(photo credit: )
"If you are in the middle of planting a tree and someone informs you the Messiah has finally arrived, the Talmud instructs us to first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the Messiah." David Angel, former KKL-JNF director, was speaking to a group of blind and visually impaired cyclists and hikers at Emek Refa'im valley, south of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, where they were planting trees in anticipation of Tu Bishvat.
The group met at 7:30 am on a cold, crisp Friday, morning at KKL-JNF's Kennedy Memorial in the Jerusalem hills. A truck from the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, donated by JNF UK, brought special 'tandem' bicycles-for-two for the trek. Volunteers who can see cycle in front and the blind people cycle in the back. Yehiel Cohen, deputy director of KKL-JNF's Central Region, who also volunteers at the Center, told us about the group. "We go cycling every Friday using these special mountain bicycles. The rider in front is called the 'captain'. Today we'll be cycling just three and a half kilometers although we usually do 30-35 kilometers. For me as a volunteer, this is a perfect way to combine being in nature, sport and doing something for others or for the community."
David Angel, who also volunteers at the Center, described his experience to us. "The two cyclists have to be coordinated and keep their balance, especially when riding on mountain trails. I learn a great deal from the people from the Center, a sense of what is important in life and what isn't. And as far as these people go, there is no better group in the world!"
Nitza Golani of Tel Aviv is one of the members of the Guide Dog Center for the Blind. "Cycling is also a great way to create awareness of the Center's work. We all wear uniforms; people see us and ask where we're from and some of them actually end up volunteering. We have a new goal now - we're planning to ride the Trans-Israel trail from one end of the country to the other. We do a section every week, not necessarily in order. We started in the south and rode near Eilat and Sde Boker. My guess is that it'll take us a couple of years to complete the trail."
Varda Rokach of Ramat Gan, also a member of the Center, was riding a bicycle-for-two for the first time: "I received my guide dog in 1996. You live in the center for three weeks, learning how to be with the dog. The Center is wonderful, we're always in contact. It looks like Yehiel Cohen will be my captain today!"
Everyone mounted their bikes and prepared to ride. Besides the bicycles-for-two there were also a several volunteers on single bikes accompanying the group. Although the air was cold, it was impossible not to be affected by the warmth and excitement that was in the air as the group set off for Emek Refaim valley, where they would be planting trees at the KKL-JNF Tu Bishvat event taking place there.
And quite an event it was! There were hundreds of children from Jerusalem kindergartens and elementary schools with saplings in hand, singing Tu Bishvat songs and covering the side of the mountain with new greenery. Edna Feinstein of KKL-JNF's Communication Division told us about KKL-JNF's ambitious "Tree for Everyone" plan. "KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler announced that over the next ten years, we will be planting seven million trees, one for each citizen of Israel. We are beginning this year, in cooperation with local authorities. Most of the trees will be planted in urban areas, which are in serious need of greening. A KKL-JNF forester inspects the area the local authority wants to plant and decides which trees or bushes are suitable. Many of them have organized special Tu Bishvat ceremonies. In Tel Aviv, for example, they called it "A Tree is Born" and 5,000 trees are being distributed by KKL-JNF for planting in public spaces. The area we're planting here was burnt down last year and the idea is to plant species indigenous to the region in the area between the zoo and the railroad tracks. As you see, people of all ages are here to share the holiday spirit and make this happen."
As we spoke, we saw cyclists approaching in the distance. Our friends from the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind had arrived, together with other Center members who joined them on foot. After everyone had drunk and eaten, Itzik ben David, in charge of community contacts at the Center, described some of the Center's goals to us. "We have groups of blind people who participate in all the major walks that take place in Israel. In addition, we hike in unusual places and trails where you wouldn't expect to find blind people. Cycling for the blind became a reality three years ago when the Center bought fifteen bicycles-for-two. KKL-JNF has been extremely helpful to us. For example, about a month and a half ago we were in Timna Park near Eilat, and KKL-JNF sent a guide to explain about the site to us, not to mention many other types of assistance. I am also honored to count KKL-JNF Chairman Efi Stenzler as one of my personal friends."
Eli Sharoni, who volunteers at the Center and would rather work there full-time than in his regular high-profile job in a leading Israeli insurance company, said that one of the most important tasks of the Center was bringing awareness to those who can see about the world of those who cannot. "We go to schools where we speak with 400 - 500 students, and tell them about what it means to be blind. This is also important for blind people themselves, many of whom do not know that it's possible to get a guide dog. We are like a family so whenever there is an event like this one today, it's like the family getting together."
Before the actual planting began, David Angel read the Planter's Prayer and reminded everyone that by planting trees for Tu Bishvat, we are actually becoming partners to Creation, since the sapling we place in the ground will grow and develop. Everyone sang the famous old Israeli Blue-Box song about KKL-JNF redeeming the Land "a dunam here, a dunam there."
Shmulik and Motti from the Center were planting a tree together. Shmulik told us that they participate in all the walks. "We love being in nature. If we will be as strong as the tree we just planted, everything will be just perfect. Happy Tu Bishvat!"
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