Memory of solar energy pioneer in Arava lives on
Concerts commemorate Bryan Medwed, who died in 2002.
The kibbutzim in the Southern Arava region of the Negev Desert are considered to be at the forefront of the fight to advance environmental awareness in Israel. Naot Smadar produces organic juices and wines, Lotan teaches tourists about ecological architecture, and Ketura just finished building the largest solar panel array in the country. But the region owes its reputation as Israel's ecological vanguard at least in part to the pioneering work of Bryan Medwed, a Michigan-born member of Kibbutz Samar who immigrated to Israel in his 20s and died tragically in a car accident in 2002.
This month, his family, friends, and fellow kibbutz members gathered together a tenth time to remember the man and celebrate his legacy.
Yaniv Golan, a member of Samar and former friend of Medwed, has arranged logistics for, and played at, the musical tributes that the kibbutz holds annually in Medwed's memory. "Even during the shiva, we played music on [Medwed's] patio, because that was what was natural," says Golan, cognizant of the Jewish religious prohibition on playing music during the mourning period. "I don't know the Talmudic law in this regard, but I can understand the logic of it, because music can help you forget [about tragedy], because it keeps you busy, you're not focused on the mourning," Golan says. But in addition to his pioneering work on ecological issues, he adds, Medwed was also an amazing musician and composer who even constructed his own instruments, "so it was very natural that when he would leave the world, it should be as he had lived."
Earlier this month, dozens of musicians descended on this quiet kibbutz in the middle of the expansive desert and performed a rock concert of considerable caliber. "It's always Dylan, Marshall Tucker Band, Allman Brothers, The Band, you name it," says Golan. Although the set lists always consist of folk songs penned by Medwed himself, as well as inspired cover versions of Bob Dylan and other counter-culture icons, the concerts continuously draw in area youth who may see the world similarly. "It's really nice, because you sometimes see other people come, who have no idea who Bryan was, never met him in his lifetime, but feel a connection, somehow, to the vibe and to the community," says Golan. "They feel completely at home, they connect to Bryan's spirit, Samar's spirit. The spirit carries on."
Medwed in life was known for his irreverence: He would upset patrons by playing classical music on a dulcimer at the Hard Rock Cafe in Eilat, and he would get pulled off the stage in the middle of a set at the Jacob's Ladder folk festival for performing in a punk rock style. After leaving the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch movement in his teens, he steered clear of any kind of convention -- ideological or otherwise -- for the rest of his life. But although he bucked tradition, he didn't harbor resentment for those who didn't share his visions. His life partner Ilene Moskowitz says of him, "He was complex -- but he didn't have complexes."
While he passed the evenings away making music, Medwed spent most of his days in the mango and date orchards of Kibbutz Samar. "He loved the dates, and that's what he loved doing, and that's where he was happiest, and that's where he could compose, and that's where he could think," says Moskowitz. But while farming in the fields with the hot sun beating down on his back, Medwed realized that the region wasn't maximizing its most plentiful resource, solar energy. For the last ten years of his life, Medwed dedicated himself to solving ecological problems in the area. "He knew that it would eventually come to Israel in a big way, and he thought of getting Samar in on the ground floor, to support the kibbutz's economy," says Moskowitz.
Medwed sought out and received support from David Faiman, director of the Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Center in Sde Boker. But he was also an autodidact who voraciously consumed as much information as he possibly could about sustainable systems, and though he had no academic degree in the pertinent fields, constantly tinkered, trying to find a solar solution to provide Israel with energy independence. "He was a pioneer here, he was a decade ahead of his time," says Yuval Ketner, who was Economic Coordinator for Kibbutz Samar during the decade that Medwed was most active. "Twelve years ago, I went with him to the regional council and to the other communities in the area; one after the other, they called us lunatics," says Ketner. "Today the government gives subsidies, and everyone understands the global crisis, but he saw it years earlier. He talked about exactly this; what you see happening today, that's what he said would happen."
Although the area did not adopt his green energy master plan during his lifetime, Medwed scored other successes. Working with Friends of the Earth - Middle East, his proposal led to a Jordanian village on the other side of the Arava valley receiving electricity for the first time ever. With the help of Bustan L'Shalom, Medwed designed a solar-powered medical clinic to service the populations of unrecognized Bedouin villages in Wadi Na'am. He was even invited to deliver a guest lecture at a conference in Amman. But Moskowitz says the project Medwed was most proud of was a small renewable energy system he designed and installed to power a little refrigerator, which allowed a young Bedouin boy with diabetes to have access to his vital supply of insulin.
As a member of the libertarian Kibbutz Samar, Medwed could have independently decided to use kibbutz money to fund his renewable energy projects, but Moskowitz says that he insisted on waging a slowburn PR campaign to convince other kibbutz members of its importance, because he believed that communal solutions were more socially sustainable in the long run. Some like-minded members of the kibbutz later helped Medwed build the prototype for his patented 'Light Fence' solar system. One of these friends and allies, Harel Malkin, says that Medwed struggled to perfect a low-tech modular array, so "that you shouldn't have to depend on the price at which the electric company and the state pay you for the electricity." A simple system implies lower energy efficiencies, but it would also mean reduced costs, making it worthwhile and easily replicable in poorer parts of the world. "It would be possible to easily and inexpensively generate electricity, and that everyone would be able to use it," says Malkin.
In the nine years that have elapsed since he passed in his prime, Medwed's regional reputation has been revised from tree-hugging hippie to ecological prophet. He has been posthumously honored in the area for both his ecological contributions and his musical acumen: an environmental education park at Ketura was named after him in 2008, and a symphony he composed was performed by a full orchestra at Sde Boker in 2003.
"One of the nice things about Bryan is that he had a few faces, not just farming and music -- that was one of the things that was inspirational about him. He didn't give up on anything that he loved," says Medwed's friend Michal Gutman. "He kept on pushing, optimistically, and he didn't confine himself to one thing that he thinks he's good at. It's such a nice thing about him, that he cared about a lot of stuff, and he didn't give up on anything that he cared about."