"Trees and men have been together from the beginning of creation. We want men to be like trees - to grow up strong. Unfortunately, at the age of 30, one of our trees was cut down, and we are planting other trees in his memory."
These words, spoken by KKL-JNF Co-chairman Avraham Duvdevani, were delivered at a memorial ceremony to honor Greg Sher, a Jewish-Australian soldier who fell during service in Afghanistan in January 2009.
Gathered at the event were Greg's parents, relatives and friends - an intimate crowd of roughly 50 people - as well as the Australian ambassador to Israel, His Excellency James Larsen. KKL-JNF head of ceremonies, Andy Michelson, was the MC for the event, which he coined "just a small token of our appreciation of Greg". Also in attendance was a group of Australian youth from the Hineni youth movement, who knew Greg and his family from Melbourne Australia. As a tribute to their beloved son and friend, they planted 18 trees - the numerical translation of chai - which means life.
"All of us depend on having people like Greg out there fighting for us," said Ambassador Larsen. "This is true in Australia and also in Israel. There is a bond between our two countries and two peoples, which I think is very special. The trees that are planted here today represent that bond."
The spot chosen for the event - Nahal Assaf, which sits along the Gaza border in southern Israel - is itself a testament to the interwoven history and cooperative efforts of Israel and Australia. Part of the ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) trail, this is an area where Australian troops fought during World War I to liberate Israel from the Turks. In three separate battles, the ANZACs succeeded in breaking the Turkish defense line from Gaza to Be'er Sheva. Nowadays, KKL-JNF develops Nahal Assaf conservation site in conjunction with the ANZAC Trail as an educational and recreational facility. Visitors to the site will enjoy a special tourist experience, walking along the Nahal Assaf educational trail as well as to visit other nearby interesting environmental and historical sites.
"If not for these brave soldiers - [whose actions] led ultimately to the liberation of the State of Israel - where would we be today?" said Joe Krycer, executive director of JNF Victoria, Australia.
"It would have been so special for Greg to have something on the ANZAC trail," said Yvonne Sher, Greg's mother. She described her son as someone with a strong connection and love of Israel and also as an environmentalist - which is why a tree planting ceremony was only fitting as a tribute to him.
Felix Sher, Greg's father, said: "Greg was a fine man and a fine soldier, not only because he knew about his weaponry and his enemy, but because he knew how to think and care for people."
Greg was the first Jewish-Australian soldier in 60 years, since World War II, to be killed while serving his country and the first Australian reservist to be killed in Afghanistan in recent years.
With the Passover holiday just around the corner, the recurrent theme reiterated in the ceremony was that of freedom and liberation. "When the Jewish people went out from Egypt, each of them became a free man," said Duvdevani. "Freedom means that if you believe in something, you have the right to fight and even die for what you believe in. Today, we're going to plant trees in honor of a young man that gave his life for something he believed in. It's a privilege for us to help the Australian community, to help the family, and to keep the memory of Greg here in this place by planting trees in this forest."
Felix and Yvonne were both deeply moved by the words spoken in their son's honor. At the end of the ceremony, the memorial prayer El Maleh Rachamim was recited and Felix led Kadish for his son.