"There are forty-one people on this mission from all over Canada, including places like Calgary, Winnipeg and Windsor, among others," said Joe Rabinowitch, executive vice-president of JNF Canada. "We're here from October 28 to November 8, and we've been touring all over the country, with one of a half days devoted entirely to KKL-JNF projects. Today we're in the south, and on Sunday, November 6, we'll be visiting KKL-JNF sites in the north, including a visit to the Carmel forest to learn about rehabilitation plans firsthand. KKL-JNF missions are unique, because they give visitors to Israel an opportunity to see projects and places that most other visitors to the country never get to see."
Water for the Desert – Mitzpe Ramon Reservoir
The town of Mitzpe Ramon is located deep in the Negev desert. On the way to the water reservoir, which was built by KKL-JNF with the help of its friends from Holland, the group could see impressive environmental sculptures set against the magnificent background of the Ramon crater. Esther Weinstein, KKL-JNF's director of tourism, explained how the reservoir impacts life in the desert: "This reservoir stores purified effluents from Mitzpe Ramon and local army bases. The water is used for agriculture and gardening. One of the things we need to remember is that in Israel, agriculture is not only about growing food, but also about maintaining presence on the land. In the future, the reservoir will enable this area to become a tourist attraction featuring the sculpture route, the breathtaking view of the desert landscape, bird watching and desert farming. The gift of water is what makes life in the Negev possible."
Tomorrow's Zionists Today – Ayalim Student Village at Eshalim
"Everything you see here has been built by the students themselves," said Donna, a resident of the Negev village of Eshalim who moved to Israel thirteen years ago from Berkeley, California. "The students receive scholarships in exchange for 500 hours of community outreach, with the goal of settling the Negev and the Galilee. In this sense, our ideology is very similar to that of KKL-JNF. The student's village is located next to Eshalim, where I live with my family. At first, no one wanted to live here, but now, we have 70 families, infrastructure is under way for 150 new plots, and we have a waiting list of 200 families.
"Ninety percent of the greenery you see here, along with all of the infrastructure, is the work of KKL-JNF. Without KKL-JNF's involvement in almost every aspect of Negev life, the boom we have seen in the Negev over the past few years could never have taken place. The Negev desert is where the original pioneering spirit of Zionism is being realized on an everyday basis, and many of the students decide to make their homes in the Negev after their studies. Having been here when Eshalim's total population was only five families, I find it very exciting to see what's happening now," Donna concluded.
Ramat Hanegev R&D Station – Making Miracles Happen
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The next stop was the Ramat Hanegev research and development station, where Michal, an agronomist, explained why cutting-edge research is so critical to life in the Negev: "Only twenty years ago, when this R&D station was established, no one believed that agriculture was possible here. There's hardly any rain, the summers are dry and the nights are so cold that water freezes.
"We do, however, have an underground water source, although the water is brackish (salty). That's one of the main challenges we face here – learning to farm with brackish water. In fact, certain crops, like tomatoes, are tastier and crispier when irrigated with this water. For other crops, we need to mix the brackish water with fresh water, so we developed a computer that monitors and mixes the water according to the crop's needs.
"All of Israel's R&D stations are supported by KKL-JNF and its friends worldwide. It is very much to KKL-JNF's credit that they understand the critical importance of research for life in the Negev. How could anyone make a living here if not for desert agriculture? Many of our discoveries have national and local significance. For example, Israel has recently begun a massive water desalination project due to the country's severe water shortage. However, when farmers used the desalinated water to irrigate their crops, nothing grew! We found that the desalinated water was lacking minerals, so the research we had done in mixing different water sources provided us with solutions."
Michal led the group to a greenhouse where different strains of tomatoes were being studied: "R&D stations are not just about theory. Local farmers come to us expecting solutions to their problems, so we grow and test all the crops ourselves. We're always looking for 'plan B', in case one of the crops fails. Thanks to the research being done here, Ramat Hanegev is now responsible for 75% of Israel's tomato exports." And when Michal gave everyone freshly picked cherry tomatoes to taste, mission participants understood why.Olive Oil from the Desert
From the roof of the Ramat Hanegev R&D station, everyone could see a huge grove of olive trees, and a visit to the Halutza olive oil factory in nearby Kibbutz Revivim afforded the group an opportunity to sample yet another product of the desert. Gidi, a Halutza employee, said that only fifteen years ago, there hadn't been one olive tree here: "Now we have 300,000 trees on 6,500 dunams of land, and producing olive oil for domestic use has become one of our most important sources of income."
Renna Bassal, the past president of JNF Montreal, has been to Israel many times in the past, "but there's always something new to see and always something inspiring," she said. "I became involved with KKL-JNF because I wanted to be a part of an Israeli organization that deals directly with the land. I've never been this far into the desert, and I'm quite amazed to see the contrast between the bleak desert and the green olive tree groves. For me, such a sight shows the determination and commitment of the people living here, and I find that to be very moving."Golda Park – A Desert Oasis
The group stopped for a well-earned lunch at Golda Park, where KKL-JNF transformed an abandoned quarry into a beautiful artificial lake. Esther explained about the park's history: "KKL-JNF purchased this land from a local sheikh in 1943. It is very strategically located and the British transferred it to the Arabs when they left the country in 1948. The region was eventually conquered by the Palmach, and KKL-JNF took advantage of riverbed flooding to create this beautiful park, which was named for Golda Meir, whose daughter still lives in nearby Kibbutz Revivim. In the future, we will be creating an overnight camping site here, and it is also the site of many Ramat Hanegev regional events."Nahal Beersheba Park
The group's last stop was at Nahal Beersheba Park in Beersheba, the capitol of the Negev, where they were greeted at the restored Beit Eshel site by Itai Freman, park planner and developer. "This metropolitan park is being developed on a 5,300 dunam site alongside an eight kilometer stretch of dry riverbed. Beit Eshel is one component of the park. It is the historic site of a Jewish settlement that was established here and was under constant attack during the War of Independence. I feel especially connected to it, because my father was one of the young soldiers who succeeded in bringing provisions to the Jewish settlers here."
Itai showed the group the dedication plaques honoring the many different people whose gifts helped KKL-JNF create Nahal Beersheba Park, and group members identified the names of friends from Canada. "You have to remember that just a few years ago, this was a huge garbage dump that was a health and
environmental hazard. KKL-JNF took 20,000 tons of junk out of here. What we see today is only the beginning of everything we have planned for the park. The trucks and bulldozers you see at work are creating access roads, which should be completed in about a year, and an amphitheater that will seat 12,000 people, will be ready in 2013.
"Another huge KKL-JNF endeavor is a system of reservoirs and purification plants to provide irrigation for the park, which is entirely dependent on recycled water. Besides providing a place where local residents can enjoy recreation areas, bicycle and hiking trails, horseback riding, a sports center, and more, the park has brought an economic boom to the adjacent region, where real estate has really taken off, and to the city of Beersheba in general. I invite you all back in just a year from now to see how the park will have changed, thanks to the support of KKL-JNF's friends throughout the world."
Thanks to Esther Weinstein, Leonard and Helen Zenith of Calgary had an unexpected surprise during the day: "Although this is our first visit to Israel, we purchased a KKL-JNF forest grove way back in the 1970s," Helen told us. "In retrospect, I don't know how we did it. There was a very charming KKL-JNF shaliah by the name of Micha Peled in Canada at the time, and he convinced us to donate the grove by letting us pay for it over the course of ten years. We told Esther that we have no idea where it is. She made a few calls, but couldn't locate it. Then we remembered that we dedicated it in honor of our niece and nephew, and she was able to find it by their names. Sure enough, it's in the most likely of places – Canada Ayalon Park!"
JNF Canada's Sharon Lehrer, who organized and accompanied the mission, said that the visit to the Carmel forest planned for Sunday had special significance for a number of the mission participants: "Many of the people on this mission have visited Israel in the past, and one of their favorite bus drivers was David Navon. Unfortunately, David was the driver of the bus that went up in flames in the Carmel forest fire, where he lost his life together with 43 others. We will be doing a memorial service for him at the site where the bus was trapped."
Richard and Cheryl Levy of Montreal had visited Israel five years ago: "At that time," Richard said, "we met a lovely couple from Ottawa who decided to join this year's JNF Canada mission for the wife's sixtieth birthday present. We loved our last trip with KKL-JNF, Sharon does a terrific job. I'm very involved with Israel advocacy and I was the head of the speaker's bureau of JNF Montreal. I need to keep coming back in order to stay in touch with what's going on here."
Mina Grossman Ianni told us that her late husband, who was the president of the University of Windsor, was also the honoree of the Negev dinner at Windsor in 1987. "We visited the country in 1990, and I can really see the changes that have taken place, especially in the Negev, since then. This trip has been extremely informative."
"This is my third JNF trip to Israel," said Bernice Levine of Toronto, "and every time, we see different things. We've already realized that KKL-JNF is not just about trees, and we need to spread the word. Today's trip to the Negev has brought Israel alive for us and left us with the certainty that there is hope for the future."
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