"How many of you thought you would be visiting Israel as war breaks out?" asked Sa'ar Most, former education officer of JNF Australia. He was talking at the Bahan water reservoir near Netanya to a group of about thirty-five Australians, organized by Joe Krycer, State Director JNF Victoria Division. Originally the group was meant to spend the day visiting KKL-JNF projects in the Negev but following Home Front Command instructions, the program was moved to the north.
"Bahan water reservoir stores recycled effluents from Netanya and the Palestinian cities you see on the other side of the fence," Sa'ar went on to explain. "If not for the Israeli Army's Defensive Shield Operation a couple of years ago, the local Palestinians would probably be shooting at us right now, like they used to do. In fact, I want to thank Hamas for the quiet here! I think the Palestinians living in the West Bank saw what living under Hamas rule was like and realize that it is in their best interests to cooperate with Israel. Bahan water reservoir and the restoration of the Alexander River are good examples of ecological projects benefiting both peoples."
Miriam Bialik, a local resident, spoke about the importance of the water reservoir for the region. "Agriculture in this region, Emek Hefer, depends on land and water. We have had below average rainfall in Israel the last few years, which is why this reservoir - one of three - is so important. The reservoir stores purified water during the winter to be used for irrigation during the summer. Now, as you can see, the water level is low, as we have been using reservoir water during the winter owing to the insufficient rainfall. KKL-JNF is building three more reservoirs here, with the help of people like yourselves. We are here to stay, and we thank you for helping us to be able to do so."
Rebecca Nokrian, the expert KKL-JNF guide who accompanied the group and explained about the various sites, emphasized that recycling water was critical for Israel's water economy. "Natural water sources are simply not enough if we are to continue producing our agricultural needs. This area used to be Israel's center for citrus orchards, but now much of is real estate - whilst citrus is now grown in the south - also thanks to KKL-JNF reservoirs - in areas now being bombarded.
Joe Krycer pointed out that research makes projects like the Bahan reservoir a success. "Thanks to funding from JNF Australia, KKL-JNF is conducting research with Monash University to find ways of harvesting rainwater that would otherwise end up in the sea. Such freshwater could also be used to improve water from the local aquifer, which is becoming more and more brackish due to over-pumping."
We asked Joe Krycer how the group had come together. "It is summer vacation in Australia now so there are a lot of Australians of all ages visiting Israel. I put an advert in an Australian paper inviting people to spend a day visiting KKL-JNF projects. Experience has taught us that this is the best way of sharing with our friends abroad what KKL-JNF is accomplishing here."
The group's next stop was Italy Park - Alexander River, a formerly polluted stream that was cleaned and restored by KKL-JNF with help from friends of KKL-JNF Italy and France. The soft-backed turtles that make the stream famous were keeping warm underwater on the cold winter day apparently, but ducks and other water birds were making their lazy way downstream.
Australia Park is located in the Segev region in western Galilee, providing a stunningly beautiful recreation area for all the region's inhabitants, with tennis courts, an amphitheater, swimming pool and other facilities. As the group walked through the park and stopped near a monument to KKL-JNF's famous Blue Box, Joe suggested that they read the dedication plaques that could be seen throughout the park. "I am certain you will find many names you will recognize from Australia." "And New Zealand," one of the group added.
On the way to what was to be the highlight of the day, a visit to Lake Hula Park north of the Sea of Galilee, we spoke with Dennis and Helen Max of Melbourne. Dennis told us that he was a KKL-JNF "collector." "I go around to houses of friends of KKL-JNF in Melbourne twice a year, before Rosh Hashanah and before Pessach. Some of the older people still save money in a Blue Box, so I empty it out for them. The younger people just give me cash. People actually look forward to seeing me, in fact, if I don't show up on time they call and ask where I am! One lady donates all her profits from card-playing to KKL-JNF and judging by the amounts she gives me, she must be a really good player! Why do I do this? Because KKL-JNF is my connection to Israel and I believe that Israel is the last refuge for the Jewish people."
We also spoke with Roselyn and Ari Diskin, here with their son Josh, who participated in the Taglit Birthright Israel program. "We are very involved in JNF Australia," Ari said, "so we figured we should see firsthand what KKL-JNF is doing. It's totally different when you talk to people about projects that you've visited and experienced for yourself. Are we afraid to be here now? Not in the least! When you're here, it's nothing at all like what you hear in the media."
The last stop of the day was at Hula Lake Park, an experience so powerful it is difficult to describe it in words. We were greeted by Yiftach, a Hula Lake guide, who ushered us into one of the site's "hidden wagons", a vehicle that sits fifty people, is open on one side and is pulled by a tractor. After everyone was seated, Yiftach told us a bit about this local paradise: "This used to be a 15,000 acre swamp until it was dried up in the 1950's.
The idea was that the land could be used for agriculture, but as is often the case, tampering with an ecosystem had disastrous results, including increased pollution in the nearby Sea of Galilee. In the 1990s, KKL-JNF began to re-flood parts of the area, and it quickly became a favorite stopping place for millions of migrating birds. Over 500 million birds that migrate from Europe to Africa for the winter and back to Europe in the spring stop at Hula Lake for at least a few days. There are 420 species of migrating birds in Europe, 400 of which visit Hula Lake every year, so you can imagine what a great responsibility we have."
The hidden wagon drove slowly through the nature reserve, taking us to a field where a sight never to be forgotten by anyone on board unveiled itself - we found ourselves surrounded by a sea of 20,000 cranes chattering at the top of their voices. "Gott in himmel (God in heaven!)" someone cried out, "I have never seen anything like this." After everyone caught their breath, Yiftah told us a bit about the crane project. "There used to be barely 200 cranes here, but when local farmers started growing peanuts instead of cotton, more and more started arriving. They caused damage to the farmer's fields, so the crane project began. When there is no other food available in the vicinity, we feed them up to three tons of grain a day to keep them away from the fields.
The cranes, needless to say, were very happy with this arrangement and told all their friends about it, so now we have tens of thousands of them visiting yearly. 20,000 of them started thinking, why go to Ethiopia for the winter when conditions here are so excellent, so here they are! What language do you think they speak?" "U-kran-ian?" one of the group suggested.
After bidding the cranes farewell, we saw a group of beautiful pink pelicans and someone also spotted a swamp cat. Joe pointed out to us a very gracious wood structure. "People, unlike cranes, need toilets, so an Australian by the name of Michael Krape had special biological toilets installed here in a building that would blend with its natural surroundings. He then commissioned an artist to paint the entire scene and you can buy a reproduction of his work, which helps support Hula Lake. I would remind you that entrance to the Hula, one of the leading ornithological sites in the world, is absolutely free of charge. This is possible thanks to the help and support of our friends worldwide." Joe also pointed out a dedication plaque in honor of Professor Alan Finkel and Dr. Elizabeth Finkel, who supported research to develop a bio-filtration system to upgrade water quality.
The last activity of the day was a talk with Dr. Omri Boneh, head of KKL-JNF's Northern Division, who described the larger picture of KKL-JNF's work here. "When we began re-flooding about fifteen years ago, nobody had any idea how to balance ecology, agriculture and tourism. There are 25 stakeholders here so KKL-JNF had to take a leadership role - no easy job! We had 250,000 visitors last year, and we are on our way to being declared a world heritage nature site by UNESCO, no simple feat considering that organization's bias against Israel.
"KKL-JNF communities around the world have an important role in helping us to realize this vision. I believe that many of the attractions you have seen here were made possible with the support of KKL-JNF worldwide, including Australia. Our next main project is to build a state-of-the-art visitors center that will tell the story of Hula Lake development and KKL-JNF's role in it. I hope to welcome you at the new center on your next visit to Israel."
As the sun set and we were about to leave, Joe and his wife received a call that their son had been called up to reserve duty. Nothing could better accentuate the reality of life in Israel - a visit to the most beautiful of sites while a war to defend the country against those who would destroy it raged in the south. We could only hope that some of the peace and quiet we sensed at majestic Hula Lake would eventually spread to the embattled south and to the rest of our troubled region.