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Winter 2002


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Fostering Peace in a Land of War
UVM alums take key role at an institute dedicated to finding solutions for the land and people of the Middle East.
by Mark Floegel

Rabbi Michael Cohen ’81 rejects the “cheap irony” in that he witnessed no terrorism during the past year in Israel, but happened to be on a Manhattan subway train headed downtown at 8:30 a.m. on September 11, 2001. “Death, no matter where or how many, is too many deaths for such a point,” he says. Cohen finds more genuine irony in that his work for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a unique venture with a central mission of creating unity and communication in the Middle East, brought him to New York City that day.

Recounting his September 11 experience, Cohen recalls the voice from the subway loudspeaker announcing there was an “emergency situation at the World Trade Center” and that the train would be re-routed to Brooklyn. Cohen got off at Chambers Street and West Broadway, first noticed the brilliant blue sky, then the fact that everyone was looking up. Moments later, Tower 2 fell. Weeks after the event, he says trying to assimilate the sight is still “like learning a completely foreign language for the first time.”

Cohen ran uptown with the crowds as “the cloud of the pulverized building came rolling up the city canyons toward us.” He would later deeply question himself on why he hadn’t turned back to offer help. Talking with his wife, Alison Hill ’81, helped him find answers. “I had been terrorized,” Cohen writes in an essay about the experience. “I had allowed the actions of others to change who I was, what I normally do. It was not easy to come to terms with that reality.”

A call of heritage
The story leading to who Michael Cohen is and what he normally does took direction during his undergraduate years at the University of Vermont. Plenty of idealistic college students of the sixties and seventies hit the road in search of themselves. Few came back with more than a bag full of dirty laundry and some good travel tales.

Cohen set out not so much to find himself as to see the world. But on his travels he felt a calling that would change the course of his life and found a landscape that spoke to him like no other. The fact that Cohen’s life’s work would have a central focus upon building peace and unity and the land that he loved was in the Middle East, meant his path wouldn’t always be easy but it would be vital.

Rabbi Cohen was plain old Michael Cohen, UVM undergrad, when he first traveled to Israel in the late 1970s. “I’d promised myself I’d go around the world before I was twenty,” he says. “And after I’d started at UVM, I began to feel pressure to keep that promise.” Over the next several years, travel for its own sake and study abroad would take him to England, Eastern Europe, Israel, Asia, and back.

In the Middle East, Cohen felt a connection to the history and landscape of the region that he’d never felt elsewhere. “When I was living in Boston, I used to every day pass the tree where George Washington took command of the Continental Army,” he says. “It was interesting, but that’s as far as it went. In Israel, I visited the valley where David may have fought Goliath — no one knows for sure — and I felt my soul leave my body through my feet and go into the soil.”

Cohen, who describes himself as the product of a “classical North American Jewish upbringing,” felt a deeper call after visiting Israel and Eastern Europe. “I took a train across Europe to Warsaw and while I was riding, I realized I was on the same route traveled by Jews during the Shoah.” He spent a year after UVM working for the American Zionist Youth Foundation and then commenced rabbinical studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia.

Unity in a divided land
While Cohen found himself in the landscape of the Middle East and on the rails of Eastern Europe, he discovered the professional pursuit that has been the focus of the past six years of his life in a more mundane location — the classified ads. Cohen stumbled upon the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies through a small ad in the Jerusalem Post.
Located in Israel’s southern Negev Desert, near the borders of both Jordan and Egypt, Arava uses environmental studies as a starting point for expanding circles of communication and cooperation. In short, the institute uses land, commonly thought of as “territory” in this region, as a source of unity rather than division.

Cohen was intrigued by the potential of this venture in its inaugural year and drawn by good work that would uniquely blend his spirituality, teaching skill, love of the natural world, and yen for world travel.

Located on the grounds of Kibbutz Ketura, Arava (pronounced A-Ra-VA) purposefully draws its students from throughout the region — Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Arab nations—– and throughout the world. The ideal student body for each year’s course work is composed of one-third Middle Eastern students, one-third North American, and one-third from the rest of the world.

“All of these students are already knowledgeable about the environment,” Cohen says. “They understand the natural world doesn’t know human boundaries and borders. The globe is our home, not these communities we scratch on the surface.”

The institute’s coursework is interdisciplinary; while much is fieldwork based and focused on nearby desert/marine environments, the curriculum addresses difficult issues policymakers may encounter in any country — reclamation of contaminated urban areas, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, sprawl, congestion, and government enforcement of environmental regulations.

In Arava’s literature, it’s not uncommon to see two place names describing an area. It’s a quiet reminder of the institute’s underlying mission: to draw attention to the diversity of culture and the unity of place. Likewise, kibbutz life is also central to the Arava experience. “Kibbutz is community by intent,” Cohen says. “It’s a model for sharing, taking turns, making community. The idea is for Arava students to expand on the model, take these concepts from micro to macro.”

Although Arava views peace through a lens of environmental study, the mission is overtly about finding solutions in the Middle East. “Environment becomes the equalizer,” Cohen says. “We deliberately bring in students from different backgrounds, but common concern for the environment allows for conversations to take place.”

Orthodox Jews and Palestinians, who might otherwise spend their entire lives a few kilometers apart and never meet, become fellow students and then friends. After their courses are over, they return to their home countries with new insights. A goal of Arava is to seed a network of graduates who will staff environmental ministries and lead the non-governmental organizations of the Middle East for the next generation.

UVM connections
Cohen, who currently heads up Arava’s North American office, isn’t the only UVM grad dedicated to the institute’s work. His wife, Alison Hill ’81, spent the past year as chief administrator with the Arava Center for Environmental Policy, a think-tank associated with the institute, and coordinates a task force seeking solutions to air pollution from vehicular emissions in Israel. The couple and their two children balance living at Arava and in Vermont, where Cohen is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center.

With a campus culture strongly invested in both environmental study and study abroad, UVM is a logical connection for Arava. Cohen suspected that in recruiting he’d find many of today’s UVM undergraduates to be interested. Seven students later — Jill Klein, Lauren Berkman ’98, Eden Albano ’98, David Klebenov ’96, Josh Halman ’01, Jeremy Fischer ’99, and Tara Wolfson ’95 — it’s fair to say that hunch was right.

Studying at Arava, Fischer saw hope in the cooperation of an eco-study tour arranged by the institute with Palestinian and Israeli Arab cooperation. “We attempted to bring three groups of people together for a discussion — which is hard with any three groups,” Fischer says. “The Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians had essentially the same lineage, but the same issues affected them all very differently. It was a huge endeavor in communication.”

Fischer notes, with irony and sadness, that it is invariably the nearest students who are, in fact, the farthest from the Arava Institute’s reach. “It’s amazing how much work goes into making it possible for people to come,” he says. “For an American to come, it’s not hard, for a Canadian to come, it’s not hard — for a Jordanian six kilometers from Arava to come, that’s hard.”

Prayer at ground zero
In the hours and days that followed his experience on the morning of September 11, Cohen would continue to replay the scene in his mind. He contacted the Red Cross and offered his help for Yom Kippur, acknowledging the work would be for himself as much as others. “I needed to reconnect, as much as that was possible, with who I had been before September 11th. I needed to find that equilibrium, I needed to be me again,” he says, “even if the world I lived in was now different.”

On the second day that families of those lost were allowed to visit Ground Zero, Cohen was asked to accompany one of the groups. As the families passed through the disaster site, workers stopped what they were doing and took off their hard-hats, tears running down some of their faces. Then for the two grieving Jewish families with him on that day, amid the ruins of the World Trade Center, Cohen said the words of Yikzor, the memorial service recited on Yom Kippur.

For Rabbi Michael Cohen, it was another gesture among many dedicated to bringing peace where peace is hard to find.

Mark Floegel, a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues, lives in Burlington. Rabbi Cohen can be reached at: arava@adelphia.net or 802-362-5546.

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