671.3518 or at peter@keshetisrael.co.il.

To  hear an interview with Peter Abelow, please visit http://www.ou.org/life/israel/create-perfect-israel-vacation-itinerary-peter-abelow-stephen-savitsky/#.UTdyp6z02IA.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2013.

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