(photo credit: KKL)
"These hands are covered with the mud of the land of Israel," said Marek Balicki, a member of the Polish parliament, on Friday, February 4, after planting a tree in the Carmel Forest. Mr. Balicki was visiting Israel as part of a delegation of the Second Policy Conference of EFI –European Friends of Israel, which took place on February 5-8 in Jerusalem. Thirty-seven different European countries were represented at the conference, which dealt with issues such as renewable energy cooperation between the two continents, water shortage solutions, agricultural cooperation and new technological developments. The conference was unprecedented in size and was the largest ever mass gathering of European parliamentarians in Israel.
During their stay, KKL-JNF invited conference participants to the Carmel Forest, where Rahela Dotan, a KKL-JNF guide, explained about KKL-JNF to the group. Most of the group had never heard of KKL-JNF before, and they were very impressed and curious about KKL-JNF activities. They were also given an opportunity to see the damage done by the Carmel forest fire firsthand and to plant trees in an area that was not forested until now.
A nonstop but very welcome rain greeted the Europeans in the forest, along with KKL-JNF forester Micha Silko, who said that "KKL-JNF foresters feel like it's them who are being watered when it rains, we see how happy the forest is." Rahela noted that "planting trees is very nice in nice weather, and a wonderful way to put down roots in the Holy Land, but we have to walk a bit in the rain and the ground is muddy. Are you still interested?" Most of the group answered in the affirmative, although some stayed on the bus after it stopped at a spot ten minutes away from the tree planting site.
The first person to brave the mud and plant a tree was Radvile Morkunaite-Mikuleniene, a Lithuanian representative to the European Parliament. This was Radvile's first visit to Israel: "I signed up for this trip because I'm involved with European-Mediterranean relations in the European Union. I am a member of the Lithuanian Christian Democratic party and have been in the European Parliament since 2009. I am also active in environmental issues, so hearing about KKL-JNF has been very interesting for me.
"I've only been here a couple days, but my first surprise was on the plane on the way here. I was sitting next to a Jewish man, we started talking, and it turned out that his grandparents were also from Lithuania. I almost felt at home from the very first minute. We have been staying in Jerusalem, and there is something very familiar about that city, I don't really know why. Maybe I have seen it before in movies. There's been something very surrealistic about this trip so far."
Marek Balicki said that in the Polish Parliament, he chairs the Polish-Israeli bilateral group: "This is my second visit to Israel; I like your country very much. I feel connected to the Jewish people because of our shared history, and feel that there is a bond between us in spite of the past. I identify with Israel because it's a state that fought for its independence, and in a sense, is still fighting. And as for planting a tree on such a rainy day, I loved it, and I think my hands and shoes loved it even more!"
Dionysia Theodora Avgerinopoulou is a member of the Hellenic Parliament of Greece, and wears a couple additional hats: "I am also a member of the Greek Israeli parliamentary friendship committee and the deputy head of environmental issues for the New Democracy party. I promote original research and education on environment and energy, telecommunications, space, biosciences, intellectual property and social sciences. Learning about KKL-JNF and what it does in Israel has been fascinating for me, and planting a tree literally connected me to the soil."
After planting the trees, the group returned to the bus, which drove them through
the Carmel Forest. Dionysia asked to stop at the memorial for the 44 people who lost their lives in the bus that went up in flames. Rahela mentioned that she had known the bus driver personally, and that he was found embracing sixteen-year old Elad, a teenage volunteer who lost his life in the fire: "That was typical of the driver. Rather than save his own life, he tried to save someone else, a teenager the same age as one of his two sons."
Seeing the damage, someone asked how long it would take for the forest to renew itself: "Some of the trees here were fifty years old," Rahela answered, "so it will take at least fifty years for the forest to get back to the way it was. KKL-JNF, with the help of its friends throughout the world, will support the natural renewal process. Every time you come back to Israel, and I hope you come back often, you'll find the Carmel a little bit greener."
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