the Tzin Desert in the Negev (click to enlarge)

the Tzin Desert in the Negev (click to enlarge)

The Tzin Desert in the Negev (click to enlarge)

Please do click on each of the above three images.  You will be amazed by the detail!

A good friend of mine who made aliyah from my home town many years ago is now one of Israel’s top research scientists, and is internationally renowned.  She lives in one of the most fascinating places in Israel, and was nice enough to take time off work (she had just returned from yet another European conference) to show me around.

Midreshet Ben Gurion was founded in the 1960’s, the brainchild of David Ben Gurion.  Everyone knows of his dream to “make the desert bloom” but Midreshet Ben Gurion was his pet project – an academic and residential utopia for scientists engaged in all manners of desert studies.  Ben Gurion University has its Desert Studies graduate school campus there with an international student body studying for advanced degrees in desert architecture, solar technology, and desert agriculture, to name a few.  Several research facilities are also located there, including the National Solar Energy Center, and the Blaustein Center for Scientific Cooperation.  Housing for professors and researchers used to be extremely limited and the waiting list was long.  Originally the only residents permitted to live in Midreshet Ben Gurion were those affiliated with the college.

The reverse side of these solar panels is highly reflective. Alongside the panels are a series of water-filled, clear tubes. The solar energy collected heats the water in the tubes, which produces algae. The algae is harvested and used as food by commercial fisheries


A highly reflective surface on the thing that looks like an inverse satellite dish harnesses the sun's rays. The amount of energy and light harnessed by this dish is extremely intense and concentrated, with the hope of some day of using solar technology to replace current laser energy used in medical/surgical devices.

Desert Studies campus entrance (click to enlarge)

A building on the Desert Studies - Midreshet Ben Gurion campus

beautiful graduate student housing is available for international students - singles, married couples, and families

recently built student housing at Midreshet Ben Gurion

But around 10 years ago, they decided to expand.  Two hundred fifty custom-built houses were erected, all filled with academicians, scientists, and their families.  Now, yet another 350 homes are slated to be built, open to the general public  – when plans were announced, the lots were sold within 10 days.

In the Neve Tzin neighborhood of Midreshet Ben Gurion. The house to the right is at the canyon edge. The wonderful views of the Tzin Desert at the beginning of this blog entry were taken from its backyard!

a residential area of Midreshet Ben Gurion

Some of the houses look like they belong in Santa Fe, New Mexico!


these solar panels on the rooftop of my friend's house provide her hot water supply

These solar panels on the rooftop of my friend's home provide 100% of her electricity needs. Just as we need to periodically take a broom and remove snow from our solar panels in Maine, my friend must frequently take a broom to sweep a fine coat of desert sand from her solar electric panels!

It doesn't look like much - yet! - but my friend's garden is planted with olive, pomegranate, citrus, peach, apricot, plum and avocado trees, watered with drip irrigation directly into the roots of the plants that cling to the sand (I wouldn't call it soil!). Many families recycle their "gray" water (run-off water from showers, sinks, and washing machines) so they can use it in their gardens, to keep their backyards green. (click to enlarge)

Taken from my friend's rooftop, looking across the street at the vast desert emptiness, where a new subdivision of 350 homes will go. In the distance you can see the first home of the new tract being built. When these lots were offered to the public, all 350 lots were sold out in 10 days. (click to enlarge)

So what makes Midreshet Ben Gurion so special?

It really is a self-contained village of some of the brightest researchers living in Israel today.  In addition to the college, administrative offices and private villas, there is a small pizza shop, market, synagogue, health clinics, elementary, middle and high schools, a swimming pool and garden store (nursery) as well as a mountain bike shop that sells and rents some pretty serious-looking bicycles.   An army base is located near its entrance.  Several giant research projects hug the edge of Midreshet Ben Gurion: a Rube Goldberg-like structure that uses  solar-heated water that runs along huge lengths of clear pipes, to produce algae (food) for fish farms; and the harnessing of sunlight to replace laser beams used in the medical field.  Buses come hourly to and from Be’er Sheva, so even though it feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere – –  and it is! – – you’re never too far away from civilization.

The community synagogue at Midreshet Ben Gurion. It is attended primarily by Sephardim.

Midreshet Ben Gurion sits high at the edge of cliffs overlooking the Tzin Desert, which is mentioned in Tanach as the place King David fled and hid himself while Saul fruitlessly followed him in hot pursuit.  While summer temperatures can easily get to 110 degrees, nights are rarely above 70 and there is always a breeze.  In winter evening temperatures can hit below freezing.  The day I was there with my friend, a relentless wind blew fine sand everywhere, blocking the incredible views.  The sand invaded every pore, intruding in even the smallest cracks in homes that had shut windows and doors to avoid the grit as much as possible (a hopeless task).

Despite the desolation, the area is home to several oases and nature reserves, all part of the Israel parks system and beautifully maintained by them.  Tour buses stop here frequently to pay their respects to the burial sites of Ben Gurion and his wife, Paula – but a real treasure lies within the vast landscape, full of amazing geology, wildlife, archeological sites and even water that is often overlooked by tourists.  Eco tourism has made this a popular destination for hikers and there are many mountain bike trails, and the Field School for nature studies offers groups and individuals use of their hostel.


Thorny spring flowers in the desert, despite the hard, cracked, sandy ground

A desert road within the nature reserve. Sand and dust obscure the distant landscape and the sky. (click to enlarge)

a fearless ibex buck shows off his horns

he came to the edge of the road, looking for handouts


My friend first took me to Machtesh Rimon, a huge crater which is Israel’s “Grand Canyon,” but the views were impeded by the sandstorm.  From there we went to an archeological site along a former “Spice Trail,” where Naboteans built entire cities.

this Nabotean structure is high on a rocky hill, overlooking the vast desert. Unfortunately views were obscured by the sandstorm.

Archeological ruins of a Nabotean home. They inhabited the area until about 600 CE.

I was literally dumbstruck by the beauty of the Tzin Desert’s desolation. To say it was “awesome” – now such a common expression – almost cheapens it.  But “awe” doesn’t even come close – it was simply a powerful experience to see it and to live it.  I was completely mesmerized by the huge variety of landscapes.  G-d’s presence was tangible; I felt electrified.

These steep stairs carved into the rock may look intimidating, but this was a very small part of an easy, level trail in Ein Avdat Nature Reserve that leads to an oasis. (click to enlarge)

Ein Avdat oasis (click to enlarge)

I suppose a completely detached and objective person might say it reminded him of the Grand Canyon.  I’ve been there, but I did not have anywhere close to the same reaction as I did at the Tzin Desert.  It was different at the Tzin; I think it’s because it is part of the Land of Israel and its holiness is manifest on such a grand scale.

I connected very deeply to this  place.

(In fact I returned the day before my last day in Israel, when the sandstorm abated and the skies cleared.  I knew I could not go back to the US without taking photos of the Tzin Desert, hoping I could somehow record and evoke its power.)

It made the grandeur of Maine in our corner of the White Mountain National Forest seem very small by comparison.

My friend and I had started out the day at 5:30 a.m., so we could make the most of our Negev tour before she went in late for work.  Since she works just north of Be’er Sheva, she offered me a ride back to my daughter’s apartment.  Fifteen minutes outside of Midreshet Ben Gurion, in the middle of the Negev on a particularly empty stretch of paved road, we passed a corral of goats next to a small structure and not much else.

“Would you like to make a quick stop to buy some goat cheese?” she asked.

The Israeli government has been quick to sell large tracts of desolate land at bargain-basement prices to individuals, hoping that they will establish ranches and farms.  In fact, Genesis Seeds Ltd, the largest producer of organic seeds in the world (they export to 30 countries around the world, including the US) is located a few miles south of Midreshet Ben Gurion.

Though modest in appearance, the Naot goat dairy farm we visited is moderately successful, producing “boutique” goat milk yogurt, soft cheeses such as feta, and a delicious pecan-encrusted brie, as well as exotic hard cheeses, including the kiwi-camembert variety I taste-tested and ultimately bought.  Although the farmer, his wife and six children are located along the road, it’s quite isolated and many miles from the nearest neighbor or security forces.  Unfortunately their herd and equipment is constantly vulnerable to infiltration from thieving Bedouins, and due to political sensitivities they (the farmer and his family) cannot successfully defend themselves without being accused of “over-reacting” and “provocative behavior.”  It’s no wonder that few Israelis have become pioneers of single-family homesteads, and that many that have tried to establish farms have jumped ship, when after years of hard work their entire livelihood can be wiped out overnight by theft.  The livestock and farming equipment is rarely, if ever, recovered; assailants are rarely caught or punished.

The dairy farm and homestead, where we purchased delicious goat cheeses and yogurt. (click to enlarge)

It may sound odd, but my visit to Midreshet Ben Gurion in Israel was the closest thing I found to my new life in Maine.  Although the desert landscape and weather couldn’t be more different from my little enclave  in the White Mountains, there were many similarities in lifestyle.  Yes it was remote – – but decent shopping and medical care were 45 minutes away, along with “civilized” cultural opportunities.  There were mountains, nature reserves, wildlife and lots of hiking opportunities.  There was the independent spirit of its residents, and the desire for a quiet life where privacy was jealously guarded – – yet there were enough caring neighbors nearby to help in the event of an emergency.  Midreshet Ben Gurion is safe and basically crime-free.  There was no hustle and bustle, no bus exhaust, no highrise apartments or claustrophobic population density.  It may not have been a “typical” place; it was merely a different aspect of Israel, settled by people who loved the Land, who  felt a deep spiritual connection to it, whether they were religiously observant or not.

It made me realize that despite living  there many years ago and having traveled throughout Israel during that time, there was still so much that remained to be explored and experienced, and any preconceived notion that I “know”  Israel and Israelis was simply ignorant – – and arrogant – –  on my part.

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