It’s always fun to get out of the city, leave the computer and the constantly-ringing mobile phone behind and take a trip into the magnificent and varied countryside with which the State of Israel is blessed. That’s exactly how the staff of the HaAretz Group’s Ha‘Ir chain of local newspapers felt when they left last weekend for a brief but heart-warming visit to Yatir Forest in the southern Mount Hebron region.
The Ha‘Ir staff expedition to Yatir Forest took place just one week prior to the opening of the fifth Ha‘Ir business conference in Eilat. Last year, in honor of the organization’s 500 members of staff and the 1,000 business-owners who participated in the conference, Ha‘Ir local-newspaper chain donated 1,500 trees, which were planted in a five-dunam area of Yatir Forest as a gesture of solidarity with the region, which, at the time, was still recovering from the Cast Lead military operation.
“Once a year we hold the Ha‘Ir business conference, the only Israeli event devoted to the activities of small and medium-sized businesses throughout the country,” said Sigal Sinuani, deputy commercial CEO of the HaAretz Group’s local-newspaper chain. “The high point of the conference each year is the business owners’ weekend gathering, which includes cultural performances and business-related events, and, of course, also gives the participants an opportunity to meet their competitors and network with potential future partners,” she explained.
The theme of this year’s conference, which will open in Eilat on Thursday March 10th, is “The Small Business in the Digital Age.” Keynote speaker Guy Rolnik, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of HaAretz Group’s financial paper TheMarker, will discuss aspects of the technical environment in which every small business can grow into a large one.
Collaboration between the Ha‘Ir chain of newspapers and KKL-JNF began long before the business conferences. For a number of years now KKL-JNF and Ha‘Ir have been producing a special magazine that appears four times a year and offers Ha‘Ir readers a wide selection of routes, new trails and tips for getting to know Israel’s countryside. This publication encourages the general public to take an interest in the woodlands and beauty spots that KKL-JNF cares for all year round, with the help of its Friends throughout the world.
“Each of the 1,500 trees donated to the Yatir Forest was planted in the name of a participant in last year’s conference, each of whom was sent a planting certificate. Now the time has come for the woodland’s official inauguration ceremony,” said Daniella Akiva, Special Project Manager at the Ha‘Ir chain. “In our view, this is the best way to express our appreciation to the businesspeople, to KKL-JNF and to the residents of Israel’s southern region,” she said.
En route to the forest the participants traveled mainly through a desert landscape, but Michael Ben Abu, Director of KKL-JNF’s Israel Fundraising Department promised them a “desert miracle.” “At the moment everything looks arid and desolate, but in a few minutes’ time the miracle will happen and we’ll all see the forest in the middle of the desert,” he told them enthusiastically. “And when you come to plant your tree you’ll realize that you’ve had an influence, small though it may be, on the environment of the planet and the Land of Israel,” he said. And, indeed, the sudden sight of a forest in the heart of the desert did come as a surprise to all those present, who were unaccustomed to such sights, and the pine and eucalyptus trees already growing there and casting their shade drew expressions of wonderment from the visitors.
“When we brought forest specialists here from the Czech Republic, they didn’t believe that a forest could possibly grow in the desert,” Negev and Arava Region Engineer Yevgeny Podolski told his listeners. With an enthusiasm that revealed his love for the region and for the work he does, Podolski informed his guests that Yatir Forest, which covers an area of 40,000 dunam (approx 10,000 acres) and is Israel’s largest man-made forest, was originally planted by KKL-JNF foresters in 1964. “Initially the forest was planted as protection against fedayeen, but it soon acquired its own ideological significance, and today it serves as a habitat for some 70 species of creatures that are found only in this woodland. Thanks to the forest the number of birds in the area has tripled, and the only sad thing is that Israelis, who before the Intifada used to flock to Yatir Forest on Shabbat and holidays, have stopped coming here, even though it’s perfectly safe nowadays,” he said.
Yatir forester Abed Abu’l-Qi‘an told the visitors that the forest, which is situated at
a height of around 200 meters above sea level, enjoys comparatively cool conditions. “But this looks like being the seventh successive year of drought, and without the help of KKL-JNF and its support for the forest, we wouldn’t be seeing all this greenness now,” he said.
Members of Ha‘Ir staff who had been invited to plant a tree for themselves did not hesitate: they rolled up their sleeves, flattened down the soil around the newly-planted saplings and took photos of their precise location “so that we know where to bring the kids to visit,” they explained.
“Although the woodland looks rather bare at present, in another twenty years the grove we’ve planted will be dense and green, and it’ll provide shade just like the other trees we see around us,” said Ben Abu at the ceremony. “These trees are another link in the chain of forests KKL-JNF has planted over the past hundred and ten years."
Many of the visitors’ questions concerned a variety of issues raised by the Mount Carmel fire in early December 2010, which destroyed some 35,000 dunam of woodland. The visitors were especially curious as to why KKL-JNF had not hastened to plant new trees to replace those that had been burned. “The experience KKL-JNF has accumulated in the wake of the forest fires that break out every year, and from those that took place during the Second Lebanese War in particular, has taught us that nature is very well able to renew itself – so we don’t rush out to plant immediately,” explained Ben Abu. “That’s why we haven’t yet planted trees in the burned areas of the Carmel Forests. We’re going to wait for about a year so that we can see what has survived the fire, what has grown and how much thinning needs to be done to ensure optimum growth.”
Sigal Sinuani told those assembled that the following year they would be going out to plant trees in the Carmel forests. “We thought it right to continue this welcome initiative this year, too, for the benefit of the country and the general public. This year, too, the Ha‘Ir chain, in conjunction with KKL-JNF, will donate a grove of 1,000 trees on behalf of the conference participants – this time on Mount Carmel, as a contribution to the area’s regeneration.”
After their brief taste of physical labor and their experience of getting their hands dirty as they planted their trees, Ha‘Ir staff members were invited to taste the red and white wines of Yatir winery, whose vineyards are located in the heart of Yatir Forest alongside orchards of cherry, apple and carob trees. A representative of the winery came to the forest from Tel Arad to introduce the guests to the wines, while Osnat, who owns a small catering business specializing in Moroccan dishes, made the journey from Ofakim bearing delicious food that ruined everyone’s best dietary intentions.
“Yesterday evening I thought to myself that I didn’t feel like going on a trip out of town instead of fitting in another couple of meetings,” said Ido Kestenbaum, Sales Director at the Ha‘Ir chain. “But this trip and getting out into the countryside have done me a lot of good. It’s really good to get away from Tel Aviv every so often,” he added with satisfaction.
“We’re used to working and to the work dynamic, and when they told us we were going on a trip, we didn’t like the idea,” confessed Erez Achtel, director of Ha‘Ir and Achbar Ha‘Ir. “But the idea of planting a tree and getting in touch with the land is exciting. The connection between HaAretz and KKL-JNF is terrific, it’s an appropriate connection between two long-established organizations native to this country, and the result of this combination is lots of fun,” he concluded.
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