A burnt forest is not a pleasant sight to see, but that is exactly what greeted a Birthright group from the United States on Tuesday, July 6, when they came to work in a forest near Beit Shemesh in the Lower Judean Plain. This is the area where a major forest fire broke out during the last week of June, destroying 300,000 trees in over 3,000 dunams (750 acres) of man-planted forests and natural woodlands. The Birthright group came here to help begin forest rehabilitation and to prune trees in order to lessen the chance they will catch fire in the future.  

The group was greeted by KKL-JNF's Ilan, who spoke with them about KKL-JNF in general, and its afforestation program in particular: "You are spending some time with KKL-JNF today as part of our Nof Moledet program, which means "creating our landscape with our own hands". In Israel, over 90% of our forests were planted by man, which means that they need a lot of care. It's very popular to come to Israel and plant a tree, it's also symbolic, but, as I said, they need a lot of care afterwards. We need a lot of helping hands for this work. The forest we'll be working in today is maintained by students from abroad.

"Zionism is about doing – when you do something physically, you get a sense of belonging. The forest here is a pine forest, and pine trees are survivors. They grow fast, they don’t need a lot of water, they grow in rocky areas, but they burn very easily. In the last few weeks we've had some major forest fires in this region, caused by negligence and arson. In my opinion, this is a form of terror. The work we will be doing here today will help prevent future fires from spreading to areas that are still green."

Yoav, a KKL-JNF guide, explained to the group about the work they would be doing in the forest: "Everyone needs a pair of gloves and a saw, because we will be cutting off the lower branches of the pine trees, about one and a half meters from the ground up. As Ilan said, this help prevents forest fires; it channels the energy of the tree upwards and allows the sunlight to reach the forest floor, which encourages the rehabilitation of the indigenous Mediterranean forest."

Yirmi David, head of KKL-JNF's Nof Modelet project, explained about the program: "We are working together with Birthright to give young people visiting Israel the experience of actually working in the land of Israel. Most groups spend five hours working in the forest and learning about it, which is a form of practical Zionism and also ecological. Each youth group receives an area of its own to work in, so they get a feeling that it's 'their' forest and they can see progress from year to year. Last year, over 1,300 Birthright participants took part in KKL-JNF programs."

"This group is specifically a JNF USA – Shorashim group," said Irene Dashevsky, the group's JNF USA guide. "They are from the East Coast, and for most of them, this is their first time in Israel. They are all either graduate students or already employed. The group includes 46 participants ages 22-26, and this is the fifth day of their ten-day visit. We were already at the Hula and other KKL-JNF projects in the north, and we will be visiting the Sderot indoor playground and other JNF USA projects in the south.  Most of them have heard of KKL-JNF in the past, but they usually identify the organization with trees, so this is a real eye-opener for them, besides creating a very strong connection with Israel and its people."

"Birthright brings people to Israel who would not have come here on their own," said Asaf Caravani, a licensed tourist guide who was accompanying the group. "They don't have friends or family in Israel, otherwise they would have been here already. One of the Birthright principles is that soldiers from the Israeli Army are part of the group, so young people from Israel and the Diaspora get to know each other. This is a real opportunity for them and for us."

Jessica Wulkan of Boca Raton, Florida, spoke about why she decided to come and about her experiences in Israel: "This is my first time here. I signed up for Birthright because I wanted to connect with my religion, my culture and with Israel. In terms of meeting my expectations, it's been what I expected and more. It's been an incredible experience, and I can barely find the words to describe my feelings. I didn't know much about KKL-JNF before I came here, but now I have a real sense of how important the work they are doing is. When I get back and hear something about KKL-JNF, I'll actually know what they're talking about."

Andrew Kaden works in finance in New York: "My brother and sister were on a Birthright program to Israel ten years ago, and they highly recommended it to me. I'm not religious, but I'm really getting connected to the land. Something someone said up north in Tzefat really made an impression on me. He pointed out that Jews had been praying to return to Israel for two thousand years, and this wish was granted in my lifetime. Meeting the Israelis has also been great. I'm also very impressed by KKL-JNF's work to make it possible to live in the desert. I knew that KKL-JNF plants trees, but working here in the forest really makes that whole idea come alive."

"I went to Hebrew School and had a Bar Mitzvah, but since I went to Michigan to study business, Judaism hasn't really been a major part of my life," said Jason Tanker of Philadelphia. "I signed up for Birthright because I wanted to re-discover my roots. Being here in the forest is about as 'roots' in Israel as you can get. Everyone has heard about planting trees, but now I see what happens with the trees after they're planted."

Matt Lazar is also from Philadelphia: "I actually came because my brother, who is also here, convinced me to. Now that I've seen the country, I have no doubt that I'll be back, but I need to save some money first. If someone asks me about KKL-JNF, I'll tell them about what we did here today."

The hot midday sun had everyone tired after the intensive work and the guides asked the group to sit in the shade of the trees, where it was considerably cooler. This was the time for educational activities, including a trivia quiz on Israel and KKL-JNF and a spontaneous forest skit performed by the guides, which had the group in stitches.

Yirmi David added that depending on how much time was available, groups might also participate in additional activities connected to the map of Israel, the Blue Box and the three colors of the KKL-JNF logo: "What the participants were saying before about their experience is typical. Over the years we have found that this hands-on experience of the land of Israel fosters a lasting Zionist awareness and attachment to Israel, the Jewish people, its history and culture. For example, the head of the Ezra Youth Movement wrote me that when we first proposed this program to him, he didn't think that young people coming to Israel for the first time would enjoy having to do physical work in the forest. 'However', he wrote, 'at the concluding meeting of the groups before they leave Israel, we often hear that the time spent working with KKL-JNF was the most significant part of their visit and would stay with them for a long time.' That's exactly what we want to achieve."

On the way back to the bus, we overheard one of the participants talking about her experience on her cellphone: "I'm filthy, sweaty and exhausted, and I absolutely loved every minute of it!"

For Articles, comments or use please contact
 Ahuva Bar-Lev
KKL-JNF – Information and Publications
Email: ahuvab@kkl.org.il
 Phone: 972-2-6583354 Fax:972-2-6583493

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