Saving the Dead Sea
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Saving the Dead Sea

As Israel’s imperiled natural wonder shrinks, photographers and art collectors team to heal it.

Photographer Spencer Tunick, inset, held a third major photoshoot on the Dead Sea last week; here, we see one of the many vast sinkholes that have opened in the last few years as the sea continues to shrink.
Photographer Spencer Tunick, inset, held a third major photoshoot on the Dead Sea last week; here, we see one of the many vast sinkholes that have opened in the last few years as the sea continues to shrink.

People’s lives sometimes form narrative arcs, but usually that’s not clear until much later. It’s pretty unusual to have strands of your life come together when you’re in a position not only to marvel at it, but to take direction from it.

Ari Fruchter, who lives in Tel Aviv most of the time but in Englewood when he’s in the United States — his parents, Esther and Irving Fruchter, his sisters, Rachel Eisenberger and Laura Silverman, and their families, including nine nieces and nephews, all are there — is an entrepreneur whose passion for the arts has led him to work to preserve the Dead Sea, and to work to open a museum in neighboring Arad to help in that preservation.

It sounds less unlikely when unfolded chronologically.

Mr. Fruchter, who grew up in Belle Harbor, in Queens, went to MTA, Yeshiva University’s high school for boys, for three years, and then matriculated at Baruch College, starting a fashion company his freshman year. He was 16, it was 1987, and the business, Boing!, took off.

“In the early 1990s, a publication called Paper Magazine did a feature on me,” Mr. Fruchter said. It included a photoshoot. The photographer was Spencer Tunick.

“Being that we both were Jewish, with parallel backgrounds, we started to open up,” he said. Although Mr. Tunick, who lives in Suffern, was working as a freelance commercial photographer, “‘I am really truly an artist,’” he told Mr. Fruchter. He showed his new friend some of his less commercial pieces, and Mr. Fruchter was bowled over. The two worked together — “we did a lot of guerrilla marketing” — for about a year. “Then he went on his path, and I went on mine, but we stayed friends,” Mr. Fruchter said.

“In 1997, I got bored with the fashion industry. I had a partner who continued in the business, but I wanted to do something else with my life, so I came to Israel.”

Mr. Fruchter combines idealism with pragmatism. “As I got older, I wanted to have a life in Israel,” he said. “But Israel was a dream, and I wanted reality. So I wanted to explore life in Israel before moving there permanently.” He had been accepted to Columbia’s business school, but he deferred for a year.

Spencer Tunick’s 2011 Dead Sea installation included this photo. (Photo by Spencer Tunick)

And then life happened. “We are talking about 1997, pre-Birthright, pre-Masa,” he said. “You know the expression ‘Shinui makom, shinui mazal’?” That translates to change your place, change your luck; in other words, if you change your surroundings, something — who knows what? — will change for you. “The first week I was there, my cousin from Switzerland introduced me to someone, and it was love at first sight. It changed my life.’

Soon Mr. Fruchter and the woman who is now his ex-wife (love at first sight isn’t necessarily love forever) married, and Mr. Fruchter earned his MBA at the Kellogg-Recanati Executive MBA program, then in Arad; learned Hebrew, and eventually got a job “in the high-tech space.”

Then they moved to Seattle, where Mr. Fruchter worked for Microsoft. “I ran their firewall business,” he said. “It was exciting.” Does he like high tech? “It is super exciting,” he said. “It is one of the few places where you can make an honest good living.”

The first of their two sons was born in Seattle. “We named him Arad,” Mr. Fruchter said. “It was a romantic time because it was the city where we met. And it was ironic; he was born with asthma, and Arad is the city in Israel you go to when you have asthma.” Next, they moved to Philadelphia, where Adam Agam (named after the sculptor Yaacov Agam) was born. “And when my first son was getting ready for first grade, it was time to move back to Israel,” he said.

It was not an entirely good time — “my marriage imploded,” he said — but “I was asked to join the board of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.”

To back up, Mr. Fruchter’s connections to art and to museums run deep. “In 1983, when I was just starting high school, my father took me to Israel, just before my bar mitzvah,” he said. “We were in Jerusalem, and he said ‘I want to take you to the Israel Museum, to visit your aunt.’

“‘What do you mean?’ I asked him.

“‘I mean that she lives in the Israel Museum,’” he said.

Volunteers, coated with white ash, walk toward the Dead Sea.

Mr. Fruchter’s aunt — actually his great-grand-aunt, his great-grandmother’s sister — was Charlotte Bergman, a wealthy collector with a compelling backstory (to be fair, no one who more or less lived at the Israel Museum — her house was on its grounds and is part of the museum today — could not have a compelling backstory) and an incredible eye. Ms. Bergman was the Belgium-born wife and then for many years the widow of an English Jewish architect with wide-ranging interests, a deep love for Israel, and a gift for recognizing artists at the beginning of their careers. “I developed my interest and passion in art from her,” Mr. Fruchter said. After their first meeting, he saw her many times until she died in 2007, when she was nearly 99, and he learned a great deal from her.

Mr. Fruchter joined the Tel Aviv museum’s board in 2007. “I said that the condition of my joining is that I have to be able to do something that will add value to the museum, beyond just writing checks,” he reported. He was a creator of a program called “Adam b’Gan Eden” — Adam in the Garden of Eden — and he began working with video art. “I created a series there based on the program in PS1” — the Museum of Modern Art’s cutting-edge outpost in Queens — “and it became a big social thing in Tel Aviv,” he said. “I invited artists over. It was open until 1 in the morning. Everyone came. It was really great.

“And at about the same time, I reached out to Spencer Tunick, and asked him if he would like to be involved in the museum, and he was like ‘Wow. This is my life’s dream.’

“Spencer had family in Israel. His aunt came here, his grandparents retired to Israel, and his mother lives there now. He loves Israel — but then no one knew about that. Except me.

“So I said, ‘Let’s do something big in Israel.’

That something big was the series of photographs at the Dead Sea that Mr. Tunick took in 2011. It was a massive project that Mr. Fruchter spearheaded. After much plan refinement and fundraising, because projects like Mr. Tunick’s are extremely expensive to put together, and because Mr. Tunick “only works with museums and on social causes,” eventually the men decided that the Dead Sea fit their requirements. “It was Spencer’s idea,” Mr. Fruchter said. “He had a romantic vision of the Dead Sea, from his childhood,” as the lowest point on the earth’s surface, and the most saline, where nothing alive can flourish, and also where Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan all come together.

Mr. Fruchter was able to raise the funds, including by crowdsourcing, to finance the project.

Ari Fruchter (Courtesy Ari Fruchter)

Spencer Tunick’s photoshoots, which he calls human installations, generally involved hundreds of naked people, standing together in historic, visually striking places; they explore the relationships between people and place, individuals and groups, the public and the private. The people in the photos are volunteers, drawn by publicity and advertisements. The 2011 Dead Sea shoot is said to have been the biggest such art instillation in the world. “About 6,000 people registered to be in it,” Mr. Fruchter said. “We took about 1,200 of them, because of space limitations.” They came from all over the world.

“Its PR value was over $10 million in terms of what it brought to Israel,” Mr. Fruchter said. “Tourism to the Dead Sea exploded.

“Spencer created incredible art,” he continued. “My goal was to show a different fabric of life in Israel. This couldn’t have happened anyplace else in the Middle East. In no other Middle Eastern country could an artist create that work. Spencer showed how important Israel was.

“At the end of the project, Spencer went home, and I stayed in Israel, and I became passionate about helping the Dead Sea.”

The Dead Sea, an ancient body of water, changed constantly but survived for millennia because of the delicate natural balance it maintained between its salinity and the fresh water that flowed into it and kept it, despite its name, alive. The sea, which got its name in the Greco-Roman period, and which despite that name was home to a wide range of fantastic life, lost fresh water to evaporation but constantly was replenished. Its balance held. But in the twentieth century, as more people came to live near it, and as their need for water increased, many of those freshwater streams were diverted, the percentage of salt the Dead Sea held increased, and it began to dry up. Its name became increasingly accurate and even more predictive.

Neither Mr. Fruchter nor Mr. Tunick knew much about the peril the Dead Sea was in before they began working on the project in the late 2000s — it takes quite a few years to get something as huge as that from dream to reality. Then, “we learned that the Dead Sea was drying up,” Mr. Fruchter said. “We had been unaware of how much it was changing. And I hoped, naively, that bringing all these people here would get them involved in saving the Dead Sea. But that didn’t happen.

“Five years later, I was driving down toward the Dead Sea, going to Mineral Beach, where the installation had been, and I saw that it was gated.” The gate was locked. He couldn’t get in. “That’s weird,” he remembers thinking. And then he learned the reason. “A sinkhole had opened in the parking lot, and the whole thing collapsed.”

Sinkholes are formed when the balance of salt to fresh water changes, fresh water dissolves salt formations, that creates underground cavities, the water recedes, and the cavities break through the ground.

Photographer Spencer Tunick with his photo coordinator, Lauren Russell, at a sinkhole.

“We’d been warned about sinkholes, but we didn’t realize how fast they could happen or how big they could be,” Mr. Fruchter said. “So I called Spencer and said, ‘You won’t believe what happened. We have to show the world.’”

There were more sinkholes, Mr. Fruchter said. The entire beach at Ein Gedi collapsed. “The Dead Sea is being destroyed.”

One of the reasons that people don’t realize that grim truth is because they don’t often see it, he continued. “The hotels that say they’re at the Dead Sea aren’t really on the Dead Sea. They’re on a factory reservoir that steals water from the Dead Sea,” and hastens its decline.

In 2016, “I brought Spencer back for a special installation,” Mr. Fruchter said. “We buried 16 people in the sand to represent the sinkholes. And then we had a press conference.”

That raised people’s awareness, but not enough.

“A cousin of mine said ‘Ari, I have a friend who has taken some amazing photographs of the Dead Sea,’” Mr. Fruchter continued. That friend is the photojournalist Noam Bedein. “He had taken a boat tour of the Dead Sea, and he was mesmerized by the beauty and the changing landscape. He would photograph the same location over and over again, so you could see the devastation.

“He has an amuta, a nonprofit organization, called the Dead Sea Revival Project, and he has done environmental outreach and education,” Mr. Fruchter continued. (It’s at deadsearevival.org.) “I joined his board, and I see how his passion continues, and his activities are successful,” but the destruction of the Dead Sea continues. “It’s about awareness. That comes and goes. We are trying to do whatever we can to make that awareness permanent.”

There are many suggestions for way to fix the Dead Sea, but apparently no consensus, other than to return fresh water to it. Now, advocates focus on awareness, and money, with the hope that the science will follow.

A rendering of the museum planned for Arad.

“And then I had an epiphany,” Mr. Fruchter said.

“I love art. Nothing cultural exists at the Dead Sea. Maybe this is an opportunity to create a physical art museum for the Dead Sea. Something that’s architecturally magnificent, almost like what Frank Gehry did in Bilbao, in Spain.” That’s the highly acclaimed Guggenheim Bilbao. “I want to create something that will raise awareness of the Dead Sea and attract one million visitors a year.

“My epiphany was how I could put together my love for the Dead Sea, and for Israel, and for art, and my inspiration from my aunt Charlotte, and my understanding that museums are really expensive. You need a lot of money to start a museum. And a lot of museums fail to attract a big enough audience.

“So what if I start with a virtual museum?”

He began with the need to raise awareness. “Very few people ever get the opportunity to come to the Dead Sea,” he said. “And much of what you see online in propaganda.” He wanted people to be able to understand the real scope of the problem.

“The first thing I did was create a virtual museum,” Mr. Fruchter said. “I started with the architecture, so I worked with Israeli architects, and a German firm called Ikospace, and I created the content with Noam.”

The Dead Sea Museum is online; it’s at www.thedeadseamuseum.com. Just as it went up, the pandemic began.

“On Earth Day last year” — that was April 22, 2020 — “we open an art contest that got almost 14,000 photos from more than 3,500 photographers who came from more than 40 countries. We put together a panel of artists, including Spencer, and we looked for allocation near the Dead Sea for the exhibition.” Not surprisingly, that became highly political, and Mr. Fruchter grew increasingly frustrated.

The virtual museum that’s online now, at www.thedeadseamuseum.com.

“And then someone said, ‘What about Arad?’ which overlooks the Dead Sea and is a gateway to it. So I met with the cultural department there, and they said yes. I liken it to the story where we are given the Torah. Everyone else rejected it — according to midrash, God offered it to every other people first, turning to Israel only at the end, but of course Israel said yes.”

So did Arad, and like the people of Israel in the midrash, who were the right recipients, Arad is the right place. The exhibition opened on Earth Day in 2021, and will be open, seven days a week, until next April. It’s free.

Mr. Fruchter developed a relationship with Arad’s mayor, Nisan Ben-Hamo. “He’s young and incredible and doing tremendous things for the city, to bring it back to its glory,” he said. “He offered me the use of about 5 1/2 acres of land if I want to bring my vision of the museum and build it in Arad.

“This has been an incredible journey.”

On October 12, at a press conference with Mr. Ben-Hamo, Mr. Tunick, and the two architects with whom he has been working, Sharon Neuman and Iftah Hayner, Mr. Fruchter unveiled his plans to build a physical museum.

And then, on October 17, Mr. Tunick did another photo installation at the Dead Sea. This time, 200 models, naked as always but coated with white paint to evoke, among other things, the salt that becomes even more dense as the water in the Dead Sea dries up, gathered for more photos.

The contrast with earlier years, as the Dead Sea shrinks behind and around them, is stark and it is not accidental.

“Now I will start my fund-raising campaign,” Mr. Fruchter said. “I am challenging myself. I am doing something that I am passionate about.

Sinkholes cause great devastation.

“I’m doing it the right way, with government support but not dependency. I’m doing it in stages. Everything is self-funded or crowd-funded.”

The virtual museum’s design is suited to the internet. “It was play for the architects,” Mr. Fruchter said. The physical museum “will be very much about the environment. It has to be iconic. It has to represent the Dead Sea. And it has to be environmentally friendly. It has to work with nature, and people will want to visit it.” The museum is a means toward an end. Its goal is to call attention to the dying of the Dead Sea, and to save it.

That will be hard sell, Mr. Fruchter knows. “It’s kind of the last thing that people want to give money to. We have people who are starving. People who are dying of cancer. The environment often is the last thing on the list.

“But it matters. We must have a world in which we can devote time and care and love to all these problems. Without that world, we will have nothing.”

The museum not only will help people realize the importance of the Dead Sea and the need to revive it, it also will further another of Mr. Fruchter’s passions, cutting-age art.

“Our vision is to create something that will not be a traditional museum, with traditional collections,” he said. “We are not looking to tell the history of the Dead Sea. This will be immersive, experiential, digital art. The next evolution from video art. Multimedia art.

“My goal is one million visitors a year. My vision is that it will be immersive.” It will be both educational and fun — we are designing a balloon to take you up in the air,” where visitors will be able to see both the devastation and the stark beauty of the sea and the desert that surrounds it.

“I need the support of my community,” he said. “This is outside politics. This is the Dead Sea.”

For him, everything is coming together. “I never imagined that I would be building an art museum in Arad, the city where I fell in love, and the city that has my son’s name.

“It was waiting for me.”

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