(photo credit: KKL)
One of the general public's most heartwarming responses to the huge Carmel forest fire has been the desire to participate in the Carmel rehabilitation process. To date, only a month after the fire ended, over 2,400 volunteers from Israel and abroad have spent time in the forests doing whatever is necessary to mitigate the damage to nature and to better prepare the region for future conflagrations. We joined volunteers from Microsoft Israel Ra'anana and a KKL-JNF delegation from Argentina for a day of work in the forest to get an idea of what needed to be done and how people feel about doing it. The delegation from Microsoft represents a growing trend among Israeli companies to partner with KKL-JNF on various projects of national and local importance.
The groups were greeted by KKL-JNF's Alon Gutter, who took them to a vantage point near Kibbutz Nir Etzion from which it was possible to view the damage done to the forest and to understand how the fire spread: "The fire began at 11:00 on December 2. There were two factors working against us – the unseasonably hot weather and lack of rain, which left everything very dry, and exceptionally powerful eastern winds. Experienced KKL-JNF firefighters reported that although they had seen and fought forest fires in the past, they had never seen anything like this.
"There are about 1,600 fires in nature in Israel every year. What made this fire exceptional was first and foremost the fact that 44 people were trapped in the flames near Beit Oren and killed. There was also the scope of the fire – about 35,000 dunam of natural woodlands and planted forests were burned. The good news is that thanks to the dedication of the fire fighters and the help of the fire planes that various countries provided, two-thirds of the Carmel was saved.
"Now, a month after the fire, we are already busy with preliminary restoration activities, which include pruning and taking dry brush out of the forest to help prevent future fires. We're not doing much planting yet, as we're waiting for the spring to see which trees are still alive and which were killed. The Carmel Forest is one of Israel's main outdoors recreation sites, but unfortunately, many picnic areas and leisure corners were burned down. As a result, KKL-JNF has to create new recreation sites for visitors to the forest. Today we will be working at one such site, the Shluha recreation area, where we will be cutting down low bushes that hamper accessibility and are a fire hazard."
At the site, the volunteers were greeted by Jamal, a KKL-JNF forester who was driving one of KKL-JNF's specially designed fire engines, a gift of friends of KKL-JNF around the world that proved itself during the Carmel fire. Jamal described his personal experience fighting the flames and made those terrible days come alive for his listeners. When he concluded, everyone was given gloves, pruning shears and saws, and it was time to get to work.
The group of about 60 employees from Microsoft Israel included some of the volunteer's children, who also wanted to take part in the rehabilitation campaign. Orly, Microsoft Israel corporate responsibility manager, and Hagar, community affairs manager, and Hadas employ engagement coordinator, spoke about why Microsoft decided to have its employees spend a day working at forest restoration: "One of the things we're committed to at Microsoft is using our capabilities and talents on behalf of the communities we live in. For example, we sponsored a day of information on 'safe Internet' at the beginning of the month. We are also involved with accessibility and environmental issues. As part of its policy, Microsoft Israel enables all of its employees to volunteer three days a year, for which they receive full pay.
"Since this is time of Tu Bishvat, and also because we wanted to help restore the Carmel, we asked KKL-JNF about volunteering. KKL-JNF was very helpful, so here we are today. We very much identify with KKL-JNF's efforts on behalf of Israel's environment. One of the ways that Microsoft Israel expresses its appreciation to its business partners is by buying trees in KKL-JNF forests in their honor. We look forward to future cooperation with KKL-JNF and hope that other Israeli companies will follow suit."
The KKL-JNF Latin American delegation included 77 people, over 90% of whom are Argentineans, along with two people from Uruguay and two from Chile. When speaking with members of the KKL-JNF Latin American delegation, it turned out that almost everyone had heard about the Carmel forest fire back home. Many people said that one of the reasons they specifically chose the KKL-JNF delegation to Israel was to see the Carmel and help restore it.
Michael Adari, KKL-JNF's Latin American Chief Emissary, spoke about how KKL-JNF is perceived abroad: "I am fond of saying that KKL-JNF's biggest failure is its success. People throughout the world identify KKL-JNF with trees. One of the reasons for missions like this is for them to learn about KKL-JNF's other activities. Many participants become active in KKL-JNF back home, and in fact, a few of the members of this mission have already joined their local KKL-JNF chapter.
Miguel Steuerman is the director general of Buenos Aires' "Radio Hai" radio
station, which has about 100,000 regular listeners: "I realized that for many Argentinean Jews, the traditional forms of Jewish community, like the synagogue, were not working, so I decided to create a radio station, which is a virtual community that enables people to be in touch with Jewish identity 24 hours a day.
"We used to have a weekly show called 'Green Hour', in which KKL-JNF people from Israel and Argentina spoke about ecological issues relevant to Israel. In fact, many of the people on this mission found out about it by means of Radio Hai."
Esther Buk, a reflexologist who is also from Buenos Aires, said that although she had previously visited Israel at least twenty times, this was the first time she came as part of a KKL-JNF delegation: "For the first time, I am getting a real idea of the scope of KKL-JNF's activities. I usually visit family when I'm here, but this time I wanted to see what's going on in the country in general. I identify KKL-JNF with the roots of Israeli society, and decided that the best place to begin was in fact at the roots."
On the other hand, Marcella Rotsztein, a psychologist and lecturer from Buenos Aires, is in Israel for the first time: "It's very strange. I traveled all over the world but somehow never made it to Israel. I'm coming back for certain, and I hope to bring my son and daughter with me. Of course I knew about KKL-JNF since I was a child in school and would put money in the Blue Box, but I really had no idea about everything KKL-JNF did. I was particularly fascinated to learn that KKL-JNF is the trustee of the land of Israel for the Jewish people. I decided to come with KKL-JNF in order to see the country in a Jewish way. I cried at the Kotel and I cried at Yad Vashem. What you are doing here is marvelous."
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