"This mission is a way to connect to KKL-JNF, and connecting with KKL-JNF is connecting with Israel." Yehudit Perl-Strasser, who is responsible for KKL-JNF's Young Leadership program, was describing the "greenXchange" program, during which twenty young Israelis and Germans spent the week between September 18-25 on an intensive and ecologically oriented tour of the country. "The idea behind the mission, which is comprised of ten Israelis and ten Germans," Yehudit said, "is to reach out to the younger generation. The average age of the group is 29, all professionals in various environmentally-related fields. Young people today perceive themselves in a global context, so the ecological content of the visit is very important for them. Our focus is on love for Israel, pride in Israel, outstanding ecological projects and making a global impact.
"The group was organized by Shira Lazarovich, Annette Heimann and Lena Mechik, and the cost of the trip for participants was subsidized thanks to a generous donation from ISTRATradeLinkLtd. Over 100 people applied for the mission, from which twenty were chosen. We hope that as a result of understanding the complexities of Israel's environmental issues and how KKL-JNF deals with them, they will become a positive voice for us in Germany. The Israelis and also the Germans are interested in meeting people with similar interests and commitments and networking with them. Future plans include creating a joint environmental project and implementing it. In addition, a follow-up seminar is planned for a year from now in Germany."
The group's itinerary focused on KKL-JNF projects in the south and central regions of the country, including visits to the Kfar Saba biofilter, the Yarkon river restoration project, water reservoirs and R&D stations, among others. We joined them for a very informative and intense day in the Arava and western Negev deserts.
Kibbutz Lotan – Think Globally, Act Locally
The day's first stop was at Kibbutz Lotan, an ecological community located deep in the Arava desert. The group was met by Alex Cicelsky of Lotan's Center for Creative Ecology, who showed them around the village and explained about the residents' ideology and experience: "We are looking for sustainable methods of enabling daily life and for good engineering systematic that take care of the world and take care of people. For example, we are interested in what is known as 'embodied energy', which means looking at the strings of energy that goes into any given product. This way of thinking led us to the conclusion that the best building materials for the structures on our kibbutz are earth and straw. It's not easy to make homes livable here in the Arava. In the summer, the average daytime temperature is 43 degrees, and it goes down to 30 degrees at night. Our homes are super insulated and the windows are positioned in a way that takes advantage of the sun's position during different times of the day and the year. This sort of building reduces energy consumption by 70%!"
Alex showed the group cookies being baked in a solar oven and a solar cooker that uses reflected sunlight. He also explained about recycling projects and low-energy night lighting. The group was very much impressed by the attention paid to every detail and how no expenditure of energy was taken for granted. Alex also noted that KKL-JNF, with help of it's friends in USA and Australia, was a major supporter and backer of Lotan: "KKL-JNF has been with us since our inception and continues to support us. KKL-JNF projects here include developing the bird watching nature reserve, earthworks, constructed wetlands for biological sewage treatment and building an educational building. In addition, KKL-JNF has recently agreed to fund our solar energy research project, for which we are especially grateful."
Yarden Tenenbaum from Shaked, Israel, the founder and co-CEO of "Adam LeAdam – Leadership for Tikkun Olam", spoke to us at Lotan about being part of greenXchange: "I read about the mission in a KKL-JNF newsletter. It's been an amazing week, meeting the people and learning about the environmental issues. The program is structured in an interesting and comprehensive manner. People in Israel are not really aware of all of KKL-JNF's fields of activity, so this has been an excellent opportunity for me to learn about them."
Haran Bar On, an Israeli ecological policy analyst currently living in Berlin, agreed: "To be perfectly honest, I originally felt that having anything to do with KKL-JNF was very foreign for me, due to previous misconceptions about the organization. After four days, my opinion changed radically. I actually hadn't realized that KKL-JNF was an ecological organization that is involved in so many and diverse environmentally-related projects throughout the country. You could say that I went from being on the sidelines and mildly opposed to KKL-JNF to being relatively supportive and looking forward to future collaborations."
On the other hand, Yamit Honikman Perez, a project coordinator at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, was more familiar with KKL-JNF's environmental orientation due to her profession: "This exchange program came at exactly the right time for me. I was looking for something that would expose me to what's going on ecologically in other parts of the world. Working in Israel, I often feel as if I'm in a bubble and I thought about going abroad for awhile, and then the possibility of participating in this exchange group came up. I've gotten everything I was looking for in a very concentrated manner over just one week. We have a lot to learn from the Germans, there are a lot of areas in which they are considerably more advanced than we are.
"Besides being aware of what KKL-JNF does thanks to my work, I also have a personal connection to the organization. My grandfather, who was born in Poland, was a Holocaust survivor who eventually fled to northern Africa, where he fought the Germans. My mother was born on May 14, 1948, which is also the birthday of the state of Israel. My grandfather, however, was not in the hospital with her. He was listening to Ben Gurion on the radio, and when he heard him declare the state, he immediately called my grandmother at the hospital, not to wish her a mazal tov, but to excitedly report to her that 'We have a country!' When he passed away, my mother felt that the most fitting tribute to his memory would be a forest grove, which was planted in KKL-JNF's Hanasi Forest in the lower Judean Plain."
Desert Days – Ecotourism at Moshav Tzukim
The next stop was the village of Tzukim, a moshav located in the Central Arava, where the group was greeted by Ossi Winter, tourism coordinator of the Yair Research and Development Station, which is also supported by KKL-JNF. Ossi provided some background information on life in the Arava: "Fifteen years ago, only 2,800 people lived in this vast expanse, which is responsible for 60% of Israel's agricultural exports to Europe in the winter. This was not enough people to make life sustainable, it's not enough to open schools, medical clinics, etc. This was one of the reasons why Tzukim was founded. Today, there are already forty families living here, and forty more are in the midst of building new homes. They are all former city dwellers who find a quality of life in the desert they can't find elsewhere.
"There are three limiting factors for life in the Arava: lack of water, non-arable soil and manpower. We can't just do more agriculture, there isn't enough water. For this reason, Tzukim is developing desert eco-tourism for people who want to experience silence and be close to nature. Some of the electricity here will be supplied by solar panels, a local garden will grow vegetables for the exclusive restaurant now under construction, and even the water from the Jacuzzis will be recycled. KKL-JNF has supported us from the very beginning, and the promenade we are sitting at is a gift of the Sapphire Society and JNF USA."
Carbon Sequestration at Yatir Forest
After lunch at the Arava center of Sapir, the group proceeded to KKL-JNF's Yatir
Forest in the western Negev, where they were greeted by Dr. Jose Grunzweig of Hebrew University, who told them about the research project he is working on at Yatir: "Yatir Forest was planted 45 years ago, and it is the largest continuous forest in the country. The annual precipitation in this region is only 280 mms annually, so growing a forest here is no easy task.
"Using two towers loaded with scientific equipment, we have been monitoring carbon sequestration in Yatir, since forests in semi-arid regions such as this one might be a way to help combat global warming in similar areas elsewhere in the world. This project was begun by Dr. Dan Yakir of the Weizmann Institute, and one of our most exciting findings was that the carbon uptake in Yatir Forest is relatively similar to that of European forests, where there is much more rainfall."
Itzik Moshe, deputy director of KKL-JNF's Southern Region went into greater detail about Yatir Forest: "Besides the fact that this is a dry area, the drought of the past few years has adversely affected the forest. We thin out the trees in order to reduce the competition between them for the meager amount of water nature provides. The forest also contains a reservoir to harvest runoff water that was donated by friends of KKL-JNF from Germany. I would also note the cooperation we enjoy with the local Bedouin population. The Yatir Forest manager is a Bedouin, and the local Bedouin use the forest for grazing, which helps reduce the amount of dry brush that is liable to start forest fires. I think this forest can be seen as a model for rehabilitating degraded land."
Franziska Wende of Dresden said that as a geo-hydrologist who specializes in arid lands, she was very impressed by KKL-JNF's water projects, especially the efforts to literally create water in the desert: "This is not my first visit to Israel, although it is the first time I'm learning about activities related to my field of expertise. My pastor was very pro-Israel and always spoke about the Jewish people and the Jewish religion, and I was influenced by him. Besides what we're seeing today in the Arava desert, I was fascinated by the Yarkon River restoration project, which I think could serve as a model for other polluted rivers throughout the world.'
Katrin Buchman has a PhD in climate diplomacy from the University of Cambridge and is currently working as a consultant for the German Government Development Aid Agency (GIZ) and is also involved in global partnerships. "This is my third trip to Israel and it's been very intense. I'm still trying to process everything we've seen. I previously had a somewhat negative opinion about KKL-JNF, having heard that the organization was depriving Bedouins of their homesteads and planting forests on their lands. Here at Yatir and at other sites that we visited, I've been exposed to how KKL-JNF and the Bedouins work together, which has been an eye-opener for me. I've seen a lot of projects I can ideologically support, although I don't agree with everything I've learned about. I'm looking forward to working on the greenXchange joint project. Although the trip will be coming to a conclusion in just a couple days, all of the members of the group hope and believe that it's only a beginning."
Annette Heimann, one of the initiators and organizers of greenXchange, said that plans for this trip evolved out of her talks with Shira Lazarovich, whom she met at a meeting of the German-Israeli Friendship Society: "We started talking about promoting a half-a-day or day-long ecological tourism project in Israel that we planned to suggest to various groups visiting the country. That didn't really work out, but then we started talking with the wonderful KKL-JNF people in Germany and Israel, and the rest is history. It's a really great group. Everyone talks with everyone else about almost everything, and there are discussions deep into the night. I have no doubt that the members of the delegation will maintain and deepen their connection with KKL-JNF long after they return home.
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