Winding through the rocky paths of Ben-Shemen Forest’s Monks Valley on Monday morning, hundreds of schoolchildren in white shirts and matching hats clamored to fill their large trash bags with waste littering the ground.

“We are just walking the woods and if we find something, we clean it,” Mia Gone, an 11- year-old from the Democratic School in Modi’in, told The Jerusalem Post that morning.

Explaining that she and her peers enjoy a weekly lesson in environmental studies, Gone said that while “of course it was very fun,” cleaning up the environment makes the world “nicer and prettier and it helps [us] to breathe.”

Gone and several hundred of her peers from the Modi’in region were volunteering at Ben- Shemen for Israel’s observance of Clean Up the World Day.

While Clean Up the World Day officially takes place on September 20 through 22, Israel is celebrating a bit earlier – as has often been the case due to the High Holy Day schedule.

Administered in Israel by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) with the cooperation of local and regional councils, the local Cleanup Day drew about 250,000 volunteers from 180 municipalities and accumulated approximately 2,650 tons of waste, KKL-JNF said.

“I want to tell all the students here that Israel is the first in the world to open the World Cleanup Day,” said popular children’s entertainer Tal Museri, during a ceremony at Ben Shemen that followed the morning cleanup activities.

From the Galilee down to the Negev, cleanup programs were held for all of Israel’s population sectors, including integrative activities for Jewish and Arab schoolchildren and for people with mental and/or physical disabilities.

Meanwhile, for the first time, absorption centers for new Ethiopian immigrants also took part in the day’s activities, a KKLJNF spokesman explained.

Also marking a first, the volunteers participating in the garbage collections separated recyclable waste using environmentally friendly bags in four colors.

The 2013 theme for the global Clean Up the World Day is “Our Place... Our Planet... Our Responsibility,” and all over the world about 35 million volunteers are expected to volunteer in related activities to “clean up” their local environments, according to the international campaign.

Some activities around the world include recycling and resource recovery, tree planting, education campaign, water reuse and conservation efforts, competitions, exhibitions and fix-up projects, the project says.

A community-based United Nations Environment Program initiative, Clean Up the World is now in its 20th year.

Despite an official launch in conjunction with the UN in 1993, Clean Up the World really began in a 1989 Clean Up Sydney Harbor Day, during which concerned Australian Ian Kiernan recruited 40,000 volunteers to remove garbage from the harbor.

The next year, the effort grew into a larger Clean Up Australia Day, which eventually prompted the global effort, the campaign’s history reports.

“I am very proud to see the Australian flag flying here at this Israeli and JNF event,” said Luke Davis, deputy head of mission at the Australian Embassy, at the Ben Shemen ceremony. “It’s the sort of event that raises the profile of the environment and raises the profile of the people doing their bit to raise awareness toward the environment.”

Most critical to this process of raising awareness are the students, according to Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz, who called the children “the central partners” in this cause.

“You are the first who can explain to your parents why injuring the environment can damage your future,” Peretz said. “You demand from your parents, from your family, from your neighbors to be partners in everything that we do.”

Gesturing toward another celebrity in the room – the host of Israel’s Amazing Race, to whom the children clamored for autographs – Peretz told these young students: “I give you a ‘million’ prize for what you have done today.”

KKL-JNF world chairman Efi Stenzler likewise praised the children for their involvement in the morning’s volunteer effort, and asked them to repeat a sentence, word-by-word, after him: “We commit to preserve the city of Modi’in as a clean city and all the open spaces and forests.” In return, Stenzler promised that KKL-JNF would continue to help Modi’in to achieve its environmental goals.

“A person who preserves a clean environment is a person who respects his environment, his fellow man and society,” Stenzler said.

Although Modi’in-Maccabim- Re’ut Mayor Haim Bibas stressed that only part of the Ben Shemen Forest is under the jurisdiction of his municipality, he, too, pledged the city’s commitment toward preserving the wild landscape within its bounds.

In the eyes of Hagay Yavlovich, chief forester for Ben Shemen Forest, Ben Shemen Forest was the ideal place to hold the country’s flagship cleaning effort on World Cleanup Day.

“Ben Shemen Forest is one of the main recreation places of all of central Israel – everybody comes here,” Yavlovich said. “It’s 20 minutes from Tel Aviv, a half hour from Jerusalem.”

Because Ben Shemen is so popular among Israeli nature lovers, however, Yavlovich stressed that it is also one of the “most high-pressure recreation places in Israel” – and a prime result of this pressure is an abundance of litter.

On Independence Day alone, the park hosted 180,000 visitors, he said.

Although Yavlovich hires a contractor to clean popular areas of the 3,000-hectare forest, it is almost impossible to cover every nook and cranny of the forest sufficiently, he explained.

People who want to enjoy secluded trips in nature will often leave their mounds of trash in similarly secluded path-side spots, which become fodder for pigs, foxes and wind at night, Yavlovich lamented.

“Then you get chaos,” he said.

Therefore, days like Monday, during which students or soldiers or other volunteers take to the paths with trash bags are crucial to the forest’s upkeep, Yavlovich stressed.

On such a day, also critical is the educational element, because “when a child comes to his mother or father and asks why don’t you put it in the garbage, he [or she] cannot say anything,” he said.

Although a garbage problem certainly does still exist, Yavlovich said he has noticed a stark improvement in recent years, and that more and more, families have been dumping their trash in appropriately designated places.

“They understand that the forest belongs to everyone,” he said.

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