(February 14, 2018 / JNS) Israel’s Arava desert seems an unprepossessing place to find uplifting stories of love. But looks are deceiving, and what may appear as a largely barren landscape to outsiders is in reality much more hospitable—and full of life and love.
Samantha met her husband, Idan Levy, while he was traveling in her hometown of Bogota, Colombia, in the early 2000s. She was attracted to his adaptability and how he seemed to carry in his backpack a possible solution for every conceivable eventuality. “He wasn’t like the [Colombian] guys I knew; he was someone who was able to fix his own problems,” she said.
Despite a long (in both duration and distance) courtship, Samantha, who by that time had finished her undergraduate studies, came to a crossroads. With a place to study for an MBA in Spain, Samantha returned to Israel to visit Idan and realized that everything was as good as it had been on a previous visit. She converted to Judaism and they began married life, working and living in Tel Aviv.
But for Idan, whose parents moved to the Arava around 40 years ago and raised a family there, the siren call to return to his roots was a powerful one. “The desert is my landscape,” he said. “From childhood, this is what I know and what I feel comfortable with.”
Yael met Amit Meir while they were both traveling in Australia, following sherut leumi (National Service) and army service, respectively. Finding a home away from home at the Chabad House in Melbourne, the two began dating. Yael, originally from Haifa, studied for a bachelor’s degree in interior design. Amit, who grew up in Hazeva and has a deep connection to the land that his father farmed, knew that he wanted to be with Yael, but also realized that he would be happiest in the Arava.
Amit’s commitment to the land runs deep. He set up the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training, a facility enabling students from Asia and Africa—including countries that do not have official diplomatic relations with Israel, such as Indonesia—to come and learn how an area with a severe water deficit manages to be such a uniquely bountiful area. Jewish National Fund-USA, responsible for much of the ongoing community building taking place in the Arava, annually provides funding to bring some 1,200 students to the center.
Amit’s latest project is “Adam v’Adamah,” designed for Israeli teens to receive regular school lessons and subjects, but also to combine that with agricultural labor. Through their contact with the earth, the program wants to imbue a deep love for the land—nurturing, nourishing and also protecting it. At the same time, it’s also reflective of the desert where it takes place—a community where people do things because they need to be done, not because they expect elevated status.
It’s not just couples or halves of couples indigenous to the Arava who have found love there.
Hwtashae Lumhkawng journeyed from his home in northern Myanmar to learn about agriculture at AICAT in 2011. While there, a woman from Myanmar’s south, Mya Mya Maw, enchanted him; he found her natural intelligence and problem-solving abilities a gift of great beauty.
Hwtashae and his wife took the opportunities presented to them not only to learn all they could from Israeli farmers about agriculture, but also to study at both Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, gaining a degree in planned science with a focus on food safety and security. “The fruit and benefits from this opportunity started from the agricultural school and the Arava desert,” said Hwtashae.
The lasting effect of the Arava—and Hwtashae and his wife’s love for it—did not end with their time in the fields or the classroom. She recently gave birth to a son, whom they decided to call Arava even though it’s usually considered a girl’s name.
But Hwtashae was clear about the name: “He is my first son. And I always want to remember the Arava . . . it has given such a precious and meaningful life to my family and me.”