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Sustainability in the sand
The ultimate “eco-kibbutz” is Lotan, situated in the arid Arava desert, 51km north of the Red Sea resort town of Eilat. Guests can sleep in mud houses and learn about permaculture, sustainable building and geodesic domes on a four-week to four-month English-language "Green Apprenticeship". The kibbutz, set against the backdrop of the red Edom Mountains and the golden sand dunes of the Jordanian border, is a great place to watch birds migrating to and from Africa by day and gaze at the stars by night.

"People are inspired when they see what we’ve done under tough conditions," said programme director Mark Naveh, who has lived on the kibbutz since 1989. "Lotan is the only kibbutz that is part of the global eco-village network. I believe it’s a model for sustainable existence, which is going to become more and more necessary as time goes on."

Lotan is also one of just 20% of kibbutzim in Israel that is still a fully co-operative, income-sharing community. "It doesn’t matter if you’re the manager of the dairy or taking care of the kids or working in the kitchen, everyone gets the same allowance," he explained.

Across the highway, another kibbutz is also endeavouring to make the desert bloom. Kibbutz Ketura – a date palm oasis in the sand – opened the Middle East's first solar field in June 2011. Its 20 acres of solar panels, founded by entrepreneurial kibbutz members, is a separate business backed by major corporations including Siemens. The electricity goes into the national grid and provides energy and money for the kibbutz. Ketura is also home to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which runs courses on water conservation, sustainable agriculture and renewable energy. Students and travellers can stay at the onsite Kibbutz Ketura Country Lodging, comprising 45 modern apartments each with its own kitchen, balcony or lawn.

"The kibbutz has changed vastly in the last decade and a half, from a community dependent solely on agriculture to a diverse, entrepreneurial and innovative economy which still retains its core values of sharing," said Leah Kayman, educator and public relations director at Ketura.

All over Israel, kibbutzim are changing in different ways. A relatively new phenomenon is the rise of the “urban kibbutz”; these co-operative groups, usually found in low demographic areas such as Kibbutz Tamuz in the town of Beit Shemesh and Kibbutz Migvan in the town of Sderot, are very active in the local community. Members of these urban kibbutzim live on the same street, share their income and contribute to local centres for youth, physical disability and Arab-Jewish coexistence. Although these urban kibbutzim are not hotels, they do indicate a trend in taking the co-operative concept out of the country and into the city.

Shabetai believes the kibbutz will always need to reinvent itself. The LA Times interviewed him about the changing kibbutzim back in 1989. And in the future, there will likely be more people asking, “What exactly is a kibbutz?”

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