Archive for March, 2011

Wrapping It Up

March 31, 2011

Well, here I am on the final day of the Murray Fromson AABGU media mission – hard to believe it’s over. Fortunately, I still have several more days here in Israel – though they will likely not be any less hectic, given how many friends, relatives and professional contacts I have to see before leaving. To be clear – visiting Israel is no vacation for me. But don’t get me wrong – I am thrilled to be here again after being away for close to four years.

Whereas I did my best to be clever in the past few days to find an organizing concept for my blog posts/travel log, at this point the best I can do is play with the phrase “wrapping it up” (or variations thereof) – which is basically what we are doing today. Can I really use the phrase in relation to everything we did today? You bet. Just watch me.

First, we visited the new Beresheet Hotel in Mitzpe Ramon, an incredibly high-end eco-friendly luxury resort seemingly in the middle of the Negev desert. Isrotel, which is developing the resort is banking on an increasing interest in ecotourism in the region. The marketing manager claims that the hotel, which only officially opens (and it is going to be a soft opening) in a few weeks to accommodate Passover break guests, is already fully booked and has a waiting list. The buildings of the resort wrap around the lip of the majestic Ramon Crater.

Breakfast on the deck of the main building at the Beresheet Hotel - it felt like we were floating over the edge of the Ramon Crater.

Next, we had an archeological tour with BGU professor Hendrik J. Bruins of the Avdat historical site. Lucky us, the temperature started climbing today – just as we were standing out on a high plateau in the desert with the sun beating down on our heads. At least we weren’t doing this in the middle of the summer. That would have been punishing, while today’s conditions were merely uncomfortable. We all learned a lot about the Nabateans and the Byzantine Romans by examining the ruins which not only sat atop the mountain, but also wrapped around it in spots.

A cross-shaped mikveh-sized baptismal at the top of Avdat

Camel rides and a lunch in a Bedouin tent followed. Many thought that this was the best meal of the trip (it was a hard call, though, since we were fed VERY well all along). I especially enjoyed wrapping the Bedouin pita (different from the usual pita everyone is familiar with) around the salads and hummus.

Lunch in the Bedouin tent. Basket of Bedouin pita in the foreground on the tray.

We wrapped it all up with a relaxing visit to the Neve Midbar spa in the Ramat Negev Regional Council area, where we could wrap ourselves in robes for a massage or in a towel at the pool.

And with that, I am going to wrap this up.

© Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Deep In The Desert

March 30, 2011

The other day I bought BGU t-shirts for my sons (but fear not, Boys – it’s not a case of “My mother went to Israel and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”). One of them said, “Ben-Gurion University of the Negev: Powered by People.” Based on what I learned today at The Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at the Sde Boker campus of BGU, I think the university’s slogan could also be “Power to the People.”

At this point, you may be thinking radical or liberation political movements, but I am referring more to the impressive work of the professors and research fellows at The Jacob Blaustein Institutes in sustainable energy and agriculture and biotechnology that is critical to fueling us and our way of life (and in particular the 45% of the world’s population that lives in deserts and dryland areas – a statistic given to us by Dr. Alon Tal, a – if not the – father of the Israeli green movement, whom we bumped into on campus).

Dr. Alon Tal, a BIG name in the Israeli green movement

As before, I didn’t quite catch all the technical scientific details, but I did come away with some of the major messages the experts we met with were trying to convey. Dr. David Faiman lost me when he started to get into the nitty gritty of photovoltaics at the Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Center. I did, however, appreciate his telling us that there has been “a silent revolution in the cost of solar energy” that is making it far more affordable. He proposes that hurdles in the way of getting solar energy into Israel’s existing power grid can be surmounted, and that with the development of proper storage technology, solar could provide 90% of Israel’s electricity needs (with the remaining 10% provided by gas turbines in the middle of the night when there is no sun and solar storage is empty).

At the BGU National Solar Energy Center

We also met with Dr. Jack Gilron and Dr. Moshe Herzberg of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research. Without clean, safe drinking and appropriate agricultural water – something sorely lacking in this and other desert regions – the power to sustain life will be lost. These two professors shared with us their research into desalination membrane materials and treatments, as well as vertical evaporation techniques, and flow reversal for reverse osmosis technologies (please don’t ask me to explain all of this, because I’m not sure I can at this point). I took special note of the fact that they are involved in projects with Palestinians colleagues in Nablus and with others in Jordan (where residents of the capital, Amman, do not have fresh flowing water every day).

And speaking of desalination membrane research and Jordan, I had the opportunity to interview a PhD student from Jordan who is working in this field. He is one of very few Jordanian students who have boldly come to BGU (and Israel in general) to take advantage of the exceptional education here. This student, Amer Sweity, will be the first Jordanian from Jordan to receive a PhD from BGU.

Jordanian BGU PhD student Amer Sweity

Tours of labs and greenhouses with Dr. Aaron Fait, Dr. Shimon Rachmilevich and Dr. Naftali Lazarovitch, all of whom work in the French Associates Institute for Agriculture and Biotechnology of Drylands, helped us understand the interdisciplinary work being done in understanding how plants and crops can survive under stressful conditions (who doesn’t find living in the desert stressful?). Their work is also focused, of course, on developing new varieties of crops that can thrive in these conditions, as well as agricultural techniques to promote optimum and economic (in terms of both water amount and money) growth.

Naftali Lazarovitch ingeniously used a slowly rotating cow milking carousel in his irrigation study set-up.

We can’t all be scientists, so I was very pleased that we also had the chance to meet with Dr. Yaakov Garb, a social scientist who specializes in STS (Social Study of Science and Technology). He shared with us a bit about some of his projects, and I got to take away a sheet listing others – almost all of which sound fascinating to me. I can’t quite get over-the-top excited about seed yields or anti-scaling agents, but topics like the politics of mobility in the Israeli-Palestinian space, the spread and strategies of the Islamic movement among the Negev Bedouin, and diffusion and uptake of green technologies a the household level most definitely turn my crank, as they say.

We wrapped up the day with a visit to Dr. Evyatar Erell at the Department of Man in the Desert. An architect specializing in building physics and green building, he showed us prototypes of windows he designed specifically for homes with passive heating and discussed a number of important aspects of architectural design for desert and urban microclimates.

Not having had our fill of the amazing view of the Zin Canyon yesterday, we ended our day there again today following a tour led by Prof. Erell through the adjacent “green” Neve Zin neighborhood, where he personally has a home overlooking the canyon. Talk about a room with a view.

Green architecture professor Evyatar Erell just steps from his backyard.

© 2011 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Green Olives, Going Green And David Gryn

March 29, 2011

Who knew that olive oil, which is so good for you, can be bad for the environment? Thanks to a visit to BGU professor Zeev Weisman’s Phyto-Lipid Biotechnology Lab, I will never be able to look at or eat an olive in quite the same way. From now on, while I enjoy my olive oil-based salad dressing or pasta al’olio, I will be thinking about the millions of tons of waste material (pomace) left behind after the olives are pressed. Very appetizing, eh?

All that waste has high concentrations of phenol contaminants that can poison the soil and water. As olive oil consumption increases throughout the world, so does the amount of this pomace and contamination.

Dr. Weisman and his team of graduate students, in concert with colleagues at other universities in Israel and in other countries, are hard at work using MRI technology to find the optimal ways to produce biodiesel, bio-ethanol and anti-oxidants for pharmaceutical use from this pomace “gold mine,” as the professor calls it. They are developing energy sources not only from olives, but also from other sources like castor and pomegranate seeds.

Prof. Zeev Weisman showing us some of his olive oil and discussing its properties.

Not all of the work is done in the lab. Researchers from Dr. Weisman’s lab go out into the field – specifically Moshe Zohar’s fields at his Boker Valley Vineyard Farms (aka Nachal Boker), where he grows “test” olive and pomegranate trees. In addition to olives and pomegranates, Zohar grows grapes and makes his own wine for sale to visitors to his ranch, which also doubles as a bed and breakfast destination for visitors to the Negev Highlands region.

Moshe Zohar at his Boker Valley Vineyards Farm, where he practices limited irrigation (sweet and brackish water) agricultural techniques suited to desert conditions.

Before leaving BGU’s main Beersheva campus for Zohar’s ranch, we were given a “Green Campus Initiative” tour by Dr. Dan Blumberg and some of his colleagues, as well as a couple of students. BGU has taken huge steps in the past few years to become “greener” in a whole variety of ways, and it has paid off in terms of financial savings and increased energy conservation awareness in the university’s community. BGU is the greenest campus in Israel and ranks among the greenest universities in the world.

Dr. Dan Blumberg in BGU's Green Campus Initiative nerve center, where energy consumption is monitored and corrected 24/7.

We ended our day today with a blast from the past, as far as I was personally concerned. I had the chance to revisit my teenage years as we toured David Ben-Gurion (né Gryn) and his wife Paula’s house (“tzrif,” or hut) at Kibbutz Sde Boker and went to their graves overlooking the magnificent Zin Canyon at Midreshet Ben-Gurion. It was great to meet and learn from Prof. Paula Kabalo of the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism. But even better for me was the chance to pass by the Sde Boker Gadna (army youth corps) base where I spent a good chunk of several summers in the early-mid 1980’s. There’s nothing like the sight of communal tents, a military mess hall and army latrines to make one wax nostalgic.

Or am I the only one who gets misty-eyed at such a view?

I’ll admit that I might be unique in this regard, but I certainly was not the only one in our group completely taken with another view – that of Nachal Zin at sunset.

The Zin River Canyon at sunset

© 2011 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.