There is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you plant a tree in Israel for the first time. There’s something about getting down on your knees and connecting to the soil, the earthiness of it all, the tactile connection to the land of your forefathers and the feeling that you are not only linking up with the past but doing something for the future. Planting a tree in Israel is a wonderful experience no matter how many times you do it. Of course, it is best if you physically do the planting yourself, but it’s rewarding just the same if you facilitate the process from here.
Tu B’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat on the Jewish calendar — celebrated this year on Shabbat, January 30 — is the day that marks the beginning of a New Year for Trees. It is a celebration of spring’s rebirth and renewal, an appreciation of the interconnectedness of man and nature.
Originally Tu B’Shevat was the date used by farmers to calculate the year’s crop yield and determine the tithe that the Bible requires. But over the years Tu B’Shevat has become synonymous with two things: planting trees in Israel, and the organization that is known for its tree planting — Jewish National Fund.
JNF’s trees were paid for by donors around the world and planted by the early settlers to lay claim to the land. Since then, JNF has planted more than 240 million trees in Israel. They protect the land, prevent soil erosion, green the landscape, and preserve vital ecosystems. The trees maintain forest health, combat desertification, protect watersheds, and manage water flow. Additionally, they create a “green lung” to combat carbon dioxide emissions in the region. JNF’s success at planting trees in Israel has resulted in naturally expanded forests and reclaimed deserts. And it has transformed our foresters into experts who share their knowledge with others around the world.
Tree planting aside, I have had several other visceral experiences thanks to my work with JNF. It has opened up parts of Israel to me I never knew existed. Like the thanks I received from a local farmer when I visited a JNF-built reservoir, without which he would have no crops and no income. Or the relief a resident on the Lebanese border shared with me owing to the security roads we built to provide safe travel. The excitement a young couple exuded when they showed me the trailer they were living in, in a new community in the Negev, and the blueprints for their new permanent home.
There’s the feeling that just overflows at JNF’s Aleh Negev, a residential rehabilitative community for people with severe disabilities, knowing the role JNF played in ensuring that the residents will thrive.
And then there’s JNF’s work in Sderot.
Last year, on an annual mission I take with about 25 committed people — ardent Zionists and intimately involved with JNF — we attended the opening celebration of the Sderot Indoor Recreation Center built by JNF to give the community’s children a safe place to play. It was just a month or two after Operation Cast Lead, and tensions were still high. In a town that had been under rocket attack for eight long years, posttraumatic stress disorders were the norm, parents would not let their kids play outside, and life had come to a virtual standstill.
In 10 months, we had raised $5 million and retrofitted an empty warehouse in the business district of Sderot with 300 tons of steel. We built an indoor soccer field, climbing wall, video arcade, movie theater, disco, early childhood playing area, and more.
The grand opening took place over Purim, and we hosted an outdoor carnival for the residents. I felt truly blessed that day, blessed that we had played a role in bringing laughter back to these kids, relief back to their parents, and fun back in their lives. We brought a light of hope and humanity to what had been a very dark place. Today, the rec center is enjoyed by almost 400 kids daily.
JNF is well into its second century of existence but we are as relevant today as we were in 1901. We touch so many lives with our work — mine included.