Vivian Futran grew up in Westfield and belonged, with her family, to Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains. Coming home after years away at college and working, she describes how a “life-changing” eight months spent in Israel at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, on a program run by MASA Israel Journey, helped decide her career path. In January, she will begin a master’s program in environmental studies at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, as a result of that experience.
Most of my childhood was spent outdoors. Despite allergies, I was always rolling around in the grass, rescuing animals, and sending eco-minded letters to the local paper. Later, I completed a BA in political science at Duke University, with a concentration in international relations and global environmental issues. I moved to Washington, DC, after graduation in 2007, and entered the workforce as an idealistic environmental consultant implementing energy efficiency programs for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
I eventually came to realize that my ideal long-term job would be in the niche between science and policy, but was still not certain what to focus on in graduate school. The Arava Institute was a perfect stepping stone; it rekindled my love of research and problem-solving with an eye to the human element. With a desire to explore this path and return to Israel — which I had visited during college on a Birthright trip — I enrolled in the institute’s semester program.
In the southern Negev — just a stone’s throw from the border with Jordan — lies Kibbutz Ketura, home of the Arava Institute. When I first arrived there with my parents after two weeks of traveling through the greener north, I was shocked by the stark surroundings and humbled by the importance of the work that is pursued there. Students in the program address the Middle East conflict while tackling environmental degradation through academic work, excursions, and coexistence with fellow students.
Some 35 Israeli, Arab, and North American students take courses, lead research projects, travel, and participate in peace-building and environmental leadership sessions together. The institute placed me back in nature, doing hands-on work among peers who shared a common interest in both peace and environmental stewardship.
While we spent a great deal of time discussing politics and sharing personal stories of war and loss, we learned the most about cooperation from living and working together. Environmental issues do not respect political borders and thus provide a perfect way to bring people from all over the world together, in a region that is on the cutting edge of environmental initiatives.
Desire for peace
In the grassy quad on our campus, people could always be seen kicking around a soccer ball or reading for class under the sun. From the very first day, we were jolted by intense mountain biking as we toured a rocky nature reserve. The same evening, we relaxed cooking kabobs around a bonfire and played music late into the night. This presence of both intensity and serenity was a consistent background to our learning and growth.
We became very close during debates in our seminars, tracking desert gerbils at 4 a.m. during field research, and dancing late into the night at the kibbutz pub. While there were clashes, as in any family, real love and mutual respect for one another grew from our shared common ground. Together we realized our strength.
During my semester at Arava, I grew interested in the preservation of biodiversity in the Samar sand dunes, which are threatened by urban building industries. After studying and conducting field work on the issue in one of my classes, I designed and implemented an independent project to evaluate strategies for small-scale regional movements to spread awareness. By interviewing scientists, activists, and students about their experiences in grassroots campaigns and combining this with literature searches, I created a packet of best practices, which I sent to relevant organizations.
This kind of opportunity at the Arava Institute — to transform our studies into action — was invigorating. It pervaded not only our home on the kibbutz, but also our relationships with each other. Though our backgrounds, ages, personalities, and viewpoints were diverse, all of the students were united in the desire for peace and respect for nature.
I look forward to beginning my master’s in environmental studies at the University of Pennsylvania. After being engaged in the environmental and conflict-resolution work at the Arava Institute, where people from all over the world come together to repair the world, I feel uniquely prepared to make a difference in my field.