"I must say, it's really clean here, there's no litter at all. Is it always like this?" These were Caroline Heard's first words when she visited Eshkol Park in southern Israel; she was glad to hear that in Israel, as in Australia, the public is expected to keep the environment clean. Over the recent Sukkot holiday, for example, KKL-JNF held a clean-up operation in the park, distributing garbage bags to each family so that all visitors could gather their rubbish and dump it in a central facility before they left for home, leaving the park clean and tidy for the enjoyment of future visitors.
Caroline is one of three women in the NCJWA delegation (National Council of Jewish Women of Australia) who have come to Israel to spend ten days visiting KKL-JNF sites throughout the country. For many years, this organization has been a friend of KKL-JNF Australia supporting environmental projects in Israel.
During their visit the delegation participated in a moving ceremony in HaYarkon Park: the inauguration of an open classroom established through NCJWA contributions in memory of the late Yetty Bennet, a long-standing executive member of NCJWA in Sydney. This "open classroom" is a learning facility designed to enable people to study ecological issues in the open air. The classroom overlooks a small model of constructed wetlands - a purification facility that cleans the waters of the Yarkon by natural methods.
We met the delegation members - Caroline Heard, NCJWA Victoria., Di Hirsh, NCJWA National Vice President and Lesley Simons, NCJWA National Treasurer - at the first stop of their visit to the south: the spacious Eshkol Park. Esther Weinstein KKL-JNF director of Tourism, the group's guide, explained that an impressive ceremony had taken place recently at this site, to commemorate the 90th anniversary of its victory by ANZAC forces - the Australian & New Zealand Army Corps. The ANZAC Trail was established at the site to commemorate the Australian Light Horse Brigade's battles to liberate Eretz Yisrael from Turkish occupation during the First World War.
Thanks to contributions of Friends worldwide, KKL-JNF has developed Eshkol Park and made it both accessible and beautiful. The local spring has been extended to create a pond in the center of the park, where visitors can paddle on warm summer days or enjoy a stroll in winter. The site has extensive lawns and is pervaded by an aura of peace and tranquility.
At Nahal Asaf, Esther described how KKL-JNF conducted special planting campaigns here, to prevent the soil from erosion by winter floods, and to prevent desertification. She shows the group a map of the study park planned for the site in the future, and explains: "As you may notice, we are close to a military base and there's nothing a mother visiting her soldier son on Shabbat likes better than to sit down to lunch with him in pleasant parkland. What's more, the park will have a cycling route and other facilities, and, of course, it will be accessible to people with disabilities. The main attraction will be the study park, where people will learn methods of combating desertification, a problem that besets all countries in this region." "Perhaps this is what will bring peace," says Lesley. Esther points out that the Jordanians have already expressed an interest, and who knowsâ€¦
On the way to their meeting with Sderot Mayor, Eli Moyal, the delegates pay a brief visit to the Besor Reservoirs, established through Friends of KKL-JNF worldwide, including Australia. The Besor Reservoir Complex, which enables flood water to be collected in vast reservoirs in southern Israel, uses dams to prevent erosion, fortifies groundwater and provides irrigation for agricultural use. The group passes a citrus grove where a winter crop of mandarin oranges, irrigated with water from the reservoir, is already ripening.
In Sderot the delegation visits the police station for a meeting with Akiva the sapper, who describes Qassam salvos that have landed in the town over the past seven years. He talks about the different types of rocket, the warheads and the media's involvement. The delegation members inquire how local children are taught to beware of unexploded rockets, and Akiva tells them about a series of school lectures that deal with the issue and teach children to keep their distance from unexploded missiles.
Lesley takes a special interest in the sappers and their training, and asks what makes them choose work of this kind. "It's a combination of profound patriotism and ... insanity," replies Akiva. A "diplomatic incident" occurred when Lesley asked to have her photo taken with Barak, one of the sappers and Caroline noticed that Barak was wearing a New Zealand rugby team jacket. "How can you wear that with three Australian women around?!" demanded Caroline indignantly. Barak claimed in his defense that he was unaware of the significance of the logo but it's obvious that this is a minefield of a kind he's never encountered before!
A spirited conversation developed with Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal about the state of affairs in Sderot, the Qassam fire, the Red Dawn early-warning system and, most of all, the situation of the local children, whose wellbeing is of great concern to this all-female delegation.
After Sderot the delegates visited Golda Park, where they meet KKL-JNF director of the Arava region, Avinoam Elon. Avinoam explained to the visitors about the park and the lake - a special project that recycles both floodwater and water from the Neveh Midbar spa. "The park serves as a central campsite for large numbers of families and for youth-movement groups who spend the night here when they tour the area". The delegation members inquired about employment opportunities in the region and Avinoam explained that the park's development and new attractions have created new jobs for people living in the area.
"It's important to point out that the park was established through Friends of KKL-JNF Australia," says Avinoam when the visitors ask how they can contribute. They are pleased to hear that one of the most important issues at present is upgrading the children's play equipment to meet more stringent safety standards.
The delegation ends the day in the community of Nevatim, one of Cochin Jewry's principal centers in Israel at the Nevatim Founders Park in memory of Aslan J. Moses from Sydney. The visitors are welcomed at the local synagogue, and Miriam the guide tells them about the various traditions, the significance of the special colors and the unique style of Cochin synagogues. A visit to the museum and a taste of home cooking at Miriam and her husband Nehemiah's restaurant provide the perfect end to a fascinating day. As Lesley points out, "It's a miracle that everything here grows so well and is so green - it's just beautiful!" Di takes a particular interest in the playground and remarks upon the importance of contributions that improve the children's quality of life: "It's exciting to see that you're creating something special in children's lives," she concludes.