Keith Mitchlak, 26, has climbed some of the highest mountains in North America – and has found the summit for his talents and passions at a Masa Israel program in Modiin
Keith Mitchlak has always been an “outdoors type.” A native of White Lake, Michigan, he is an avid mountain-climber whose accomplishments include reaching the top of Mt. Elbert, the highest point in the Rockies and the second-highest point in the contiguous United States. Since his graduation from college, where he studied alternative energy forms, he’s also been a dedicated hockey player.
Keith, whose mother is Jewish, had never seriously considered visiting Israel, but was convinced by a friend to come on a Taglit-Birthright trip to get to know the country; he was swayed mainly by the fact that the trip would be free. Once he got here, Keith says, “I was blown away. I was very moved by the soldiers I met, and by the views. I’d had no idea there was so much to see here.”
His Birthright itinerary included a visit to Kibbutz Lotan, in the Arava valley; the kibbutz is a center of eco-tourism, and a living model of ecological living. The kibbutz’s mission – as well as the people he met on his trip – struck a chord with Keith, and he decided to stay in Israel to look further into the country’s ecological subcultures and contributions. By the time he returned to the United States, he’d decided to return to Israel to study ecology and fulfill his dream of working with alternative energy.
With some research, Keith discovered Masa Israel Journey’s “Eco-Israel” program, which offers young Jewish adults an opportunity to embrace permaculture and sustainable living through intensive, hands-on experiences and coursework – all on the Hava & Adam Eco-Educational, organic, farm in Modiin. Participants explore how ecology, Judaism, and Israel blend together in a working model of a self-sustaining, ecological community. Residents of the farm include both participants of Masa Israel Journey and Israelis who are performing a year of service.
We visited Keith at the Hava & Adam farm on a hot day shortly before the Shavuot holiday. Wearing a traditional Israeli farmer’s hat, he shows us around the fields where his new friends are working the land. The farm is full of activity to prepare for the holiday, including a procession of local vegetables. A donkey is snoring at the back of the line.
Proudly, Keith brings us to a workshop where he has been building wooden furniture for use on the farm. “Before I got here, I’d never picked up a hammer in my life,” he says. “Now I’m building furniture!”
Originally, Keith had planned to come to the farm for just five months. But he quickly became such a natural part of the Hava & Adam circle that the administrators asked him to stay on as a counselor for other Masa Israel participants, and to give workshops to visiting students and children – while also continuing to work on the farm.
Now, eight months after his arrival on Masa Israel Journey, Keith says that “I’ve learned here in eight months more than I’d learned in my entire life.” He expresses praise for the other residents as well: “The people I work with are extraordinary. They know about ecology, and they know that the farm is here so that people who are experienced in the field can educate others. They are accepting, and know that people come here to learn; a person can make mistakes and no one will yell at them,” he says.
One of the coordinators of the Shavuot preparations is Keith’s Israeli girlfriend, Tamar Berman of Karkur (near Haifa), who came to Hava & Adam to volunteer for a year after her graduation from high school. Tamar says she was raised in a “normal” household, and decided on her own to become vegan.
She arrived at Hava & Adam last August, in a serendipitous way: She’d originally been placed in a different volunteer job, but spent a weekend on this farm and knew it was the place for her. “I feel like I’ve lived here my whole life,” she says. “It’s home. As a vegan, I can grow what I eat, and use what Mother Nature provides.” Tamar explains that, since she is a pacifist, in lieu of army service she plans next year to do the National Service alternative to the IDF.
Written and photographed by Nathan Roy.