As we drive south through the Judean Desert, the scenery succumbs to its natural state of sand. Not far from the road’s edge, a solitary camel negotiates a landscape of dunes, its head bobbing gently as it moves forward. Once we draw alongside the Dead Sea, we find a concessionaire offering access to the shoreline. The footing – technically a beach – is a constant series of sharp salt formations, uncomfortable even through sandals. The water’s composition is 30 percent saline, making it more than 8 1/2 times saltier than the ocean. In Hebrew, it’s called the Sea of Salt.
This is the lowest spot on the planet, and the water is amazingly buoyant, stinging my eyes when a small wave breaks over my floating shoulders. On the far shore east of where we float, Jordan is visible, and I’m acutely aware of the proximity of Egypt to the south, Lebanon and Syria to the north, and war on not-so distant borders. While I’m aware of how filled with conflict this part of the world is, and sensitive to those issues, the immediate surroundings are peaceful and serene.
After our bathing sojourn, we begin our journey to the kibbutz of Ein Gedi and its plantation of date and mango trees. Zebulun, a member since 1962, gives us a tour, explaining that the kibbutz depends on geothermal waters heated by an ancient volcano for its operations. Ein, she says, means water – and place names with that prefix designate a place with a natural water source. Zebulun says that the kibbutz system of community farming began during the Russian revolution, and that refugees from the conflict settled in Israel with strong socialist ideals and philosophies. Today, the kibbutz members coexist peacefully, despite their varied backgrounds, educations, and countries of origin.
From Ein Gedi, we travel to Masada, the famous site of King Herod’s fortress-palace. Still one of the world’s most remarkable archeological spots, the summit is far easier to reach today than it was in Roman times, thanks to a cable car. At the top, we wander the ruins of the amazing structures, which include a synagogue and an elaborate, three-chambered spa complete with pillars, ancient steam rooms, and bathing pools. The plumbing alone was a sophisticated technological feat that rivaled the bathing temples of Rome, and I try to imagine this place as it was when the Jewish freedom fighters made their long stand overlooking the Dead Sea.
As the sun sinks toward the horizon, we find our way to Zman Midbar (Desert Time), an ecological spiritual retreat center deep in the desert. The property, styled as a Bedouin camp, belongs to Zeffi Ha Negbi, and is run by Zeffi and his partner, Efrat Sar-Shalom. Sar-Shalom leads us through a meditation session in a serene, geometrical structure that opens to the sky.
“Here, we teach people about inner peace,” she tells us. “Our goal in the retreats and workshops we lead is to facilitate peace between countries, cultures, and the environment. And we make an effort to keep everything ecologically correct. The yoga building is made of rammed earth, and we operate exclusively with wind and solar power sources.”
Ha Negbi and Sar-Shalom lead groups to spiritual sites in the area, and also conduct spiritual workshops, yoga retreats, and teach the popular Course in Miracles published by the Foundation for Inner Peace. The couple entertains us with stories of desert life over a meal of traditional Bedouin dishes, including a delicate tisane infused with sage leaves. Filled and sleepy, we return to our accommodations. That night, I dream vividly of flying above the dunes, weightless and content.
The next stop on our expedition is Kibbutz Lotan. We make our way through the gardens, past rooms and living spaces decorated by local artists and sculptors, to the spa and Watsu Center. Our therapist, Hidai, leads us to an enormous, luxuriously appointed tent where the pool is located. We change into swimsuits, then make ourselves comfortable on piles of richly embroidered cushions. Hidai and our hostess Lisat Sela Pak bring out trays of fruit and a bottle of sweet muscat wine. As we relax, we learn that Hidai studied in Italy, and also practices Tui Na, reflexology, Shiatsu, and Thai massage. His passion, though, is water therapy, and he offers a variety of water-based healing treatments.
“Watsu is magic,” Hidai tells us. “The therapist and patient are in the water together, and the connection is bigger. Watsu is a treatment of love. Your heart chakra is open the whole time, and your heart and the therapist’s heart are next to one another.”
Perhaps it’s just the phenomenal therapy we’re treated to, or a combination of healing water and good company, but Kibbutz Lotan seems to be imbued with a peaceful flow of energy, where people from diverse backgrounds have come to work and live together regardless of the differences the outside world might like to impose upon them.
This feeling grows stronger as we move on to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, located not too far away at another community settlement, Kibbutz Ketura. Here, Jewish, Arab, Christian, and Muslim students work and live together in the pursuit of ecologically sustainable careers that will benefit the future of the planet. We’re shown around by a group of students who are here from Palestine, London, and as far away as Canada. Their hope and dedication is inspiring, and I leave feeling that perhaps we are, after all, evolving as a species.
On the way to the airport in Tel Aviv, we make a brief detour to Jaffa for a spa afternoon at Way of the Body, an Ayurvedic healing center run by Neta and Marian Schweitzer. The couple usher us into their beautiful home, and bring us glasses of tamarind juice. Neta guides me up a stairway into a quiet room with a floor mat, and for the next hour and a half, uses her body weight, hands, elbows, and knees to work sesame oil and a powder made from the pungent-smelling calamus root into my muscles. Her movements are deep and slow, and to me represent the very essence of the desert through which I’ve traveled for the past ten days.
On the long flight home, I consider how connecting spiritually to a place so defined by religion was harder for me than I imagined it would be. Ultimately, what I learned was powerful in its simplicity: Everything is a choice. You can separate yourself from others with borders, gender issues, racial definitions, societal branding, and religious disputes. Or, like so many of the people I spent time with in Israel, you can open your heart and your mind, and allow yourself to be lifted over those imaginary fences to a place where we’re all just people – living on the same planet, breathing the same air, and sleeping beneath the same moon.
Introduced recently by The Israel Ministry of Tourism, a new tourism service called Tourphone provides added comfort and guidance to those traveling in Israel. According to the Ministry, Tourphone offers information on local attractions and airports, along with emergency assistance and visa information. Once in the country, visitors can dial *3888 from any cell phone or land line 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and choose English or French language options. www.goisrael.com/Tourism_Eng/Articles/Tourphone.htm
El Al Airline
Hotel Mizpe Hayamim & Health Farm
Shiri Havkin Natural Touch
Masada National Park
Arava Institute for Environmental Studies
Way of the Body