(photo credit: KKL-JNF)
What could cause a young citizen of Finland to leave the lush land of a thousand lakes in northern Europe and plant himself for a year in the Arava desert region in southern Israel?
For Shmuel Willner, it all boils down to two of his great passions; environmentalism and Zionism. Willner has been a member of KKL JNF Finland for the past three years, where he currently serves on its Board. Inspired by the environmental activities and research carried out by KKL-JNF in Israel, along with a growing awareness of environmental issues among his fellow citizens in Finland, he has chosen to immerse himself in environmental studies for a year in Israel, where he feels he can make an impact.
We met Willner a few hours after he landed in Israel, several days before his journey south to Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava. Willner is embarking on a study program at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES), where he will be studying with Jewish and Arab Israelis, as well as international students from all over the world. What they all share is the desire to learn and gain as much experience as possible, in order to be equipped with the tools to cope with crucial environmental issues shared by many countries. KKL JNF USA has been a long term supporter of AIES as part of its ongoing commitment to research related to combating desertification in Israel.
“I started becoming interested in environmental issues when a Finnish company decided to invest €100 million in establishing an environmental institute that would support research activities for water management throughout the world,” said Willner. “This company felt that water was an issue that would take the main spotlight on the world stage in the near future, and would therefore be an economically productive field. I thought it would be a good idea for me to specialize in this field. I could then combine my work at KKL JNF with an exciting professional specialization. The pressure on societies all over the world, as a result of the increasing scarcity of water, makes extensive international cooperation vital beyond political disputes,” said Willner. “It is true that we have a lot of water in Finland, and we do not have problems of water source pollution the way other industrial countries do. Yet, it is precisely from its relatively unpressured position that Finland can contribute a great deal. I chose AIES because it is at the forefront of innovative research in water source protection in arid regions, and also because of the opportunity to plant seeds of friendship between experts in Israel and in Finland through science.”
Shmuel Willner has a master's degree in economics, and although he is quite young, he has already served one year as an officer in the Finnish armed forces. “In my military position I learned how to function in a unit comprised of people from all walks of life; how to turn a group of individuals into a consolidated unit and how to exercise authority, but also, I learned how to be something of a diplomat," he says.
How did Willner first get involved in KKL-JNF? "I met Shmuel for the very first time in the Helsinki Synagogue two years ago," says KKL Finland President Ethel Salutskij. "We started talking, and he told me about his interest in environmental issues. Of course, I started telling him about Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael in Israel, and the activities of KKL-JNF Finland. I invited Shmuel to participate in our upcoming Tu B'Shvat event. After the celebration, he decided to become a member of KKL-JNF Finland. A few weeks later Shmuel participated in our General Assembly. We were looking for new and young Board Members, and I asked Shmuel if he would like to put himself up as a candidate. Soon after, he was elected to the board."
Shmuel has decided to write a blog for KKL-JNF's Green Israel program, which is published on the Jerusalem Post website. "I decided to do this for several reasons," he says. "Firstly, I would like to inspire young people to take an interest in the environment. Secondly, and equally as important, I would like to inspire interest in the young people in my immediate vicinity in the work being done by KKL JNF for the environment and for water source protection, and to provide mental stimulation to direct their thoughts in new directions. I know that in the present political climate, one of my challenges will be to succeed in making people differentiate between Israel's political image and the work of a non-governmental green organization like KKL JNF.”
Although he is currently in Israel, Willner intends to remain in close contact with KKL-JNF Finland. "I believe that ultimately, KKL-JNF Finland will also benefit from this great opportunity," says Salutskij. "During these few years I have come to know Shmuel as an intelligent and ambitious young man with a proven ability to take inititative. I’m convinced that AIES will offer him great opportunites for further studies and employment, as well as the chance to meet interesting people. We all wish him the best of success in this interesting year ahead of him- he is young, and this is the perfect time to do it."
Most of Samuel's friends back home also expressed support and encouragement for his decision to go to the sweltering Arava for an extended period. “They told me it was a good decision," he said. "I am also planning to write stories about my personal experiences here for Hakehila, a magazine published by the Jewish community of Helsinki. I hope I will be able to cope with the challenges presented by the Israeli reality and to accurately describe my personal and cultural encounters.”
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